Barnett Newman Life and Art Periods

"I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality."

SYNOPSIS

Newman shared the Abstract Expressionists' interests in myth and the primitive unconscious, but the huge fields of color and trademark "zips" in his pictures set him apart from the gestural abstraction of many of his peers. The response to his mature work, even from friends, was muted when he first exhibited it. It was not until later in his career that he began to receive acclaim, and he would subsequently become a touchstone for both Minimalists and a second generation of color field painters. Commenting on one of Newman's exhibitions in 1959, critic Thomas B. Hess wrote, "he changed in about a year's time from an outcast or a crank into the father figure of two generations."

KEY IDEAS

Newman believed that the modern world had rendered traditional art subjects and styles invalid, especially in the post-World War II years shadowed by conflict, fear, and tragedy. Newman wrote: "old standards of beauty were irrelevant: the sublime was all that was appropriate - an experience of enormity which might lift modern humanity out of its torpor."
Newman's pictures were a decisive break with the gestural abstraction of his peers. Instead, he devised an approach that avoided painting's conventional oppositions of figure and ground. He created a symbol, the "zip," which might reach out and invoke the viewer standing before it - the viewer fired with the spark of life.
He thought that humans had a primal drive to create, and one could find expressions of the same instincts and yearnings locked in ancient art as one would find in modern art. He saw artists, and himself, as the creators of the world.
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BARNETT NEWMAN BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Barnett Newman was born in 1905 to Jewish parents who had immigrated to New York from Russian Poland five years earlier. Barney, as his family and friends called him, grew up in Manhattan and the Bronx with three younger siblings. He started drawing at the Art Students League during high school, continuing to take classes there while earning a philosophy degree from City College of New York. It was at the Art Students League that he would meet and befriend Adolph Gottlieb, who would introduce him to important New York artists and gallery owners.

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Early Training

Following his college graduation, Newman worked for his father's clothing manufacturing business until it failed a few years after the 1929 stock market crash. During the next few years, his disparate pursuits included substitute art teaching (despite failing the art teacher qualification exam many times), running as a write-in candidate for mayor in 1933, and creating a short-lived magazine advocating civil service workers' rights. In 1936, he married Annalee Greenhouse, a teacher. During the early 1940s, he gave up painting entirely. Instead, he studied natural history, ornithology, and Pre-Columbian art, wrote museum catalogue essays and art reviews, and organized exhibitions. His interest in ornithology would later inform his famous quote, "Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds." During this time, he began a friendship with gallery owner Betty Parsons, for whom he organized several exhibitions. She soon began representing Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Jackson Pollock, all close friends of Newman.

Barnett Newman Biography

By 1944, Newman had returned to art practice, inspired in part by Surrealism. Dissatisfied with his earlier figurative work, he destroyed everything he had previously made, and he would continue to destroy work that failed to please him throughout his career. In 1946, the Betty Parsons Gallery began representing him.

Mature Period

The year 1948 was a major turning point in Newman's career. He began developing a pictorial device he called a "zip," a vertical stripe of color running the length of the canvas, and this led to the painting Onement I (1948). The device would become the trademark of all his work to come. With it, he suspended a painting's traditional opposition of figure and ground and created an enveloping experience of color in which the viewer herself, physically and emotionally, is invoked by the zip - gestured to as a being filled with the original spark of life, just like Newman's mythical "first man" (see "Writings and Ideas" below). He touched on some of these ideas in explaining how viewers should read his much larger 1950 canvas Vir heroicus sublimis: "It's no different, really, from meeting another person. One has a reaction to the person physically. Also, there's a metaphysical thing, and if a meeting of people is meaningful, it affects both their lives."

The new work, including Onement I (1948), was first shown at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1950. The response, however, was chiefly negative; one painting was even defaced, and Newman's works would continue to excite violent reactions from audiences, being slashed on several occasions in subsequent years. The following year, Parsons showed him again, yet the response was little better and it drove Newman to withdraw from the gallery scene. Throughout this time he continued writing, producing several philosophical essays about art. Most notably, he wrote "The Sublime Is Now," in which he stated, "I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it."

His work was not shown anywhere between 1951 and 1955; he even bought back a painting he no longer wanted on view. And throughout these early years, he sold very few paintings. It was not until the early 1960s - and following a heart attack in 1957 - that some of his most ardently negative critics began to shift their viewpoints.

Late Period

With the critical tide gradually changing, many began to consider Newman an important artist within Abstract Expressionism, particularly after Clement Greenberg organized his 1959 solo show at French & Company. In the 1960s, Newman expanded his work into lithographs and sculpture, which he had only delved into earlier in his career. His work appeared in several important museum exhibitions on Abstract Expressionism, securing his significant place within the movement. Despite this broader recognition, however, many still misinterpreted his work; Newman would repeatedly dispute such misunderstandings throughout his career. He would even do this at considerable cost to himself; at a time when few museums were interested in his work, he refused an offer to be in the 1962 Whitney exhibit on Geometric Abstraction.

Barnett Newman Photo

In 1966, the Guggenheim gave Newman his first solo museum exhibition, displaying his Stations of the Cross, a series of fourteen pictures executed between 1958 and 1966. Although this show also received many negative reviews, it expanded his recognition within the art world. Over the next few years, he continued creating some of his most important work. Among these included his largest painting, Anna's Light (1968), the series Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue (1966-68) and the monumental sculpture Broken Obelisk (1963-69). On July 4, 1970, Newman died of a heart attack in New York.

LEGACY

Although largely unappreciated during his life, Barnett Newman is now viewed as crucial to the Abstract Expressionist movement and as a precursor to Minimalism. Yet he never considered himself a part of any particular movement, nor a contrast to one. He rejected comparisons to geometric painters as well as comments that named him a progenitor of the Minimalist movement. Unlike those more stark canvases that focused on non-representational meaning of shapes and colors, Newman brought a more philosophical edge to his paintings, infusing them with his own self, and inviting the audience to experience them with both their bodies and their psyches.

WRITINGS AND IDEAS:

Introduction

Newman stands out among artists of the New York School for the quantity of writing he produced, particularly in the early to mid 1940s. Discussion and ideas remained important to him, and he likened abstract thought to the non-objective forms of "primitive" art - both, he believed, were aimed at generalization and classification. However, as an artist, Newman claimed to have never approached any painting with a plan. "I am an intuitive painter," he wrote, one who is concerned with the "immediate and particular." In this respect, Newman's ideas about art were romantic. He believed that a maker of abstract art was harnessing the most basic human emotions, but wasn't bound by any mythology or ancient standard for making art, or even for viewing it.

In a 1962 interview Newman gave to Art in America magazine, he remarked, "The central issue of painting is the subject matter... My subject is antianecdotal." An anecdotal painting, he believed, was like an episode or a piece in a longer sequence. Newman believed that if a painting is antianecdotal, then it somehow becomes more whole, self-sufficient and independent. He also believed that whatever a painting's meaning, it would come out in the viewing of the work, not through discussion.

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Most Important Writings


Newman worked as an associate editor for Tiger's Eye, and 'The First Man Was an Artist' was published in the magazine's first year. In the essay, Newman asserted the priority of the aesthetic over the social: "The human in language is literature," he wrote, "not communication." Humans were artists before they were hunters, he claimed, and were storytellers before they were scientists. "Just as man's first speech was poetic before it became utilitarian, so man first built an idol of mud before he fashioned an axe."

Newman also questioned the benefits of scientific advancements on the mind of modern man. His position was not that science was particularly malevolent, but rather that it had become a strict form of theology that restricted the creative spirit. "The domination of science over the mind of modern man," he wrote, "has been accomplished by the simple tactic of ignoring the prime scientific quest; the concern with its original question What?"

According to Newman, once this question of "what?" ceases to be at the forefront, advancements in the arts and sciences are no longer possible; they became merely the practice of reaffirming old and tried ideas.


In this, perhaps Newman's most famous essay, he examined the work of several 20th-century European artists who, he believed, destroyed old standards of beauty. He also briefly touched on the standards of beauty in art established by the ancient Greeks and examined the ways in which influential philosophers - particularly nineteenth-century Germans - reconciled these ideas with the advent of new modern styles. The key struggle, according to Newman, was that which occurs between ideas of beauty and ideas of the sublime. Newman concluded that artists had finally succeeded in creating a new standard of beauty and the sublime. Not since the Renaissance, he claimed, had a melding of those two concepts occurred with such force. Before Abstract Expressionism, some of the greatest modern artists had only succeeded in challenging old ideas about beauty in the visual arts: "Picasso's effort may be sublime," he wrote, "but there is no doubt that his work is a preoccupation with the question of what is the nature of beauty." He believed his own generation was a new breed - artists who didn't simply question or even challenge old standards, but rather created entirely new and consequently sublime ideas about beauty.

On Abstract Art

Barnett Newman Portrait

Newman considered himself a pure artist, working with pure forms. For a 1947 exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery, entitled The Ideographic Picture, he wrote, "The basis of an aesthetic act is the pure idea. But the pure idea is, of necessity, an aesthetic act." Newman affirmed his belief that authentic, expressive abstract art was void of symbolism or illusion and that the purest living form in an abstract painting was its shape. "[A] shape [is] a living thing," he wrote, "a vehicle for an abstract thought-complex, a carrier of the awesome feelings [the artist] felt before the terror of the unknowable."

On Art and Inquiry

For the first issue of Tiger's Eye, in October 1947, Newman wrote one of his most famous essays, 'The First Man Was an Artist'. In it he sought to establish a rather unorthodox link between art and science; "For there is a difference between method and inquiry," he wrote. "Scientific inquiry, from its beginnings, has perpetually asked a single and specific question, What? What is the rainbow, what is an atom, what is a star [sic]?" This basic and instinctive question of "what?" was what made all art into a science - not a science that set out to prove something, but rather a science that simply sought new knowledge and experience.

On Beauty

According to Newman, all of modern art had been a quest to negate the classical standards of beauty established during the Renaissance. The early Modernists - artists such as Edouard Manet and the Impressionists - had failed to fully achieve this, and the task of completion was left to his own generation. "I believe that here in America," he wrote in 1948, "some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it... We are reasserting man's natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions."

Barnett Newman vs. Ad Reinhardt

In 1956, Ad Reinhardt wrote an article in College Art Journal entitled 'The Artist in Search of an Academy', in which he derided Barnett Newman as "the artist-professor and traveling-design-salesman, the Art-Digest-philosopher-poet and Bauhaus-exerciser, the avant-garde-huckster-handicraftsman and educational-shop-keeper, the holy-roller-explainer-entertainer-in-residence."

Newman was enraged and sued Reinhardt for libel. When the case reached the New York Supreme Court, it was dismissed and subsequently rejected again upon appeal. But Newman was often similarly criticized by fellow artists for being overly romantic - Pollock reportedly called him a "horse's ass" at one gallery opening.

In Discussion with Hess on Stations of the Cross

In a public conversation between Thomas B. Hess and Newman, staged at the Guggenheim Museum on May 1, 1966, Newman was asked a series of questions regarding his Stations of the Cross series (1958-66), which were exhibited at the museum in Newman's very first solo exhibition at a public gallery.

"When I call them Stations of the Cross," he said, "I am saying that these paintings mean something beyond their formal extremes...What I'm saying is that my painting is physical and what I'm saying also is that my painting is metaphysical...that my life is physical and my life is also metaphysical." Hess later asked Newman about the absence of color in the pictures - something that was unusual in his work. Newman responded, "Tragedy demands black, white, and gray. I couldn't paint a green passion, but I did try to make raw canvas come into color. That was my color problem - to get the quality of color without the use of color. A painter should try to paint the impossible."



Original content written by Rachel Gershman
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BARNETT NEWMAN QUOTES

"It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way not his way."

"There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing."

"I prefer to leave the paintings to speak for themselves."

"I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality."

"The problem of a painting is physical and metaphysical, the same as I think life is physical and metaphysical."

Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman Influences

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Alberto Giacometti
Alberto Giacometti
The Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti created semi-abstract sculptures that took up themes of violence, sex, and Surrealism. His famous later work is characterized by towering, elongated figures in bronze.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Alberto Giacometti
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian, a founding member of the De Stijl movement, was a modern Dutch artist who used grids, perpendicular lines, and the three primary colors in what he deemed Neoplasticism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Piet Mondrian
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich was a Russian modernist painter and theorist who founded Suprematism. Along with his painting Black Square, his mature works feature simple geometric shapes on blank backgrounds.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Kazimir Malevich
Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher and one of the major figures during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment period of philosophical thinking. Kant's metaphysical writings on judgment, knowledge and doubt led to the development of German idealism, and influenced the likes of Georg Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer.

Modern Art Information Immanuel Kant
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German writer during the late-eighteenth to early-nineteenth century. Originally a student of optics, Goethe was a major figure in German literature, humanism, philosophy, and a pioneer of German Romanticism. His best known work, the novella The Sorrows of Young Werther, was a key example of Sturm und Drang, a German literary movement that embraced subjectivity and intense emotion.

Modern Art Information Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Georg Hegel
Georg  Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a German philosopher and a founding member of German idealism in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. His ideas on the "dialectic," "absolute idealism," and the "Spirit" all informed the theories of Karl Marx, and were ultimately influential on the development of formalist abstract art.

Modern Art Information Georg Hegel
Karl Marx
Karl Marx
Karl Marx was a German philosopher, historian, economist, and revolutionary who along with Frederick Engels founded modern Communism. Although Marx's belief that socialism would one day replace capitalism did not come true, he is considered one of the modern era's most influential thinkers.

Modern Art Information Karl Marx
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the twentieth century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Hans Hofmann.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Clement Greenberg
Pre-Columbian Art
Pre-Columbian Art
Pre-Columbian Art is a term that applies to all art from Mexico, Central and South America created before these areas were colonized by Europe ("before Columbus") in the sixteenth century. These art forms cover vast media and subject matter. The uniting factor among most works is that they were discovered in tombs, which suggests a purpose of paying tribute to fallen leaders, accompanying them as they enter the afterlife.

Modern Art Information Pre-Columbian Art
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Color Field Painting
Color Field Painting
A tendency within Abstract Expressionism, distinct from gestural abstraction, color field painting was developed by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still in the late 1940s, and developed further by Helen Frankenthaler and others. It is characterized by large fields of color and an absence of any figurative motifs, and often expresses a yearning for transcendence and the infinite.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Color Field Painting
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
Frank Stella
Frank Stella
Frank Stella is an American artist whose geometric paintings and shaped canvases underscore the idea of the painting as object. A major influence on Minimalism, his iconic works include nested black and white stripes and concentric, angular half-circles in bright colors.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Frank Stella
Carl Andre
Carl Andre
Carl Andre is an American Minimalist whose prominence rose in the late 1960s with a series of large public artworks and sculpture. His linear sculpture was included in the famed 1966 Primary Structures group exhibition at the Jewish Museum.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Carl Andre
Donald Judd
Donald Judd
Donald Judd was an early and influential Minimalist artist who made large-scale geometric objects, often of industrial materials and serially arranged on the floor or wall. He helped found the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where many key works of Minimalism are installed.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Donald Judd
Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin was an American artist best known for his Minimalist constructions of color and light. Often using nothing more than a few dozen fluorescent bulbs for his work, Flavin was a crucial figure in the Minimalism of the 1960s and '70s. His light installations altered the physical exhibition space, and were designed as experiential art rather than visual art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Dan Flavin
Kenneth Noland
Kenneth Noland
Kenneth Noland was an American painter who helped pioneer the Color-field painting movement in the 1960s. His most famous works consist of circular ripples of paint poured directly onto the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Kenneth Noland
Thomas B. Hess
Thomas B. Hess
Thomas B. Hess was an art critic and historian, and a proponent of Abstract Expressionism. He served as editor of the influential magazine ART News.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Thomas B. Hess
Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg was a critic, art historian, and curator who published important works on modern art and culture. He was a leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism, and coined the term "Action Painting."
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Harold Rosenberg
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Minimalism
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pop Art
Adolph Gottlieb
Adolph Gottlieb
Adolph Gottlieb was an Abstract Expressionist painter who commonly used grids, pictographs, and primitive symbols in his work.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Adolph Gottlieb
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko was an Abstract Expressionist painter whose early interest in mythic landscapes gave way to mature works featuring large, hovering blocks of color on colored grounds.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Mark Rothko
Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still was a leading first-generation Abstract Expressionist. His mature works are large-scale paintings with gaping chasms and stains of jagged color, often in dark earth tones.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Clyfford Still
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jackson Pollock
Geometric Abstraction
Geometric Abstraction
Geometric abstraction refers to nonobjective art that is based on reductive and geometric principles. At its purest, it seeks to strip art down to its most fundamental shapes and lines. Artists in many different movements and time periods have worked in this mode.

Modern Art Information Geometric Abstraction
Edouard Manet
Edouard Manet
Edouard Manet was a French painter and a prominent figure in the mid-nineteenth-century Realist movement of French art. Manet's paintings are considered among the first works of art in the modern era, due to his rough painting style and absence of idealism in his figures. Manet was a close friend of and major influence on younger artists who founded Impressionism such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Edouard Manet
Impressionism
Impressionism
A movement in painting that first surfaced in France in the 1860s, it sought new ways to describe effects of light and movement, often using rich colors. The Impressionists were drawn to modern life and often painted the city, but they also captured landscapes and scenes of middle-class leisure-taking in the suburbs.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Impressionism
Ad Reinhardt
Ad Reinhardt
Ad Reinhardt was an American abstract artist whose monochromatic canvases show side-by-side rectangles painted in subtle variations of the same color. Very much part of the New York scene in the 1940s, he nonetheless scorned the label and gestural ethos of Abstract Expressionism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Ad Reinhardt
Onement I
Onement I

Title: 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
Vir heroicus sublimis

Title: 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
The Wild

Title: 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
Third Station

Title: 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
Canto VII

Title: 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
Broken Obelisk

Title: 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
Les Sourciers

Title: 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
Composition A

Title: 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
Untitled

Title: 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.

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.