Barnett Newman

Gallery Two

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. It offered a metaphor both for his own artistic efforts, and 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." Newman adopted the biblical image of creation as one of divisions and distinctions: day from night, earth from sea...

Newman rehearsed these effects over and over again in his beautiful ink drawings of 1946. In these compositions, a band or ray of light-the untouched white of the paper-seems to penetrate an atmosphere elaborated in brushed ink. Newman was a prolific writer on art during these years, and perhaps it is not accidental that as he began to move toward the visual language defining his life as a painter, he did so most confidently with ink on paper.

click image to enlarge
The Command
1946
Oil on canvas
48 x 36 inches (121.9 x 91.4 cm)

Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, Kunstmuseum, Switzerland.
Gift of Annalee Newman in honor of Arnold Rüdlinger and Dr. Franz Meyer, 1988.
Photograph by Bruce White, Courtesy of the Barnett Newman Foundation.
The Command
Philadelphia Museum of Art