AFTER THE FIRST ROOM of late-Surrealist and still vaguely figurative paintings at the Abstract Expressionist show at MoMA, you arrived at a gallery devoted to Barnett Newman. "Vir Heroicus Sublimis" ("Man, heroic and sublime"), 18x8 feet, a smooth expanse of red cadmium divided by five of his vertical "zips." When Newman first exhibited this painting, it was accompanied by a note instructing the viewer to get close to the work; we're supposed to be engulfed. Such instructions weren't atypical for his cohort; Rothko suggested viewers stand eighteen inches away from his canvases. At MoMA, while I was waiting for the crowds to thin, I watched several people get very close to the painting indeed: but they were all facing the wrong way, looking at a friend (or an obliging guard) who was taking their pictures, the vibrant painting like some chroma key background. How easily the human figure, what Newman and others worked so hard to banish from painting, walks right back into abstract art.
It's easy to make fun of the tourists who unknowingly reduce the avant-garde to kitsch with a digital camera's simulated click, but lots of people have posed in front of Abstract Expressionist paintings. There are the many photos of Newman himself, and the photos of Pollock "in" his canvases that are perhaps as famous as the canvases; liquidating the figure from the painting just reinforced the figure of the painter as an anchor of authenticity and meaning. But it's not just the heroic artists: there are Cecil Beaton's photos of fashion models posing in front of Pollock's Autumn Rhythm that appeared in Vogue in 1951, for instance. By the time Harold Rosenberg worried that "action paintings" had degenerated into "apocalyptic wall paper," they had served as all kinds of photographic backdrops. And didn't all the talk of how the monumental scale and absorptive nature of a Newman or Pollock or Rothko defeated reproduction (Newman famously said that modern painting was "a struggle against the catalogue") add allure to the reproductions? This is a photograph of something you have to be there to experience; this is a photograph of what can't be captured by photography, the failure of one medium securing the other's absolute presence.
When I was a young tourist, my parents took me to New York, to MoMA and the Met, but, while I was fascinated by the polyglot crowds streaming through the galleries, I retained no real impression of the paintings. I do remember, once I was back home in Kansas, looking through the catalogues, and being captivated by these paintings supposedly too big and vibrant and alive for reproduction: I had stood before that one and that one and that one. This was the canonical American art for which the claim "you had to be there" seemed strongest, and I admit I experienced the strength of that claim after the fact. (I didn't then know anything about minimalism, Pop, etc., at the time, but if I wanted cool, modular objects, I could go to Walmart, and Andy Warhol had a show on MTV.) Those giant New York canvases were the American art that made a spectacle of its resistance to a particular form of spectacularization — art, that by not being here, in Topeka, Kansas, helped me believe there was a modern there there, in Manhattan.