Voice of Fire
Voice of Fire is an acrylic on canvas abstract painting made by American painter Barnett Newman in 1967. It consists of three equally sized vertical stripes, with the outer two painted blue and the centre painted red. The work was created as a special commission for Expo 67. In 1987 it was loaned to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
The purchase of Voice of Fire by the National Gallery of Canada for its permanent collection in 1989 at a cost of $1.8 million caused a storm of controversy. Some residents mocked the purchase with striped T-shirts and ties that mimicked the painting. The 1996 book Voices of Fire: Art Rage, Power, and the State, edited by Bruce Barber, Serge Guilbaut and John O'Brian, discusses the issues around the purchase of the painting.
Commissioned for Expo 67, the International and Universal Exposition that took place in Montreal during Canada's 1967 centennial, Voice of Fire was part of the US pavilion organized by art critic and historian Alan Solomon. The exhibition, American Painting Now featured the work of twenty-two artists installed in the US Pavilion, a geodesic dome designed by engineer Buckminster Fuller. Explicitly oriented to Solomon's directions, Voice of Fire's 18 foot length was vertical to echo the size of the dome. This was the first time Newman worked on this scale in a vertical format. The paintings were displayed along other symbols of American progress, an Apollo space capsule and red-and-white striped Apollo parachutes, photographs of the Moon and large-scale photographs of movie stars.
In the spring of 1987, Brydon Smith, then assistant director of the National Gallery of Canada contacted Newman's widow Annalee to ask if she would consider lending it to the gallery for a temporary exhibition the following year to coincide with the completion of a new building.
In May 1988 Voice of Fire was installed in the newly constructed National Gallery of Canada with little media attention or controversy. It was displayed in a large, high-ceiling space, with only a few other works by American artists Milton Resnick, Jackson Pollock and Tony Smith. In this display of post-war US art, Voice of Fire "was given pride of place" as the centrepiece. In March 1990, the National Gallery announced its purchase of the painting for $1.8 million, which ignited a "firestorm" of media attention and controversy in Ottawa mostly centered around the question of if the work was worthy of being called art. Recently it was reported that senior personnel at the National Gallery estimated that the current value of the painting is in excess of $40 million. A further controversy ensued in 1992 when it was discovered that the painting had been displayed upside-down following its acquisition. The work remains in the possession of the National Gallery of Canada.
- ^ a b McQueen, Ann Marie (June 28, 2005). "Artist's works Fire up debate". Ottawa Sun.
- ^ O'Brian, 124
- ^ a b Smith, 177
- ^ O'Brian, 127
- ^ a b O'Brian, 130
- ^ O'Brian, 131
- ^ Geddes, John (January 21, 2010). "Voice of Fire: Are we over this yet?". Maclean's.
- ^ Simpson, Peter (July 31, 2014). "Newman's Revenge: The Value of Voice of Fire is scorching hot". Ottawa Citizen.
- ^ Mitchell, Ernest (August 18, 1992). "Controversial painting has Winnipeg connection". Winnipeg Free Press.
- ^ gallery.ca entry
- O'Brian, John. "Who's Afraid of Barnett Newman?" Voices of Fire: Art Rage, Power, and the State. Bruce Barber, Serge Guilbaut and John O'Brian, eds. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8020-7803-6
- Smith, Brydon. "Some Thoughts about the Making and Meaning of Voice of Fire." Voices of Fire: Art Rage, Power, and the State. Bruce Barber, Serge Guilbaut and John O'Brian, eds. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8020-7803-6
Interview with the Artist
Newman, B. (n.d.). Barnett Newman speaks about his art. [Video] YouTube:
Newman's Work at Auction
Christie's (2015, May 15). Barnett Newman's "Black Fire I" World Auction Record [Video] YouTube https://youtu.be/ZGTGLPMAKKQ
Christie's (Auction House). (2014, May 13). Sale 2847: Post-war and contemporary evening sale [Fact sheet]. Retrieved from: https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/paintings/barnett-newman-black-fire-i-5792532-details.aspx?from=salesummery&intObjectID=5792532
Barnett Newman (1905-1970)
Black Fire I
signed and dated 'Barnett Newman 61' (lower right)
oil on canvas 114 x 84 in. (289.5 x 213.3 cm.)
Painted in 1951
M. Knoedler & Co., New York
Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Holzer, New York, 1969
Anon. sale; Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, 24 October 1974, lot 544a
Harold and Hester Diamond, New York
The Mayor Gallery, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1975
Thomson, R. H. & Mirvrish Productions (2011, August 18). David Mirvish on the "Voice of Fire" controversy. [Video: Part 4 of 13]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/zeSIXD6y3WQ
"The Voice of Fire controversy would never have occurred at all had the National Gallery not paid almost $2 million in public funds for the painting. Or, rather, the controversy would never have occurred had the National Gallery not paid such a large sum for art to which the media and the general public so strenuously objected.When Dr Shirley Thomson, director of the National Gallery was questioned about how she would justify the acquisition to her home town of St. Marys, Ontario, she replied: 'We need something to take us away from the devastating cares of everyday life.'5 The response signaled a misunderstanding about the kind of anger being generated by the acquisition. Far from offering a pleasurable escape from the cares of everyday life, much of the public thought the painting was directly contributing to those cares. Admonitions to enjoy Voice of Fire served only to strengthen the view that the gallery functioned as a bureaucratic enclave, an institution less interested in public service than in its own regimes of specialization. (When the gallery purchased an 'old master' painting by Guido Reni one year later, however, at nearly double the price of Voice of Fire [$3.3 million], there were no objections. The mythological subject-matter, Jupiter and Europa, clearly accorded with general expectations of what an expensive work of art should represent and of how it should look.)
The cost of Voice of Fire figured in all the early news reports of the acquisition - '$1.8 Million Painting Has Artists Seeing Red' was the headline in the Toronto Star and 'All in the Eye of the Taxpayer' that of the Kamloops Daily News- and continued to fuel the controversy long after the debate had broadened to engage non-monetary discontents.In short, it was the monetary transaction and the 'difficulty' of the painting, rather than the exhibition of it, that provoked such strong public reaction. The painting had been on exhibition as an extended loan from the artist's widow, Annalee Newman, ever since the National Gallery opened the doors to its new building in Ottawa in May 1988, but not a word of criticism was heard in the media. It was only two years later, when the gallery announced it had actually purchased the painting, that the controversy erupted.
There is a long and noisy history in the modern era of attacks again start. Attacks have been mounted against: (a) the exhibition of art, (b) the acquisition of art with public funds, (c) the placement of art in public settings, and (d) the right of certain kinds of art to exist at all (censorship) [emphasis added]. The vociferousness of the attacks has generally been loudest when the gap between art elites, as represented by the National Gallery of Canada (and, it must be said, by individuals with credentials not dissimilar to those of the contributors to this volume),6 and the public became wider than the public could bear - or, to follow the German sociologist Max Weber, when the idea systems and structures of power around state-supported art no longer seemed legitimate to a large section of society.(Barber, Guilbaut, & OBrian, 1996)."
Barber, B., Guilbaut, S., & O’Brian, J. (1996). Voices of Fire : Art, Rage, Power, and the State. University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division.