August 2023

Arts & Letters

Blank stare: The drawings of Elizabeth Newman

By Erik Jensen

Untitled, 1990, oil pastel on paper [detail]

The minimalist works of this Melbourne-based artist derive from her pursuit of the most authentic and primitive expression

If there is a difference between Elizabeth Newman’s drawings and her paintings, it is that the drawings are funnier. This is Newman’s distinction: she doesn’t know why, but the drawings make her laugh. They share with humour its fleetingness and its promise of failure. They are self-conscious and that is funny. They are ironic without intending to be so. Newman’s work is often like this, although it is deadpan and easily reads as serious. Jokes stop working when you explain them, and painting has a tendency to explain. 

It is hard to say which are the first drawings, because they happened all at once. Time does not run in one direction for Newman. There’s not one phase and then another but several phases at the same time. She stops to ask if this makes sense. 

Initially, Newman thought of drawings as practices. They were a kind of fitness. She was trained to believe that drawing was the basis of everything. Sometimes she would draw to learn. She would make sense of an artwork by copying it. She would draw a Canaletto or the side of a Judd sculpture with an Agnes Martin behind it. She would never enter the work she was reproducing, however. There was never anything more. She says this is like with a tree log: when you cut the log, you think you’ll see into the tree, but all you see is another surface. 

Early on, if she didn’t know what to do, or was too scared to make a painting, she would draw. The opposite is true now. The drawings terrify her. She avoids them. To make one she has to feel very safe and secure – very sane, she says. She calls it difficult and vulnerable. If she doesn’t know what to do, she will make a painting instead. The monochromes feel like a skin between her and the world and making them is a form of protection. 

She says the drawings are better than the paintings. They are briskly made and a surprise. She vacillates: the drawings are inconsequential or they are the most important. 

The shocking part of these drawings is their sincerity. Newman means every one of them. When she draws four shapes and writes “family” it is exactly what she says it is. When she takes a line and bends it 12 times, the wonky, jug-like tridecagon is perfect.

Newman calls the act of drawing libidinal. She says there’s a sort of sensual, visceral enjoyment in making the image. For a short period, she drew with make-up. She did this after Geoff Lowe gave her a book on paint technique. The book instructed her on which colours could be used together and what had to be applied first and so on. She ignored this and used hand cream. The book said never to use pink and so she did. She was making fun of brown paintings. She was ridiculing the obsession with structure and form.

In these make-up drawings, she applies lipstick as a child might on a cousin. There is pleasure and rage in the way the pigment eats up the paper. The shapes that are left recall a mouth or a cheek, described without restraint, with no edges to them, just more and more of the excitement of colour. The outcome is guileless and determined. The works are spiky but not only spiky.

Sometimes she draws with tape. When she cuts a flap into carpet or fabric, the incision is also drawing. Newman works from a place of great attention. Her drawings feel as if they have been cared for, their small achievements noticed and celebrated. She is both child and parent. Her drawings are stubborn and deliberate and curious and patient.

Unlike with her paintings, Newman often signs her drawings. It is as if she is insisting: this is a work, this is finished. She does so a long time after the drawing is made.

Her initials resemble the broken palindrome that has fascinated her work: the levidrome of “on” and “no” that clicks from one meaning to its opposite, like a coin rolled over knuckles. The other word for this is semordnilap.

The first no was a no to everything: capitalism, humanism, anything bad. She made it after reading Yvonne Rainer’s “No Manifesto”, its rejection of virtuosity and spectacle and magic. She had also read Freud’s argument that negation was really affirmation.

For Newman the no contains an inevitable, fundamental yes. She says a no is an attempt to say what is not there, to find a signifier of negation. She says that if you identify what you don’t like you are also identifying what you do like. If you say what is in you, you are also saying what is outside you. 

With her initials, it gets close to working. She is trapped by what she was given at birth. One way it is almost “end” and the other way it is not quite “new”. 

In 1992, Newman wrote her initials on a piece of paper. She then wrote her first name, all in capitals: “elizabeth”. She drew the letter “E” twice, and then her initials again, as if practising, as if it were homework. She scribbled over this until what she had left was a storm cloud. This was also her. Underneath, she wrote “Mistake”. 

When Newman draws, she draws the frame first. She sets out the four sides of a rectangle and then she starts. Her drawings are sometimes concerned with filling space, filling up a page, colouring in. She works in short lines, bundled together like sticks. There is darkness in the overlap and pause of texta ink. The works are often unconscious or automatic.

She keeps the drawings in a plan cabinet in the piano room near the back of her house. They are not filed in any special way. Many are on scraps of paper, torn or showing through marks from the drawings made on top of them. 

Except for the copies of other works, she says, she never thinks of another artist when she draws. She says this is proof that the drawing is primary, that it exists in a place almost before art. She cannot think of an artist whose drawings she admires. She says drawings often seem ugly to her.

Newman tries again. She likes Seurat’s drawings better than his paintings. When she was younger, she loved Twombly, whose paintings are really drawings. Other than that, she is sceptical. Her own drawings are often bright. It would be wrong to call them ugly. They know the temperature of sunlight in a room. They know how to be joyful and silly.

Newman’s pictures are full of language. Even the scribble feels like talking. Sometimes they feel like the problems of analytic philosophy. They have in them the elements of reason and logic. Something is always standing in for something else: a line, a mark, a smudge of colour.

When Newman first made text drawings, she was shocked at how radical they were. She was so angry and their banality felt provocative. She often talks about her work as if it is confronting, as if the simplicity is outrageous.

The text is always transcription. When she finds a phrase, she will use it over and over, the works like placards at a rally. The repetition is not frustration. She feels heard: that was never the problem. Still, she feels she has to say it again. She has to get it through to you. The process contains the slippages between what is said, what is expressed, and what is heard or understood.

If she finds a statement she likes, she wants to see it several different ways. Each has a value of difference and similarity. This is especially true of the phrase she borrowed from an essay by Geoff Lowe and Jacqueline Riva, a sentiment that proves itself again with the fact of each new iteration: “The true collector looks for the work that is unfinished.”

The talking in Newman’s work is often political. She is worried about the brevity of the future. She is troubled by consumption. She feels for the oceans. She celebrates small acts of resistance: “Please remove me from your mailing list.”

Her darkest drawings are about light. She keeps practising the text for Goya’s black paintings. She copies out Martin Creed’s instructions for a light switch. She is circling a pun on light and enlightenment. She clips a phrase from Lacan: “some little lights in a perfectly dark field”.

Newman likes the way the words describe human ignorance, the smallness of knowledge, the not knowing of experience and the sense of wonder in a dark universe. The full quote is: “The first step to be made in the philosophy of the Lumières is to know that day has not dawned and that the day in question is only that of some little lights in a perfectly dark field.” 

The drawings always precede the paintings. That is not to say they are preparatory. They function almost as a reminder that two things can exist at once. Her drawings all seem to ask the same question: which work is the work and why not also this one?

Frequently, she is making at the limit state. The threat of failure in her work is not from what is there but what is not. Nothing is at risk of collapsing under the weight of anything else. 

Newman is interested in the slightest interventions. She is edging towards the point at which something is an artwork and something is not. It is a game of subtraction, like pick-up sticks.

The confidence in her drawings is in the eloquence of emotion. Her work knows what it is to be confused and to say so. It knows what it is to feel anger and to describe it. Newman says so much of her work is about lack, about articulating what is lacking. The cohering force is her insistence that the work is completed. 

If there were a term for this, it might be expressionist minimalism. 

Newman’s drawings exist before trauma. They come from before a lonely childhood. Their engine is innocence. To make them, Newman returns to a child state. She empties herself of experience. She calls this going to the nothing. “Going to the nothing is like trying to get to what is the most me,” she says. “It is the most authentic, which is the way we think about it: the most primitive, the most infantile or whatever.”

She calls the drawings the first articulation. She says they have no content at all. There is no narrative. She is reducing herself to get there. “This is the thing about my work: it’s blank, isn’t it?” she says. “There’s no reference. I mean, occasionally when I draw something you can recognise a reference, but generally they’re just completely non-signifying … There’s no content in them, except the act of making an artwork.”

The drawings perform a kind of life cycle. She is a child as she makes them and in the instant she decides they are finished she is an adult again. In that moment she becomes the artist.

“Finished” is the fundamental choice of Newman’s work. The other word for this is “enough”, which can be both an admonishment and validation. For a child, the decision is how much juice should be in the glass, how much cereal in the bowl. The phrase is “say when”. 

Newman calls this the inscription of limit. Previously she has described it as the place where language divides being. Her skill is in being able to return to that juncture, to work at the fork of knowledge. The drawings are this skill in the extreme.

“I do it as a non-thinking, infantile person,” she says. “And then a bit later on, I become like an adult artist, a connoisseur, and I go: ‘That’s art. I’m going to show that. That’s useful.’”


This is an extract from Elizabeth Newman: Drawings, published by Discipline.

Erik Jensen

Erik Jensen is the founding editor of The Saturday Paper and editor-in-chief of Schwartz Media. He is the author of Acute Misfortune: The life and death of Adam Cullen and On Kate Jennings.


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