Barnett Newman: The Abstract Expressionist of Mythical Sublimity
Creating monumental color field paintings consist of rectangles of rich, often mono- or bi-chromatic color and a symbol “zip” which altogether embody the essence of myth and sublimity, the American artist, Barnett Newman, is celebrated as one of the major figures in abstract expressionism and one of the most intellectual artists of the New York School.
Acclaimed as one of the foremost of the color field painters, Newman was born on January 29, 1905, in New York City, to Jewish parents who had immigrated to New York from Russian Poland. He started drawing at the Art Students League during high school, continuing to take classes there while earning a philosophy degree from City College of New York.
Following his college graduation, Newman worked for his father’s clothing manufacturing business until it failed after the 1929 stock market crash. In 1933, he ran for mayor of his city on a write-in ticket with a cultural platform and maintained a keen awareness of such modern horrors as Nazism and the atomic bomb. In 1936, he married Annalee Greenhouse, an art teacher.
During the early 1940s, Newman gave up painting entirely. Instead, he studied natural history, ornithology, and Pre-Columbian art, wrote museum catalog essays and art reviews, and organized exhibitions. In 1944, he had returned to art practice, inspired in part by Surrealism. In 1946, the Betty Parsons Gallery began to represent his paintings.
The year 1948 was a major turning point in Newman’s career. He began developing a pictorial device he called a “zip”, a verticle stripe of color running the length of the canvas, and this led to the painting “Onement” (1948). The device would become the trademark of all his work to come. With it, he suspended a painting’s traditional opposition of figure and ground and created an enveloping experience of color in which the viewer herself, physically and emotionally, is invoked by the zip- gestured to as a being filled with the original spark of life.
Largely unappreciated during his life, Newman is now viewed as crucial to the Abstract Expressionist movement and as a precursor to Minimalism. Unlike those more stark canvases that focused on the non-representational meaning of shapes and colors, Newman brought a more philosophical edge to his paintings, infusing them with his own self, and inviting the audience to experience them with both their bodies and their psyches.
At the age of 65, Barnett Newman died on July 4, 1970, in New York City.