Barnett Newman (January 29, 1905 – July
4, 1970) was an American artist. He is seen as one of the major
figures in abstract expressionism and one of the foremost of the
color field painters.
Newman was born in New York City, the son of Russian
Jewish immigrants. He studied philosophy at the City College of
New York and worked in his father's business manufacturing clothing.
From the 1930s he made paintings, said to be in an expressionist
style, but eventually destroyed all these works.
In the 1940s he first worked in a surrealist mode
before developing his mature style. This is characterised by areas
of color separated by thin vertical lines, or "zips" as
Newman called them. In the first works featuring zips, the color
fields are variegated, but later the colors are pure and flat. Newman
himself thought that he reached his fully mature style with the
Onement series (from 1948).
The zip remained a constant feature of Newman's
work throughout his life. In some paintings of the 1950s, such as
The Wild, which is eight feet tall by one and a half inches wide,
the zip is all there is to the work. Newman also made a few sculptures
which are essentially three-dimensional zips.
Although Newman's paintings appear to be purely
abstract, and many of them were originally untitled, the names he
later gave them hinted at specific subjects being addressed, often
with a Jewish theme. Two paintings from the early 1950s, for example,
are called Adam and Eve (see Adam and Eve), and there is also Uriel
(1954) and Abraham (1949), a very dark painting, which as well as
being the name of a biblical patriach, was also the name of Newman's
father, who had died in 1947.
The Stations of the Cross series of black and white
paintings (1958-64), begun shortly after Newman had recovered from
a heart attack, is usually regarded as the peak of his achievement.
The series is subtitled "Lema sabachthani" - "why
have you forsaken me" - words spoken by Christ on the cross.
Newman saw these words as having universal significance in his own
time. The series has also been seen an a memorial to the victims
of the holocaust.
Newman's late works, such as the Who's Afraid of
Red, Yellow and Blue series, use vibrant, pure colors, often on
very large canvases - Anna's Light (1968), named in memory of his
mother who had died in 1965, is his largest work, twenty-eight feet
wide by nine feet tall. Newman also worked on shaped canvases late
in life, with Chartres (1969), for example, being triangular, and
returned to sculpture, making a small number of sleek pieces in
steel. These later works are executed in acrylic paint rather than
the oil paint of earlier pieces. Of his sculptures, Broken Obelisk
is the most monumental and perhaps best-known, depicting an inverted
obelisk whose point balances on the apex of a pyramid.
Newman also made a series of lithographs, the 18
Cantos (1963-64) which, according to Newman, are meant to be evocotive
of music. He also made a small number of etchings.
Newman is generally classified as an abstract expressionist
on account of his working in New York City in the 1950s, associating
with other artists of the group and developing an abstract style
which owed little or nothing to European art. However, his rejection
of the expressive brushwork employed by other abstract expressionists
such as Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko, and his use of hard-edged
areas of flat color, can be seen as a precursor to post painterly
abstraction and the minimalist works of artists such as Frank Stella.
Newman was unappreciated as an artist for much
of his life, being overlooked in favour of more colorful characters
such as Jackson Pollock. The influential critic Clement Greenberg
wrote enthusiastically about him, but it was not until the end of
his life that he began to be taken really seriously. He was, however,
an important influence on many younger painters.Newman died in New
York City of a heart attack in 1970.