Barnett Newman
Biography of Abstract Expressionist Painter, Founder of Colour Field Painting.

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Barnett Newman (1905-70)


Early Life
First Colour Field Paintings
Rejection and Heart Attack
Major Contributor to Abstract Expressionism
Second Generation Colour Field; Post Painterly Abstraction

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Closely associated with the New York School, the American abstract painter Barnett Newman was one of the founders of Colour Field Painting, a style of Abstract Expressionism. Along with kindred artists like Clyfford Still (1904-80), Mark Rothko (1903-70), Jackson Pollock (1912-56), Franz Kline (1910-62), Willem De Kooning (1904-97), Philip Guston (1913-80) Robert Motherwell (1915-91), William Baziotes (1912-63) and Sam Francis (1923-94), he was part of the first generation of American abstract painters who achieved recognition during the 1940s, and who laid the groundwork for later artists who emerged during the 1950s and 1960s. Noted for his colossal paintings, with their fields of saturated colour (compare Mark Rothko's Paintings), signature "zips", and minimalist style, he was also an acclaimed lithographer and sculptor.

Famous works by Newman include his paintings: Onement I (1948, Museum of Modern Art, New York), Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-1, MoMA, NYC), Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? (1966, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam), and his series of black and white pictures (1958–66) entitled The Stations of the Cross. His most famous sculpture is Broken Obelisk (1963-9, MoMA, New York). He is one of the most influential 20th century painters in American art.

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Famous work found at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

Early Life

Barnett Newman was born in New York City to Jewish parents who had arrived in the city five years earlier, from Poland. Raised in Manhattan and the Bronx, he took drawing classes at the Art Students League while still at high school (1922), an activity he maintained for the next 4 years (1923-7) while studying for a philosophy degree from the City College of New York. After graduating, Newman worked in his father's clothing business. In addition, during 1929-30, he again trained at the Art Students League. During his time there, he made friends with Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74), who introduced him to other New York painters and gallery owners. However, he and his parents suffered severe financial hardship during the Depression, a situation aggravated by his refusal to join the Federal Art Project, which he saw as a form of welfare. Instead, he earned extra money by teaching art in various high schools.

In 1936, he married a fellow teacher Annalee Greenhouse. Around 1940, he abandoned painting to concentrate on studying ornithology and art history. He also wrote art reviews, and helped to organize exhibitions for several galleries including the Betty Parsons gallery.


First Colour Field Paintings

Then in 1944 Newman returned to painting - after first destroying most of his previous work - and over the next 5 years evolved his signature style of Colour Field Painting: a style in line with his view that, in an age of moral uncertainty and physical insecurity, the only rightful subject matter for an artist was the "sublime". This concept of an absolute standard of excellence, or creative "grandeur", would inspire him for most of his career. It also prompted the British art critic David Sylvester (1924-2001) to write about the "cosmic grandeur" of Newman and the "cosmic pathos" of Mark Rothko.

In 1946, the Betty Parsons Gallery began representing him. In 1947 he curated an exhibition for the gallery, entitled The Ideographic Picture, which showed paintings by Mark Rothko, Still, and Hans Hofmann (1880-1966). In this and other activities, Newman was searching for an art form which was more eternal than something taken from nature, which might date or deteriorate. The following year he wrote a major article on Colour Field Painting, called "The Sublime is Now" (1948). In the same year he produced Onement I (MoMA, New York), a dark red-ish canvas bisected top to bottom by a single stripe of light red. These stripes (Newman called them zips) became a regular feature of his work.

He used these zips as a device, along with his uniquely large fields of rich colour, to help him "connect" with the viewer, and vice versa. Other similar works included Be I (1949, The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas), and Covenant (1949, Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden). In addition, he wrote articles propagating his philosophical views on contemporary aesthetics for several publications, including "Tiger's Eye", where he was a deputy editor. In this way, he gradually built up a reputation as a rather controversial spokesman for avant-garde art. He also joined Baziotes, Rothko, Motherwell and the sculptor David Hare (1917-92) in founding the Subjects of the Art School, an educational project aimed at promoting modern art, which unfortunately collapsed within 12 months.

Rejection and Heart Attack

His new pictures were first exhibited to the public at the Betty Parsons Gallery, in 1950, and triggered a mainly negative reaction. One painting was even defaced. A second one-man show at the same venue followed in 1951, with similar results. Disillusioned, Newman quit the gallery scene, and for the next 3 years (1952-55) his work was not exhibited anywhere. He continued working, however, although his peculiar style tended to isolate him somewhat from the mainstream gesturalism of his colleagues. In 1956 he stopped painting, and in 1957 suffered a heart attack.

Major Contributor to Abstract Expressionism

Amazingly, he bounced back. Against a background of changing orthodoxy in contemporary abstract art, he began work on a series of 14 black and white pictures - The Stations of the Cross (1958-66) - which many consider to be his greatest achievement. Subtitled "Why have you forsaken me?", Christ's words on the Cross, the series is seen by some as a reference to the victims of the Holocaust. (See also Holocaust art.) In 1959, the influential art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-94) organized a one-man exhibition for him at French & Company, a show which proved instrumental in helping to rehabilitate Newman as a major contributor to abstract expressionism.

During the 1960s, Newman began exploring lithographs, as in his 18 Cantos (1963–64), and sculpture. The latter featured a series of large steel sculptures with slender shafts recalling the zips of his paintings. His best known sculptural work is probably Broken Obelisk (1963-9, MoMA, NYC), an upside-down obelisk whose point balances on the apex of a pyramid.

From the early 1960s onwards, his work began gradually to be represented in several important exhibitions of abstract expressionist painting, although he was particularly sensitive about the correct meaning given to his work, an attribute which caused him to decline an offer to participate in the 1962 exhibition on Geometric Abstraction at the prestigious Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1966, the Samuel R Guggenheim Museum gave Newman his first major museum exhibition, showcasing his Stations of the Cross. He followed this with a number of exceptionally large paintings characterized by vibrant pure colours, such as his series Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue (1966-8) and the 28 feet x 9 feet Anna's Light (1968). He even explored the shaped canvas genre, painting a number of triangular canvases.

Second Generation Colour Field and Post Painterly Abstraction

During the late 1950s, influenced by Newman's works and also by the colour stain paintings of Helen Frankenthaler (b.1928), a group of second generation abstract expressionists including Morris Louis (1912-62), Kenneth Noland (b.1924) and Jules Olitski (b.1922) - began to imitate and develop Newman's style of Colour Field Painting, focusing on the removal of all subjective elements including brushstrokes. In due course they were followed by a number of other artists, including Frank Stella (b.1936), Joan Mitchell (1926-92), Richard Diebenkorn (1922-93), and Gene Davis (1920-85). This trend towards decorative, formalist painting - of which Newman was to a great extent a pioneer catalyst - was nicknamed Post Painterly Abstraction by Clement Greenberg, who in 1964 curated a special exhibition devoted to the new style, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In due course, the new idiom developed into a simplified, even more formalist style of minimalism.


Without Newman, it is quite conceivable that Colour Field would have evolved in a fundamentally different way. Overshadowed perhaps by the mercurial painter-celebrity Jackson Pollock, and by the more lyrical and expressive Russian-born Mark Rothko, and slower to be appreciated by art critics than Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman had a profound influence on a whole generation of 1960s painters, including major artists like Frank Stella and Donald Judd. But even today, notwithstanding the work of the Barnett Newman Foundation, set up in 1979 to promote the understanding of his work, the meaning of much of his painting remains obscure. Jewish mysticism, the Old Testament, Anarchism, and reminders of the Holocaust, are just some of the factors being mooted as inspiration for his paintings.

On July 4, 1970, Newman died of a heart attack in New York.

Paintings by Barnett Newman can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.

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