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Barnett Newman Photo

Barnett Newman

American Painter

Movement: Abstract Expressionism

Born: January 29, 1905 - New York, New York

Died: July 4, 1970 - New York, New York

Barnett Newman Timeline

Important Art by Barnett Newman

The below artworks are the most important by Barnett Newman - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Onement I (1948)
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Onement I (1948)

Artwork description & Analysis: Newman saw Onement I as a breakthrough in his work. It features the first full incarnation of what he later called a "zip," a vertical band of color. This motif would play a central role in many of his subsequent paintings. The painting's title is an archaic derivation of the word "atonement," meaning, "the state of being made into one." For Newman, this unevenly painted zip on a flat field of color does not divide the canvas; rather, it merges both sides, drawing in the audience to intensely experience the work both physically and emotionally. Some have compared the zips to Alberto Giacometti's slender figures, reinforcing Newman's own connections between his paintings and the viewer's body.

Oil on canvas and oil on masking tape on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Vir heroicus sublimis (1950-51)
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Vir heroicus sublimis (1950-51)

Artwork description & Analysis: Translated as "Man, heroic and sublime," Vir heroicus sublimis was, at 95 by 213 inches, Newman's largest painting at the time it was completed, although he would go on to create even more expansive works. He intended his audiences to view this and other large paintings from a close vantage point, allowing the colors and zips to fully surround them. In this piece, which is more complex than it initially appears, Newman's zips are variously solid or wavering, creating a perfect square in the center and asymmetrical spaces on the perimeter. Mel Bochner, an artist associated with Conceptualism, remembered encountering it at the Museum of Modern Art in the late 1960s and realizing that its scale and color created a new kind of contact between the artwork and the viewer. "A woman standing there [looking at it]...was covered with red," he recalled. "I realized it was the light shining on the painting reflecting back, filling the space between the viewer and the artwork that created the space, the place. And that that reflection of the self of the painting, the painting as the subject reflected on the viewer, was a wholly new category of experience."

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The Wild (1950)
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The Wild (1950)

Artwork description & Analysis: The Wild is unique in Newman's oeuvre by virtue of its unusual size; at eight feet tall by one and a half inches wide, it focuses on the zip alone. When first exhibited it was placed directly across from the vast Vir heroicus sublimis (1950-51) and was said to be a response to the latter's sprawling size. It demonstrated Newman's belief that a painting need not be physically large to inspire an intense response from the viewer. The Wild could also be regarded as one of the first of the shaped canvases that became popular over a decade later with the arrival of artists such as Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Third Station (1960)
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Third Station (1960)

Artwork description & Analysis: Third Station is part of Newman's major fourteen-piece series, The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani (1958-66). The title refers to Christ's cry on the cross, yet he also intended to evoke the cries of humanity throughout history. The series is characterized by a stark palette of black, white, and raw canvas - Newman wanted the unpainted canvas to become its own color - and the picture expands the artist's use of the zip, with some appearing starkly straight and others seeming feathered and about to explode. The series took eight years to complete because, as Newman said, he could never plan a picture; "I could not do them all at once, automatically, one after the other...When there was a spontaneous urge to do [each of the paintings] is when I did them."

Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Canto VII (1963)
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Canto VII (1963)

Artwork description & Analysis: In addition to paintings, Newman also created etchings and lithographs, such as the series 18 Cantos (1963-64). The Cantos are his only print series executed in color, and Newman spoke of them using musical analogies; "their symphonic mass lends additional clarity to each individual canto," he wrote in an introduction to the series, "and at the same time, each canto adds its song to the full chorus." In 18 Cantos, Newman employs a wide, offset band, a variation on the thinner zips, and allows the colors to bleed out into the margins, testing the idea of spatial boundaries. He has written that each canto has its own "personal margins."

Lithograph - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Broken Obelisk (1963-69)
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Broken Obelisk (1963-69)

Artwork description & Analysis: Newman made several sculptures, but Broken Obelisk is his most monumental. Its use of heavy, rough-surfaced steel contrasts with the impression of lightness created by the inverted obelisk that almost floats above the stable pyramid. The two parts connect at a space of only two and a quarter inches, with an internal steel rod stabilizing the massive sculpture. Although ancient imagery of pyramids and obelisks are often associated with death, Newman reinvents them here to evoke life and transcendence. Several versions of Broken Obelisk exist, with one in Houston, dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Cor-Ten steel - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Les Sourciers (1945)
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Les Sourciers (1945)

Artist: Yves Tanguy

Artwork description & Analysis: Les Sourciers is typical of the work of the French Surrealist Yves Tanguy, who often used biomorphic forms to evoke dream images. Surrealism was important in the formation of Abstract Expressionism, providing a precedent for the movement's interest in myth and the unconscious. Yet not all were in agreement with its approaches. In his now celebrated 1945 essay 'The Plasmic Image' (never published in his lifetime), Newman discussed the key differences between Surrealism and abstraction; "Surrealism is interested in a dream world that will penetrate the human psyche," he wrote. "[But] the present painter is concerned not with his own feelings or with the mystery of his own personality but with the penetration into the world mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into metaphysical secrets." Newman disliked the Surrealists' delving into personal worlds, and he was anxious to insist that abstract painting was not similarly introverted; Newman believed his art was a quasi-religious endeavor filled with universal symbols.

Oil on canvas - Private collection

Composition A (1923)
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Composition A (1923)

Artist: Piet Mondrian

Artwork description & Analysis: According to Newman, Piet Mondrian was one of those modern artists who had tried to achieve a new standard of beauty and purity in art by making the painting itself the subject matter. He admired that ambition, yet he was doubtful that Mondrian had succeeded; in his 1948 essay 'The Sublime is Now', Newman cited him as an artist who, "in his attempt to destroy the Renaissance picture by his insistence on pure subject matter, succeeded only in raising the white plane and the right angle into a realm of sublimity, where the sublime paradoxically becomes an absolute of perfect sensations." Newman concluded that Mondrian's paintings as a whole could not be sublime or transcendent, because old standards of beauty - Renaissance standards - were still upheld. Only with the arrival of Abstract Expressionism had artists fully embraced new conceptions of beauty.

Oil on canvas - Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome

Untitled (1955)
Artwork Images

Untitled (1955)

Artist: Mark Rothko

Artwork description & Analysis: Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko were once close friends, and Newman was very interested in his friend's work, but in a letter addressed to Sidney Janis, dated April 9, 1955, Newman wrote, "I am frankly bored with the uninspired, or to put it more accurately, I am bored with the too easily inspired...This easy ability to be inspired not only reduces the concepts that form his [Rothko's] sources, not only distorts the act of painting itself, but it is so at variance with my own point of view that I can only reject everything it involves." Newman disliked the evocation of death and the macabre in Rothko's work. "Why should I look at his death image?" he continued. "I am involved in life, in the joy of the spirit."

Oil on canvas - The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.



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Barnett Newman Photo

Related Art and Artists

Woman of Venice II (1956)
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Woman of Venice II (1956)

Artist: Alberto Giacometti

Artwork description & Analysis: Perhaps no other writer has better summed up Giacometti's bronze stick figures than Francis Ponge, who wrote in a 1951 article for Cahiers d'Art, "Man - and man alone - reduced to a thread - in the dilapidation and misery of the world - who searches for himself - starting from nothing... Man on a pavement like burning iron; who cannot lift his heavy feet." Like other works in this vein, Woman of Venice II shows a single figure, her body seemingly beaten almost to the point of disintegration, yet still standing tall and upright. At the heart of such works was the theme of human dignity and mankind's need to assert its existence in a vast universe that seems bent on its destruction.

Bronze - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue (1921)

Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue (1921)

Artist: Piet Mondrian

Artwork description & Analysis: In the 1920s, Mondrian began to create the definitive abstract paintings for which he is best known. He limited his palette to white, black, gray, and the three primary colors, with the composition constructed from thick, black horizontal and vertical lines that delineated the outlines of the various rectangles of color or reserve. The simplification of the pictorial elements was essential for Mondrian's creation of a new abstract art, distinct from Cubism and Futurism. The assorted blocks of color and lines of differing width create rhythms that ebb and flow across the surface of the canvas, echoing the varied rhythm of modern life. The composition is asymmetrical, as in all of his mature paintings, with one large dominant block of color, here red, balanced by distribution of the smaller blocks of yellow, blue gray, and white around it. This style has been quoted by many artists and designers in all aspects of culture since the 1920s.

Oil on canvas - Gemeentemuseum, The Hague

Black Square (c. 1915)

Black Square (c. 1915)

Artist: Kazimir Malevich

Artwork description & Analysis: Now badly cracked, the iconic Black Square was shown by Malevich in the 0.10 exhibition in Petrograd in 1915. This piece epitomized the theoretical principles of Suprematism developed by Malevich in his 1915 essay From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting. Although earlier Malevich had been influenced by Cubism, he believed that the Cubists had not taken abstraction far enough. Thus, here the purely abstract shape of the black square (painted before the white background) is the single pictorial element in the composition. Even though the painting seems simple, there are such subtleties as brushstrokes, fingerprints, and colors visible underneath the cracked black layer of paint. If nothing else, one can distinguish the visual weight of the black square, the sense of an "image" against a background, and the tension around the edges of the square. But according to Malevich, the perception of such forms should always be free of logic and reason, for the absolute truth can only be realized through pure feeling. For the artist, the square represented feelings, and the white, nothingness. Additionally, Malevich saw the black square as a kind of godlike presence, an icon - or even the godlike quality in himself. In fact, Black Square was to become the new holy image for non-representational art. Even at the exhibition it was hung in the corner where an Orthodox icon would traditionally be placed in the Russian home.

Oil on canvas - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

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