This kind of art was first developed in New York in the 1940s, and aimed at putting New York at the centre of the Western art world, a role initially filled by Paris.
Newman is also notably one of the pioneers of the colour field painters, characterised primarily by larger fields of solid, flat colours stained or spread across the canvas, creating areas of flat picture plane and unbroken surface.
His paintings are characterised by their intention of communicating a sense of presence, locality, and contingency, based on their existential in content and tone.
Early Life and Marriage
Barney, as his friends and family called him, was brought up in the Bronx and Manhattan with other three younger siblings. Newman started his drawing career at the Art Students League. Adolph Gottlieb introduced him to important gallery owners and artist in New York, while in high school.
Born to Jewish immigrants from Poland, Newman studied philosophy at the City college of New York and employed in clothing manufacturing business, owned by his father. After leaving his father’s company, he made a living as a writer, teacher, and critic. He made paintings from the 1930s, described as an expressionist style, but later annihilated all these arts. In 1934, Newman met Annalee Greenhouse, an art teacher, and was married on June 30, 1936.
Newman wrote reviews and catalogue forewords, as well as organising exhibitions before joining the Uptown Group. In 1948, he held his first solo show at the Beety Parsons Gallery, where he displayed his artwork. The most notable remark after his first exhibition was, “We are in the process of making the world, to a certain extent, in our own image.” Newman used his prowess in writing and arts to promote his work, as well as reinforcing his newly established image.
Before developing his mature career, throughout the 1940s, Newman worked in a surrealist vein. Surrealism is a cultural movement that commenced in the early 1920s and is renowned for its writings and artworks. Surrealist works portrayed elements of a non-sequitur, surprise, and unexpected juxtaposition. Many Surrealist writers and artists, however, describe their works as artifacts, expressing their stand on philosophical movement.
Newman’s artwork portrays surrealism by the use of colours separated by a thin vertical line, which he referred to as “zips.” The colour fields are variegated in his first works featuring zips, but afterward, they are flat and pure. From the 1948’s Onement series, he felt that he had fully reached his mature style. The use of zips was to divide and unite the composition, while simultaneously defining the painting’s spatial structure.
In 1944, Barnett Newman included a list of “the men in the new movement,” as he tried to explain America’s newest art movement. In his list, he mentioned ex-surrealists like Wolfgang Paalen, Matta, Gottlieb, Pollock, Baziotes, Gorky, Hofman, and others.
The zip remained an invariable feature in Newman’s work throughout his artwork career. “The Wild,” his 1950s paintings, the zip is all there is to the work. The Wild, which is a half inches wide and eight feet tall, is an inclusion to a few sculptures that he made with zip features evidently portrayed.
Newman’s paintings appear conceptual and did not name many of them. The names, however, that he gave them later hinted a Jewish theme that addressed a specific subject. “Adam and Eve,” “Uriel,” and “Abraham,” his 1950, 1954, and 1949 works respectively, portrays Newman’s belief in the Jewish religion. These paintings are evidence that he was brought up in a Christian setting.
Newman’s subsequent works, such as “Yellow and Blue,” and “Who’s Afraid of Red” series exhibit the use of vibrant, pure colours, mostly on enormous large canvases. His largest work, “Anna’s Light 1968,” named after his mother who passed away in 1965, is 9 feet tall by 28 feet wide (8.5 by 2.7 meters). Newman, late in life, worked on shaped canvases. For example, his 1960 painting, “Chartres,” was triangular. Another notable change in his works was the use of acrylic paint as opposed to the common oil paint used in his initial pieces. “Broken Obelisk (1963),” is the most recognised and epic of his sculptures, portraying an inverted obelisk with its point balancing on a pyramid’s apex.
Newman also had a series of lithographs, a kind of painting done on a stone or metal. “18 Cantos (1934-64),” according to him, was meant to be redolent of music. He also made a few etchings.
Newman’s work in New City in the 1950s has classified him as an abstract expressionist, having associated himself with other like-minded artists of the group, creating a nonfigurative style which had little or no significance to the European art. He, however, was unacknowledged as an artist in most part of his career and was disregarded in favour of other artists such as Jackson Pollock. Clement Greenberg, an influential critic, nonetheless, wrote passionately about him but was only taken seriously at the end of his life. Newman, nevertheless, served as a great inspiration to many younger artists such as Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and Bob Law.
Newman struggled with getting his work in the market and lived almost exclusively off his wife’s teaching salary the earlier days of his career. In 1948, he had an artistic breakthrough, making a decision with his wife to concentrate fully on his art as a career. His paintings began to vend consistently in the 1950s, with his 1952 “Ulysses,” a blue-and-black striped painting, selling at $1,595,000 in 1985 to an unidentified American at the Sotheby’s. The 8.5-by10-foot “Onement VI (1953), consigned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, was sold at Sotheby's New York in 2013 for a record of $43.8 million; an undisclosed third-party guarantee ensured its sale. On May 13, 2014, “Black Fire 1” was sold for $84.2 million.
Newman’s Death and Legacy
In 1970, Newman passed away of a heart attack in New York. His widow Annalee, nine years after his death, founded the Barnett Newman Foundation. The foundations serve “to encourage the learning and comprehending of Newman’s life and works,” as well as his official estate. In 2004, the foundation served as an instrument for creating Newman’s catalogue raisonne, a compilation of his entire works. The U.S copyright, Artists Rights Society, is the representative for the Barnett Newman Foundation.