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Monday, January 30, 2012

Barnett Newman

Moment, 1946, Barnett Newman
As I write about various artists, I find myself building something like tribute memorials in their names, part biography, part philosophy, part trivia, part technical treatises, and in some part, little pleas for understanding. In a tribute to Barnett Newman, I guess I should most appropriately leave the paper (or screen) blank with perhaps one or two long, vertical stripes ("zips" he called them) from top to bottom. If I were discussing his work from 1958 to 1962, the screen would be white with black, or black with white "zips." After that time, you'd have to tone down your monitor setting to avoid being burned by the brightness of his colors. Of course Newman used words too, though usually not in written form. He was very vocal, very articulate in discussing his work, sometimes to the point it's hard to differentiate between what he says he was doing in his painting and what he actually did.

Horizon Light, 1949, Barnett Newman
Newman was born in 1905, the son of Russian immigrants in New York, where his father owned a men's garment factory. Though Newman studied at the Art Student's League and the City College of New York, and worked at a substitute art teacher, much of his life he was involved directly in the family business. He was an accomplished ornithologist, anthropologist, theologist, philosopher, and poet. He also dabbled in politics. As a painter, his early work was Expressionist in style, often dealing with plant and seed growth, featuring images of fertilization. It must have taken some courage when, in 1940, he not only stopped painting but destroyed all his work. After the war, he once more took up the brush as well as the pen in writing about art as well as creating it. But he was just one of hundreds of struggling Abstract Expressionists populating the New York School, hoping to attract some kind of attention.

Only in a gallery setting, juxtaposed against human proportions, can the immense scale of
Newman's paintings be appreciated.
Barnett Newman became a transitional artist. He swerved away from the expressionistic "action painting" so popular in the immediate postwar era in favor of color fields. His 1946 Moment (top, left) he considered one of his first successful paintings. Perhaps one might call it the "birth of the zip."  His 1949 Horizon Light (above, right) was the star attraction of his first one-man show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1950. Not only did the public not like or understand his work, but even his fellow abstractionists complained he had somehow betrayed them in distilling their movement into such minimal terms. He was about ten years ahead of his time. With the growing acceptance of Frankenthaler and the other color field painters in the sixties, Newman could justly claim to have "been there, done that," in effect to have invented the genre. Given that Newman's ego was every bit as enormous as his paintings, that might tend to be something of an overstatement, but nonetheless, his work very effectively serves as a bridge between the Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s and the Minimal Art of the 1970s.
Barnett Newman

Newman died in 1970, the fledgling Minimalist movement of the time a fitting tribute to his memory.  His epitaph, written by a New York critic read:  "Barnett with emptiness as if it were a substance."

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