On Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman was born in 1905 and died in 1970. When he was 40, at the end of World War 2, he destroyed all of his earlier artwork and began to develop a new visual language to express his hopes and fears for humanity. He strove for an art that was Sublime and “which through symbols will catch the basic truth of life which is its sense of tragedy.”

By 1948 he had developed a mature style of large fields of monochromatic colors interrupted by narrow bands, called zips, of different colors. The zips were created by masking a portion of the canvas with tape. Many of his painting using this style were very large - monumental in scale - sometimes 20 feet high or wide.

Newman is often grouped with a subset of abstract expressionist painters known as color-field painters or post-painterly abstraction. Other prominent members of this group are Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Helen Frankenthaler. The color field painters emphasized the visual properties of colors over the other elements of art like line, shape, or form. Critics grouped these painters together because of their tendency to apply color in large fields, in contrast to other “gestural” abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollack.

I was initially attracted to this painting, “The Third,” because of it’s title. What was Newman hoping to convey with this title? Where did it come from?

I discovered that a lot of titles for Newman’s paintings come from Biblical or Jewish sources, such as Adam, Eve, Abraham, Voice of Fire, Onement. “The Third” may refer to the Jewish mystical belief that separates the Sefirot into three aspects, man, woman, and child.

I interpret the Third as referring to the viewer who is looking at the painting. The two yellow zips on either side of the painting leave room for the viewer as the third side of triangle, and push our perception deeper into the central orange area.

Newman had large ambitions and grand intentions for his painting. He wanted to convey a sense of the sublime and powerful emotion through his work.

Newman’s work is surprisingly controversial. In 1990 the National Gallery of Canada purchased Voice of Fire, a large Newman canvas, for $1.8 million dollars. The purchase became a major focus of controversy about public funds paid for pointless abstract art and generated a slew of editorials, commentary, and cartoons decrying the poor state of modern art. In 1997 a man slashed a Newman canvas in an Amsterdam museum. The same man had been arrested for slashing another Newman canvas ten years earlier. In 1982 a student in Germany did the same thing to another Newman painting. The German student stated that he had been afraid of the painting, that it was a perversion of the German flag, that purchasing the work with public funds was irresponsible, and that artists earn too much money.

Newman’s work has clearly had an emotional impact on some of its viewers. Whether it succeeds in capturing the sublime or demonstrating the tragic nature of human life is up to you.

The above was written for a group of Walker Art Center tour guides.