New York, New York
New York, New York
Summary of Barnett Newman
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."
- 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.
Biography of Barnett Newman
Saying "A painter is a choreographer of space," Barnett Newman invented what he called the "zip," a band of vertical color. Thus he led Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting, impacted related movements, while also being an inspiring art theorist.
Important Art by Barnett Newman
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.
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."
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.