Barnett Newman (1905-1970) studied at the Art Students League for much of the 1920s. Shortly after the beginning of World War II, he stopped painting and destroyed his early paintings. He resumed his search for what he termed “the tragic and timeless” in 1948; by the time of his first one-person exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery (1950) he was forty-five years old. Newman used scale (his 1951 painting Cathedra is eighteen feet long) and sensual color to create pictorial envelopes that could overwhelm and transform the viewer.
Of all the abstract expressionists, only Newman and Robert Motherwell seriously explored printmaking, and both worked at ULAE. Newman viewed printmaking as a series of challenges. Not only did the relatively small size of lithographic stones require a substantial adjustment from his grandly scaled canvases, but he initially found it difficult to achieve his trademark sense of floating luminosity via ink-on-paper. In 18 Cantos, 1963-1964, he succeeded by exploiting accidents that occurred during the printmaking process, and by taking advantage of the way the margin of a sheet of paper naturally divided space. Newman’s respect for lithography is evident in his preface to 18 Cantos. “For me, it [lithography] … is like a piano or an orchestra, and as with an instrument, it interprets. And as in all the interpretive arts, so in lithography, creation is joined with the ‘playing;’ in this case not of bow and string, but of stone and press.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Legacy of Barnett Newman
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
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.
MOST IMPORTANT WRITINGS
‘The First Man Was an Artist’
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 19th-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
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.
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 Édouard 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.”
Originally published at https://artmiamimagazine.com/barnett-newman/