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Barnett Newman
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Wikipedia About Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman (January 29, 1905 – July 4, 1970) was an American artist. He is seen as one of the major figures in abstract expressionism and one of the foremost of the color field painters. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Barnett Newman, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Barnett Newman’s signature canvases—vast fields of color punctuated by vertical stripes he called “zips”—are today counted among the great achievements of the Abstract Expressionists (or New York School), a storied group that included maverick artists Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. But Newman’s work was challenging in its time, and the artist himself was exacting about the conditions in which he would show it; these factors, combined with a relatively small output and his late start as an artist, meant that he didn’t achieve critical and commercial success until 1958—well after many of his peers had been canonized by curators and critics.1 But his uncompromising approach led him to produce a body of work that has proven as durable as that of any of his contemporaries, and was critical to the ideas of a younger generation that included Donald Judd and Frank Stella.

Newman was forty-five years old when he produced the canvas he considered his breakthrough, Onement 1 (1948). In this modestly scaled painting, he finally resolved the use of zips, which he saw as “streaks of light” that unified the picture space rather than dividing it.2 That same year, Newman—who was the prolific author of some of Abstract Expressionism’s most articulate apologia—wrote a short essay entitled “The Sublime Is Now.” In it he proposed that American artists no longer depended on an outmoded Greek ideal of beauty to communicate a sense of the exalted. “We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting… . The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history.”3 Turning away from the model of ancient Greek aesthetics, he looked instead to the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, in which he found a raw spirituality that was inseparable from form. His enthusiasm for “the primitive” was shared by many during the 1940s, when it was seen as closely aligned with the new modernist sensibility.

Newman’s iteration of the spiritual reached its peak expression in The Stations of the Cross (1958–1966), a sequence of fourteen stark black-on-raw-canvas paintings. For him, Christ’s lament on the cross—“Why have you forsaken me?”—was an “abstract cry” that represented the human condition and thus defined the task of painting. “That cry, that unanswerable cry, is world without end. But a painting has to hold it, world without end, in its limits.”4 During the eight years he labored on The Stations, he continued to produce other work, including The Third (1962), a shimmering expanse of orange with yellow zips at either edge. The latter’s title—like several other paintings from the early 1960s—refers to the sacred number of the Christian Holy Trinity and the Jewish mystical tradition.5

The Third was among several works by the artist that were included in the U.S. entry to the VIII Bienal de São Paulo in 1966. Its curator, Walter Hopps, wrote that Newman was the “key figure” of the show, which also included six artists who were his supposed inheritors: Judd, Stella, Larry Poons, Robert Irwin, Billy Al Bengston, and Larry Bell. For Hopps, these younger practitioners represented “a new sense of space and structure in American art” that could be directly attributed to Newman’s radical explorations.6 While this reading ignores the spiritual content that was so important to Newman, it aligns him with the next wave of American art as well as with his peers—a double role that his robust paintings have assumed with ease.

  1. After his first solo gallery exhibition in 1950 at his friend Betty Parsons’ New York space, Newman was included in only three museum group shows—one at the Walker—until 1958. See Ann Temkin, Barnett Newman, exh. cat. (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2000).

  2. He first used the term “zips” in an interview with filmmaker Emile de Antonio for the documentary Painters Painting. The interview is published in John P. O’Neill, ed., Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 306.

  3. “The Sublime Is Now,” originally published in The Tiger’s Eye, no. 6 (December 1948): 51–53. Reprinted in O’Neill, Selected Writings, 170–173.

  4. Newman articulated the metaphor of the “abstract cry” in an interview in Newsweek, May 9, 1966, 100. The second statement was published in Artnews 65, no. 3 (May 1966): 26–28, 57. Both reprinted in O’Neill, Selected Writings, 187–190.

  5. The others are Treble (1960), The Three (1962), Tertia (1964), and Triad (1965). See Temkin, Barnett Newman, 248.

  6. From Hopps’ statement on the exhibition, printed in Art in America 53, no. 5 (October/November 1965): 82.

Rothfuss, Joan. “Barnett Newman.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center