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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)

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)

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

Barnett Newman as Art Critic: His Reviews and Analysis of other Artists

Yves Tanguy: 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

Piet Mondrian: 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

Mark Rothko: 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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Content compiled and written by Rachel Gershman
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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