By Richard Mather…
The problem of a painting is physical and metaphysical, the same as I think life is physical and metaphysical – Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman was born in 1905 to Abraham and Anna Newman, Jewish immigrants from Poland who came to New York City in 1900. Although not religious, Barnett’s father was a passionate Zionist and supporter of the National Hebrew School of the Bronx. As well as attending Hebrew school, Barnett and his brothers and sisters were educated at home by Jewish scholars from Europe. He went on to study philosophy at the City College of New York and later made a living as an art teacher, writer and critic. In the 1930s he made a number of paintings but eventually destroyed all these works. Newman started painting again in 1944 and he made a number of chalk drawings but it wasn’t until 1948 that he produced his artistic breakthrough.Onement 1 was a major achievement and it was this artwork that earned him the reputation as a pioneer of colour field paintings.
Onement1 features the celebrated vertical stripe or “zip” that was created by the ripping away of masking tape from the canvas. Onement 1 and subsequent works are sometimes described in religious terms. Thomas B. Hess, for example, regards the vertical bands of colour or zips as “an act of division, a gesture of separation, as God separated light from darkness, with a line drawn in the void.” Indeed, Newman himself claimed that the artist begins with the void. Like God, the artist’s first move is to enact a primal gesture by transforming the void with a descending stroke or zip. In other words, the removal of masking tape is a revelatory event.
Newman’s interest in the Hebraic sublime can be attributed to the horrors of the Second World War, which had rendered “old standards of beauty” invalid, he said. This left the way clear for the art of the sublime, which was the only appropriate response to humanity’s post-war lethargy. Newman was concerned with “metaphysical understanding” and “awesome feelings.” He was eager to depict “nothing that has any known physical visual, or mathematical counterpart.” The new art, he said, was “a religious art, a modern mythology concerned with numinous ideas and feelings.”
The Hebraic sublime continued to preoccupy Newman. The Name 1 (1949) is a depiction of the tetragrammaton (four-letter name of God) in which the four vertical “zips” read like Hebrew from right to left – Y, H, V, H. Abraham (also 1949) is a very dark painting and there is no attempt to depict the patriarch in any figurative sense. Instead we confronted with a nearly seven-foot-tall painting of a single thick black stripe running vertically across a black canvas. Two paintings from the early 1950s are called Adam (1951) and Eve (1950). Again, there is a conspicuous lack of literal representation. Rather we are faced with vast swathes of colour interrupted by contrasting stripes or zips.
Primordial Light (1954) is a huge (243.8 cm tall and 127 cm wide) painting dominated by a wide expanse of greyish-black oil paint, fringed by light grey “zips.” The picture brings to the mind the Kabbalistic notion of the lamp of darkness in which “light and darkness are the same” (Psalm 139). The title inevitably recalls the Kabbalistic writings of Isaac Luria, the 16th century rabbi and mystic. According to Rabbi Luria, prior to creation there was only Ohr Ein Sof, which was the garment used by God to conceal Himself. God then constricted his infinite light, distancing it to the sides surrounding the central point, so that there remained a vacated space in the middle of the light. A trace of divine light, known as reshimu, remained in the empty space. Then a ray (or kav) from Ohr Ein Sof entered the empty space. The form of the divine produced by this first ray of light is known as Adam Kadmon (literally, “Primordial Adam”).
Between 1959 and 1966, Newman worked on what many people consider to be his crowning achievement: fourteen black and white paintings called The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachtani. Each canvas measures about 78 by 60 inches, an impressive but not overpowering size. In Newman’s words, they are on “a human scale for the human cry.” Again, the canvases feature the trademark zips. Not a single canvas depicts Jesus of Nazareth, evidence perhaps that Newman didn’t want to single out Jesus’ experience, preferring instead to draw attention to the shared fate of each and every person. Suffering and death are ubiquitous.
Four years after completing The Stations of the Cross, Newman suffered a fatal heart attack. Fittingly, for a man so preoccupied with Jewish themes, one of his last public acts was the signing of the “Declaration of Solidarity with Soviet Jews,” organised by the Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews.
Among the public collections holding works by Newman are the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art (New York City), the National Gallery of Art (Washington DC), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Tate Gallery (London). In 2013, Newman’s gigantic Onement VI was sold for a record $43.8 million at Sotheby’s. The following year, his Black Fire 1 sold for $84.2 million – setting a new auction record for the artist and confirming the growing appreciation of this remarkable painter from New York.