In the 1950’s, there was an anecdote about [Barnett] Newman that became an anthology piece: Franz Kline and Elaine de Kooning were sitting at the Cedar Bar when a collector Franz knew came up to them in a state of fury. He had just come from Newman’s first one-man show. “How simple can an artist be and get away with it?” he sputtered. “There was nothing, absolutely nothing there!”
“Nothing?” asked Franz, beaming. “How many canvases were in the show?”
“Oh, maybe ten or twelve – but all exactly the same – just one stripe down the center, that’s all!”
“All the same size?” Franz asked.
“Well, no; there were different sizes; you know, from about three to seven feet.”
“Oh, three to seven feet, I see; and all the same color?” Franz went on.
“No, different colors, you know; red and yellow and green…but each picture painted one flat color – you know, like a house painter would do it, and then this stripe down the center.”
“All the stripes were the same color?”
“Were they the same width?”
The man began to think a little. “Let’s see. No. I guess not. Some were maybe an inch wide and some maybe four inches, and some in between.”
“And all upright pictures?”
“Oh no; there were some horizontals.”
“With vertical stripes?”
“Uh, no, I think there were some horizontal stripes, maybe.”
“And were the stripes darker or lighter than the background?”
“Well, I guess they were darker, but there was one white stripe, or maybe more…”
“Was the stripe painted on top of the background color or was the background color painted around the stripe?”
The man began to get a bit uneasy. “I’m not sure,” he said, “I think it might have been done either way, or both ways maybe…”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Franz. “It all sounds damned complicated to me.”
The story made people laugh at Kline’s good nature, but also at the ingeniousness with which he made Something out of Nothing to put in his place an intruder who had no right to call anything Nothing – even if it was.
Thomas B. Hess, 1971