Introduction

Rhodes smelled of dry grass and the sea. A steady lull of air swept quietly over the island from the Aegean. The landscape was sun-swept, tranquil; the light intense and vivid, as if objects were plucked from the world and sharpened with new tones and textures, somehow more real and immediate then those back home. I felt that Michael was in his element there; he was thin, tanned, tall, with wide blue eyes and light brown hair. He was forty-four but athletic in movement and expression. His voice was always on the upswing; it was inquiring, always beckoning a response. His laughter was giddy and free, his attitude joyful and light. Something in his eyes gave me a strong sense of my own presence.
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Self Portrait
1992

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On the morning that I flew into Rhodes the sun was rising and filling the sky with a moving spectrum of hot color. The air was transparent, no browns subdued it, and like the feathers of some tropical bird ruffling and stretching, it moved seamlessly from yellows to reds to purples. On mornings when I swam at dawn, the light would give a golden glow to wet, tanned skin. On this morning, when we drove into town around the edge of a cantilevered cliff, I watched as the water caught the sun and became molten steel. Soon the paved roads gave way to cobble stones; we passed two giant stone walls, separated by fifty yards of grass littered with cannon fire. This had been an ancient fortress, enclosing the city of Rhodes for two centuries. Michael's home and studio, the walls of which were covered in giant unseen, unsold paintings, humbly overlooked the town.
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photograph
Rhodes

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Hanging on one wall and filling it from floor to ceiling was a painting of a man in a waterfall. He stretches upwards against a flow of water that blasts against his chest. You can see how the lines of his body diagonalize to the right, while the water diagonalizes to the left. These forces explode and the debris rains over the rest of the scene as a dense vapor of light and color, coating the man's skin and the rocks surrounding the scene. Above the water, the lines of his triceps flow harmoniously with the lines of his face; it is peaceful here; he is content. When you stand across the room you get a better sense of the depth of the scene-- but if you look very close, only a few inches away from the canvas, you will see in upwards of fourteen different colors within the space of one square inch. This, in thirty-five square feet of paint.
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The Waterfall
 1999

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I always pushed my guest bed a couple feet away from the walls of the room when going to bed to avoid damaging the paintings. With the lights off, I could see large splotches of light from the more luminescent areas of paint; this effect is particularly strong in Michael's nude self-portrait, where his lower torso is spotlighted in orange, contrasting the scene's purple-blues.
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Self-Portrait Nude
2001

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Waking up in the downstairs guest room of his studio, I would be aware of two things: the opera of Puccini and the sound of steps moving back and forth across the creaky boards of the ceiling. This would go on for hours: back, and forth --pause-- back and forth. Michael walks up to his easel, paints a stroke, moves back to the other side of the room to see how it looks, then repeats. Sometimes he uses a mirror to see the canvas from twice the distance of the room. Once while watching him work I was startled and amused to see him suddenly grab the canvas and turn it upside down. Then he walked across the room and looked at it again. A few times a month he would set aside an entire day to do this, "I will not paint today," he said, "I will think about the painting and look at the painting." During my stay the rocks around Venus slowly came to life.
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April '02


May '02

Detail:
Venus
in progress


June '02


July '02

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In the early afternoon, after having done some hours of work in the morning, I would wander off to Kalithea Beach. It was an ancient stone quarry; long shafts of rock were cut out and formed staircases to the water. The science of the Greeks was amazing; they would cut holes and place dry wood in the stone, then pour water into the holes made by the wood; as the water expanded the wood, the stone would split. On Kalithea there is a long sandy plateau that overlooks the quarry via a cliff. It is covered in rocks and short plants and dry grass, and open to the expansive sea which induces a feeling of height. From the colors and textures of the plateau I realized to much surprise that this is where Michael had placed Icarus. In Michael's interpretation of the Icarus myth, of the man who flew too close to the sun and was burned by the heat of Apollo's chariot, Icarus lands safely on Kalithea Beach and we see his foot immediately before striking the earth; the muscles of his bare arms spread and holding his weight against an invisible force; there is the symbolism of the crucifixion superimposed on the warm, tanned, calm, and sleek body of a pagan.
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Icarus Landing
2001

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The Philosopher Stephen Hicks makes quite a stir over this piece which is perhaps the most symbolic of all Michael's works. At Michael's studio and at a place where it was being exhibited, I would sit on the floor and look at it for a long time. Icarus hovers about six inches in front of the painting, as opposed to many of Michael's works which feel "deep" inside the painting. A small piece which exemplifies Michael's ability to create spatial depth with very few tools is the color study for Man at a Pond.
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The Pond Light Study

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You must look very closely at this piece in order for the spatial depth to "pop" out at you. The lower quarter of the study depicts a flat surface reflecting the light from above; at the immediate far edge of which sit the lowest of the swirls; they "move" back in space in a continuous gradient of depth as you go up. Another very simple study that captures spatial depth is the bed study for Artemis, done only with carefully lined patches of color. Artemis herself was being painted while I was in Greece; her body was slowly being filled in from the feet upward. It is always exciting to watch a painting being done, because you have mental expectations for the piece that are always far surpassed by the outcome. Artemis was three-quarters finished when I left, and when I saw a photograph of the finished product I was utterly amazed that he had captured the individuality and youthfulness of the model so perfectly. The model, by the way, had studied art history and concluded after some research that the back pains she felt during the pose were unique in the history of art.
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Artemis Bed Study

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As dinner would stretch on through the evening, Michael would tell me about his plans for the future, his experiences with the character of people, and answer my questions about his past. I've often asked him about Denouement, my favorite of his work. Denouement is an epic work of the moment after a love scene; clothes are scattered about the room, the sheets are unkempt, the man is at the foot of the bed with his face against the woman's feet; she lies on the bed with her arm in the air, absorbing the atmosphere of the room. The lamp sitting on the floor joins both people in a glowing radiance that fills the room with warm oranges, yellows, and shimmering hot greens. In the immediate foreground is a Mexican carpet, filled with hundreds of colors that sit perfectly in space and respond to the exploding spread of light, the shadows of the man and chair, and the green tinge of the light diffusing through a sheet. Notice how the man is wiggling his big toe, and how there is a reddish tinge over the part of the chair blocking our view of the red sheet, or how the inside edge of the back of the chair is transparent to the curve of the seat behind it. With this virtuosity of optical realism and a wild spectrum of color is a modern theme that glorifies human happiness and its expression in the act of sex.
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Denouement
1987

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The message of Denouement is without reference to stories or legends; it brought a friend of mine to tears within seconds; it seems to be universal and immediate. Michael said it is the result of over one-hundred studies, and it was extremely difficult to harmonize the colors because they were all connected and interacting so strongly. He also told me about how he tried and failed to get galleries and museums to recognize the work. Nearly twenty years have gone by without recognition from the art establishment. While I am not an expert in art history, I noticed a historical precedent for this work that goes back three-hundred and fifty years to Rembrandt: the beautiful Danae. I first saw this work when Michael and I were flipping through what was perhaps the only art book in Michael's studio, a collection of Rembrandt's works. We came to Danae and I asked about it; we talked about the spatial depth of the work. It was in that brief chat that I first began to grasp the interaction between contrast and color that gives rise to depth and space.
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Danae
1636
Rembrandt

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Arguably Rembrandt's masterpiece, this painting calls upon the Greek myth of the beautiful Danae who is locked in a tower, and Zeus comes to her in a shower of gold. Rembrandt interprets Zeus as golden light, entering the room through a break in the curtains. She looks up to him as he enters, smiling and holding out her hand. There is a sensuous, mysteriously evocative eroticism flowing over her body, and she is surrounded by greens, reds, purples. The precedent for Denouement should be obvious-- the eroticism, the light that seems to emanate from her body, the subject, and a theme that glorifies temptation and physical pleasure. But the theme between these pieces differ slightly. In Danae, we only see her, whereas In Denouement, both lovers are within the frame of the painting, sharing in a mutual glow, and connected in a flowing diagonal current, projecting a reciprocal love. It is also brighter, its colors pure and vivid like a Grecian sunrise; the color quality resembling that seen in the tremendous flurry of pastels Michael has drawn throughout his career. Michael explains that he intended this, that many of the studies for Denouement were done in pastel. Surely, what etchings were to Rembrandt, pastel drawings are to Newberry.
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Field (2004)

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The movement that defines Rembrandt's work, the emotive sense of spatial depth, was, in Denouement, transformed to include colors that Rembrandt could never control in his limited palette. Michael explains that his seminal theory of transparency and contrast was invented for the work. Thus, the analogy between the two works holds for technical means as well as thematic nature. Yet, in the moments that Denouement was first being conceived, Danae was being destroyed by an act of vandalism. As the acid dripped down the canvas at the Hermitage, destroying her finished glow, and as one man's hate drove a knife through her body, the germs of an inspired vision were being born on the other side of the world, one which would call upon three hundred years of innovation in painting, from the color theory of the French impressionists to the compositional principles of Picasso, and elevate them to new heights. For a full ten years after Denouement was completed, Danae was unavailable to the public, undergoing extensive work which ultimately could only restore her to an earlier, unfinished state of Rembrandt's vision. The relationship between Newberry and Rembrandt is thus bound not just by analogy, but by the poetry of coincidence that serves merely to highlight the truth, like a dying grandfather's hand falling upon the lap of his grandson.
Michael Newberry is Rembrandt's heir; Rembrandt is Newberry's ancestor, and the compliment goes two ways.
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Entrance Hall

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My memories of Greece are of amazingly- prepared fresh food, wine, the crying voices of opera, sunlight blasting against yellow stucco, the smell of basil, the feel of cobblestones, and the beach. Michael is an artist; in his work he has envisioned a world where people fly, relax, and make love in blasts of evocative color, the nude bodies of his beautiful figures glistening with golden radiance-- in short, a world where people enjoy themselves. To enjoy oneself is as difficult in life as it is in paint; the story of how Michael has come unblemished from decades of professional setbacks is only his to tell. Michael once said that "making art was like making sand castles; the time simply flew." And this youthful sense is omnipresent in both his work and his character.

Brett Holverstott
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Idea Sketch
for a future project