Voice of Fire: Are we over this yet?

Twenty years ago a painting by Barnett Newman ignited a firestorm in Canada

Are we over this yet?In the winter of 1967, working in his studio in Lower Manhattan, Barnett Newman covered a huge canvas, 5.4 m by 2.4 m, with just two colours of acrylic paint—twin vertical stripes of ultramarine blue flanking a middle one of cadmium red. Come spring, the American artist shipped the painting, which he called Voice of Fire, to Montreal for the International and Universal Exhibition, better known as Expo 67. It hung in Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, the hugely popular U.S. pavilion that also showcased an Apollo space capsule.

In Montreal that storied summer, Voice didn’t cause any stir. But then, Expo offered plenty of bright, bold objects to gape at, and, anyway, the fair was all about open-hearted optimism and looking at things anew. By 1990, though, when the National Gallery of Canada announced it had bought the painting the previous year—without saying so publicly at the time—the country was sliding into recession and the popular mood was markedly less groovy. Two decades later, the $1.8-million price might sound modest, but it seemed extravagant then. Public umbrage boiled over.

Yet most of those who were called upon to justify the purchase for weeks on end in the spring of ’90 seem to think back on the uproar fondly. After all, art has never since commanded such a prominent place in the national conversation. Diana Nemiroff, who was then the National Gallery’s contemporary art curator and is now director of Carleton University’s art gallery, laughs at her memory of dressing up as Voice to defend the painting on CBC Newsworld, which had been launched only the previous year, bringing to Canada the insatiable appetite for controversy that comes with 24-hour TV news. “I wore a blue blazer with a red T-shirt underneath,” Nemiroff says. “It took a while before someone noticed.”

The painting lent itself to such visual jokes. The inevitable T-shirts of fire worked equally well as mockery or homage. Editorial cartoonists had a (colour) field day. John Czupryniak, a grower of nursery flowers on the outskirts of Ottawa, painted a nearly full-sized copy on plywood in his greenhouse, but not as a protest. “I love it! I really do,” Czupryniak said recently when asked what he thinks of the original, sounding surprised still by his own reaction, which he can’t quite explain, after all this time.

Not everyone was so open to the painting’s allure. MPs debated the price and the piece on Parliament Hill. Conservative MP Felix Holtmann, chairman of the House communications and culture committee, neatly summed up the voices of ire when he remarked on talk radio, “It looks like two cans of paint and two rollers and about 10 minutes would do the trick.” Those who lined up against him, on what they saw as the side of sophistication, never tired of mentioning that Holtmann, before entering politics, was a Manitoba pig farmer.

That bit of snickering aside, the Voice debate didn’t devolve into name-calling the way art scandals frequently do. Most play off religious sensitivities or sexual politics, often in more or less blatant bids by artists to stir up price-inflating publicity, and so can only lead to dead-end arguments. In fact, the connection between shocking and selling grew so numbingly businesslike in the ’80s and ’90s that it’s a central theme of Pop Life, a big show at London’s Tate Modern this winter that will be travelling, as it happens, to Ottawa’s National Gallery for a summer 2010 run. The show includes, for instance, American artist Jeff Koons’s sexually explicit images involving his wife, a former Italian porn star.

Even those who dismissed Newman’s stripes as meaningless couldn’t accuse him of that sort of crass provocation. Voice wasn’t about anything, after all, and since when does a publicity stunt take such simple form? The question wasn’t, “Is it offensive?” but “Is it art?” Shirley Thompson, who was the National Gallery’s director at the time, says that with no outrageous content to concentrate on, the clash over Voice kept circling back to how individuals responded to it. “You have to look at yourself,” says Thompson, who turns 80 next month and remains a presence in Ottawa art circles. “You have to look at your understanding of the metaphysical dimension of life.”

Talk like that drove debunkers of Voice bonkers in 1990. Newman wasn’t around to be dragged into the fray. He had died of a heart attack in 1970 at 65. He did live long enough, however, to make a personal connection to the city where his painting would, strangely enough, become iconic. Newman visited Ottawa in 1969 for the opening of the National Gallery’s retrospective on Dan Flavin, a kindred-spirit American minimalist who made art out of fluorescent light bulbs.

The boundary-pushing young curator behind the Flavin show was Hamilton, Ont., native Brydon Smith. He would rise to be the National Gallery’s chief curator, a major shaper of its 20th-century collection. It was Smith who, in 1987, visited Newman’s widow, Annalee, to begin negotiating first to borrow and then buy Voice. Actually, negotiate isn’t the right word. In an interview, Smith couldn’t repress a long chuckle when asked how they came to terms. “Annalee said to me, ‘You know about the market, you tell me what the value is,’ ” he recalled. “So I basically set the price.”

Bourgeois Bust: Jeff and Ilona, by Jeff Koons, 1991

Bourgeois Bust: Jeff and Ilona, by Jeff Koons, 1991

Retired for the most part now at 71, but still curating the occasional small show from his Ottawa home, Smith brushed off any further talk of money by saying he doesn’t keep up with art prices anymore. His reticence can’t be out of any misgivings over the deal he struck on behalf of the Canadian taxpayer. Prices for major American postwar abstract painters have soared. Consider that a small ink-on-paper work by Newman—in austere grey and black—sold for more than $5 million (U.S.) at auction in 2008.

If the fuss over the price seems quaint in hindsight, the deeper question—can three stripes, no matter how monumentally presented, be considered an important creation?—is not so easily dismissed. After a lifetime spent championing abstract art, and hunting down major examples of it for Canada’s national collection, Smith still considers the question respectfully. By way of an answer, he turns to explaining how he worked closely with architect Moshe Safdie on designing the interior spaces of the National Gallery’s new glass-and-granite building before it opened in 1988. A large, high room on the second level needed an assertive anchor. “It occurred to me,” Smith says, “that there was one work of art I knew that would fit and hold that space.”

He was right. Gallery C214 is 24 m long and nearly half that wide; its walls rise almost 12 m to where the ceiling begins sloping upward from either side toward a room-length skylight. The space brings to mind a church, and Voice flies solo at one end, soaring where stained glass might be. Arrayed around the room with plenty of space to breathe are a few choice American abstracts, some of Smith’s plum acquisitions, including a Jackson Pollock, a Mark Rothko, and one of Newman’s stark steel sculptures. For fans of modernism, it’s a wondrous assemblage.

For scoffers, it’s an equally grand place to fume, although perhaps not quite so inviting as a much smaller room just down the hall. There the gallery-goer finds a complete set of Marcel Duchamp’s so-called “readymades,” including the infamous bicycle wheel attached to a wooden stool. An ordinary store-bought snow shovel hangs framed by the room’s main entrance—much as Voice does so nearby—for dramatic effect.

A snow shovel is art? It’s enough to make Voice look like it belongs with the Group of Sevens. By the way, the gallery’s purchase of Duchamp’s readymades was negotiated 40 years ago this year by the young Brydon Smith.

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