Despite their apparent simplicity, Barnett Newman's paintings are among the
most challenging works of art of the twentieth century. They have sometimes
been regarded as philosophic statements made without artistic skill, or
conversely, as pure painting devoid of a subject. In truth, as Newman said,
his paintings involve both: spirit and matter. Newman came of age as an
artist during the aftermath of World War II, together with friends such as
Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still, who would collectively
become known as the Abstract Expressionists. This generation was determined
that American art would no longer take second-class status to European art.
Working at large scale and shunning traditional imagery, they invented
individual visual languages that changed the course of modern art. For all
of them, the subject of their abstract painting was the self-both in the
particular sense of the artist's own existence, and more generally, in the
freedom and strength of the human spirit.
Newman's body of work spans no more than twenty-five years. His first
surviving painting dates from 1945, when he was forty, and his last to 1970,
the year of his death. Not a prolific artist, he created about 120 paintings
during that time. These numbers exist in contrast to Newman's far-reaching
and profound influence on artists of the following generations, for whom he
opened new doors to what painting could be.