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Barnett Newman

American, 1905 - 1970

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Though his body of work spans no more than twenty-five years, Barnett Newman was one of the most profound and influential painters of the 20th century. A master of expansive spatial effects and richly evocative color, he pioneered an art that was both uncompromisingly abstract and powerfully emotive. His works have sometimes been regarded as philosophic statements made without artistic skill, or conversely, as pure painting devoid of a subject. In truth, as the artist himself said, his paintings involve both: spirit and matter.

1905-1930s

Barnett Newman was born on the Lower East Side of New York City on January 29, 1905. His parents, Abraham and Anna, were Jewish immigrants who had arrived from Russian Poland five years earlier. The success of Abraham's clothing manufacturing company allowed the family, which included Barney (as he was known to friends) and his younger siblings to move to the middle-class Tremont section of the Bronx. Newman attended De Witt Clinton High School in Manhattan and, during his senior year, studied drawing at the Art Students League. At the City College of New York, Newman majored in philosophy and continued to take drawing classes at the Art Students League. During these years, he developed the anarchist convictions he would hold for the rest of his life.

Upon graduating in 1927, Newman entered his father's business in order to build up savings to support himself as an artist. This plan was upended, however, by the 1929 stock-market crash, and Newman had to stay on to try to keep the company solvent. As the business continued to founder, Newman became a substitute art teacher in the New York City public school system earning $7.50 a day. In 1933, he and his friend Alexander Borodulin offered themselves as write-in candidates for New York City mayor and comptroller, respectively, running on a platform advocating civic art programs.

It was at a school faculty meeting in early 1934 that Newman met Annalee Greenhouse, a shorthand teacher. The couple began a courtship nurtured by a mutual passion for music, and were married in 1936.

Having repeatedly failed the exam to become a regular art teacher, rather than a substitute, Newman organized Can We Draw? The Board of Examiners Says--No! at the A.C.A. Gallery, New York, in 1938. The protest exhibition, consisting of work rejected by the New York City public schools' Board of Examiners, gained the support of well-known artists Max Weber and Thomas Hart Benton. Then in 1940, Newman gave up substitute teaching for a part-time job teaching silk-screen printing and batik to adults. He spent his spare time at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and the American Museum of Natural History, and spent summers with Annalee studying ornithology and marine life in Maine and taking botany and ornithology classes at Cornell University.

The 1940s

In 1943, Newman met Betty Parsons, who was then running a small gallery in the Wakefield Bookshop at 64 East Fifty-fifth Street, New York. They developed a close working relationship, and the exhibition Pre-Columbian Stone Sculpture, organized by Newman, opened there a year later. It was around this time that, while vacationing in East Gloucester, Massachusetts, Newman completed a number of crayon and ink drawings and watercolors, his first surviving works.

Made when he was thirty-nine, they bear suggestions of plant life or living creatures. The themes of creation and fertility were a mirror for his own situation, as he cautiously reached for the long-delayed dream of becoming an artist himself. During the next year he continued to experiment in crayon and watercolor; he also made several ink drawings in the rapid, improvisational manner of the Surrealists. His first surviving painting, never titled, features a premonitory form of the vertical band-later known as the "zip"-that would eventually define his signature style. At this time he also explored the motif of the circle, ripe with cosmic associations.

In 1946, Betty Parsons opened her own gallery at 15 East Fifty-seventh Street, New York, and Newman organized the first exhibition, Northwest Coast Indian Painting. A few months later, he joined the Betty Parsons Gallery's roster of artists, which already included his friends Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. The following year, Newman introduced Parsons to Jackson Pollock, who joined the gallery as well.

The dilemma that Barnett Newman and his colleagues faced in the mid-1940s consisted, in Newman's words, as "the search for a subject." This group was committed to an abstract pictorial language, yet they did not want their paintings to be mere geometric designs. In the face of the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, what could an artist possibly paint without it seeming trivial? At the end of the war, Newman's search for a subject focused on the theme of creation--a metaphor for not only his own artistic efforts, but also for the renewal of a world torn apart by war. Newman turned to the Book of Genesis in titling certain works, such as The Command: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." He adopted the biblical image of creation as one of divisions and distinctions: day from night, earth from sea. . . .

Onement I, Zips, and Color

November 1947 saw Newman's first sale, when the painting Euclidian Abyss (1946-47) was purchased by Connecticut collectors Burton and Emily Tremaine. Soon after, Newman painted what he regarded as his artistic breakthrough, Onement I. He equated its making with his own self-creation as an artist, a notion reinforced by his assertion that he created it on his birthday, January 29, 1948. The masking tape with which Newman reserved the zone for a vertical band, as he had done in earlier paintings and drawings, remains on the canvas in Onement I. It is covered by the red oil paint that Newman laid on with a palette knife. This "zip" is not "zippy" at all--it is thick and irregular, made in many starts and stops.

Onement I represents the first time that the "zip" seen in Newman's work of the previous three years wholly defines the structure of the painting, without atmospheric imagery or separable details. This painting marked Newman's decisive move from what he called a "picture" to a "painting"-an indivisible whole that represented nothing but itself, a unity suggested by the word Newman later chose for its title: onement.

The artist discovered his own artistic language with Onement I, and he worked intensively over the course of the next two years to explore its potential. He moved the single zip away from the center of the canvas, added more zips, oriented the zips horizontally, and widened them into broad bands. He also introduced variations in the expressive mood of the zip; sometimes its edges are sharp, while at other times they softly waver. The zip can be smoothly brushed on, or thickly applied with a palette knife.

Newman's paintings of 1949-50 also reflect a broad experimentation with color. He created distinctive hues both on the palette and on the canvas; an area of color often represents many layers of paint. Whether or not a painting was "right" was based on Newman's intuitive appraisal of proportion and color.

The 1950s

1950 began with Newman's first solo exhibition opening in January at the Betty Parsons Gallery. The response to the show was largely negative, with Thomas Hess writing in ARTnews: "Newman is out to shock, but he is not out to shock the bourgeoisie--that has been done. He likes to shock other artists." Later that year, the artist moved to a studio that afforded him the space to make his first eight-by-eighteen-foot painting. At this time many New York artists, such as Jackson Pollock, also had begun to make extremely large canvases. The size of these works served several purposes, one of which was to declare the artists' ambition. Another was to create art too large to fit in people's homes, thus preventing the works being used for merely decorative purposes. According to the critic Clement Greenberg, once a painting no longer gave the illusion of depth, it had no choice but to expand laterally. When Vir Heroicus Sublimis (Latin for "man, heroic and sublime") made its debut in Newman's second show at the Betty Parsons Gallery, Newman posted this statement: "There is a tendency to look at large paintings from a distance. The large pictures in this exhibition are intended to be seen from a short distance." In other words, their powerful impact was not to be tamed.

The exhibition, however, was a critical and financial disaster that garnered scathing reviews and no sales. Newman spent the next four years painting in isolation, showing and selling nothing at all. It was exactly at this time that Newman's friends and fellow artists Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning rose to fame. If not for the financial and moral support of Annalee, Newman could not have continued to paint.

Nonetheless, the artist made some of his most astonishingly beautiful works during this difficult period. He further explored the large-scale format, creating, for example, several eleven-foot-tall paintings. He also experimented with the zip, sending it to the four edges of the canvas. In all of his work from these years, complex brushwork and layers of color play an important role in creating the physical and emotional texture of the canvases.

Newman turned fifty in 1955, and even with Annalee working two teaching jobs, the couple's financial situation was precarious. They resorted to taking loans, pawning a few valuables, and, in Newman's case, trying to develop a winning scheme at the horse track. Sometime this year, the couple moved to 62 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights. Newman made one very large painting, Uriel, in 1955, then stopped painting for over two years.

His sense of discouragement vividly climaxed in a heart attack in late 1957. Newman said that this health crisis had the effect of "instant psychoanalysis." As he recuperated, he returned to painting with the narrow canvas Outcry, a work that reveals an almost primal rediscovery of his "voice" as a painter. That rediscovery continued in the magnificent series of fourteen paintings titled The Stations of the Cross, which occupied Newman during the next eight years and are widely considered his greatest masterpiece.

The Stations of the Cross

The Stations of the Cross presents a virtuoso demonstration of Newman's approach to painting. Although the series is purely abstract, it shares some of the characteristics found in traditional religious depictions of the Passion of Christ: its number of scenes (fourteen) and the somber mood. According to the artist, the series takes its meaning from Christ's cry on the cross-"Lema Sabachthani" (God, Why have you forsaken me?)-a cry that might have come not just from Christ, but from martyrs throughout the course of human history. Each canvas measures about 78 by 60 inches, an imposing but not overwhelming size that Newman called "a human scale for the human cry."

Newman painted the Stations over the course of eight years, using a palette of only black, raw canvas, and white. He wanted to work in such a way that "the whole canvas would become color and have a sense of light." It is apparent that Newman was not working from a formula or system, but improvising new compositions for each painting, letting, as he said, "work grow out of work." The restricted palette casts the device of the zip in an especially demanding role. The zip can be a band of paint atop the raw canvas or a band of raw canvas between two painted areas. It can be defined by brushed bursts of paint, or clean lines. The true impossibility of reading Newman's zips in terms of foreground and background is most apparent in the four white Stations, as the different sections of the compositions interlock in a richly ambiguous fashion. A fifteenth painting, titled Be II, joined the Stations when they were first shown at the Guggenheim Museum in 1966, and has remained with the series ever since.

The 1960s

While Barnett Newman was working on The Stations of the Cross, he continued to make-and exhibit-other paintings. In 1959, the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel in Switzerland acquired Day Before One (1951), becoming the first museum to own a Newman painting. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, followed later that year with the purchase of Abraham (1949). Many critics remained unsympathetic to his work, but Newman was beginning to be received with interest by the younger generation of New York artists.

Though he had made no works on paper during the 1950s, as the decade turned Newman started to create drawings again, and learned printmaking. A series of lithographs titled 18 Cantos, made in 1963-64, presented the artist with a keen challenge--and the size restriction imposed by the lithographic press led Newman to use the margins of the pages, in addition to color and composition, to define the character of each canto. The series, dedicated to Annalee, is the artist's only work that openly expresses his great fondness for music. Describing their interaction as a set, Newman's printed preface declares that "each canto adds its song to the full chorus."

During this time Newman also turned to creating sculpture in bronze and steel. The work Here III (1965-66) presents a single vertical element-Newman's zip-in three dimensions. Like his paintings, Newman's sculpture was intended to give a person "a sense of place," the awareness of one's own presence as well as that of the work of art.

By now, Barnett Newman's difficulties of the previous decade were over. The "cool" look of the Minimalist and Pop art of the sixties had opened the public's eyes to his spare yet powerful paintings. Amid this fresh appreciation, Newman continued to evolve as an artist. He downplayed the contemplative element of his art, and gave his paintings hard edges and smooth surfaces that deemphasize the artist's touch. Working with paint straight out of the tube, Newman created bold paintings in primary colors, using the newly popular medium of acrylic paint to full advantage as he strove for even, saturated coats of color. This approach is exemplified by the magnitude and intensity of red in the largest painting of his life, 1968's Anna's Light (named for the artist's mother). Newman also experimented with new shapes, painting Chartres and Jericho on triangular canvases that were inspired by the preparation of the pyramidal base for his sculpture Broken Obelisk.

In 1968, Newman turned to etching for the first time. The resulting Notes, initially intended to be only studies, offer rare insight into the developmental process of an artist who left behind very few sketches. Newman's strokes and scratchings reveal his growing familiarity with the copper plates on which he drew, and from which the printer would make the final sheets. The intimate scale of these prints eloquently chronicles Newman's intuitive way of working, something possible to forget in the powerful presence of his massive paintings. In 1969, Newman's first one-man gallery show in ten years opened at M. Knoedler and Company, New York. The show was widely covered and generally praised, and even negative reviews left no question as to Newman's importance.

In an interview with filmmaker Emile de Antonio the following year, Newman recounted a story from early in his career: "Some twenty-two years ago in a gathering, I was asked what my painting really means in terms of society, in terms of the world. . . . And my answer then was that if my work were properly understood, it would be the end of state capitalism and totalitarianism. Because to the extent that my painting was not an arrangement of objects, not an arrangement of spaces, not an arrangement of graphic elements, was [instead] an open painting . . . to that extent I thought, and I still believe, that my work in terms of its social impact does denote the possibility of an open society." A few months later, on July 4, Barnett Newman died in New York of a heart attack. He was sixty five.

Today, Newman is remembered as a member of the heroic first generation of Abstract Expressionists. His work continues to defy categories and elude labels more than fifty years after his paintings were first exhibited.

Barnett Newman, 2002

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