Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman was an American painter, one of the leading figures of the post war art. Along with Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, he represented the part of New York school, opposed to the action painting.

Early years

Barnett Newman was bot on January 29, 1905 in Manhattan (New York). He was the first of fourth survived children in the family of Jewish immigrant from the Polish town of Lomza. His father had arrived penniless to the USA in 1900 and managed to become quickly the owner of a small business – he was selling sewing-machine heads to garment workers (later he would open a clothing manufacture). The boy grew not knowing poverty and asperities.

Barnett started his artistic education in 1922, when he enrolled the Art Students League. There he studied with Duncan Smith and later – with William Von Schlegell. In parallel with that, Newman enrolled the tuition-free City College of New York in Harlem – he graduated from it with a philosophy major. After that, he worked for his father’s manufacture, but financial difficulties made him return to the idea of making career in art. Since 1931 he was a teacher of art.

1930s – early 1940s

Early 1930s was an important period, when the artist met some painters, who would shape up in future the core of Abstract art in the USA ‑ Adolph Gottlieb (whom he knew from the Art Students League), Marcus Rothkowitz (later known as Mark Rothko) and Milton Avery.

In 1933 Barnett Newman rented a studio in Greenwich Village. The same year, just a week before the election, the master suddenly decided to run for a mayor of New York. His original, a bit eccentric and impracticable program “On the Need for Political Action by Men of Culture” included four point: it suggested building a municipal opera house and a civic art gallery, right-of-way for the street cafes and a local playground and parks system. With such utopian manifesto, it comes as no surprise that Barnett failed to win the elections.

Newman kept on searching for the sphere to implement his skills: he tried to being a manager of a Theater Troupe, wrote for “The Answer – America’s Civil Service Magazine” and got a license of a substitute teacher of English. His artistic activity was almost paralyzed during that time: unlike Willem de Kooning or Arshile Gorky, he didn’t participate in the artistic projects, which were financed by the states – he believed government was the painters’ foe.

After the bankruptcy and liquidation of the family business in 1937 the financial situation forced Barnett Newman to return to teaching. His attention was now drawn to botany, geology and ornithology. At the beginning of 1940s he enrolled the classes of natural science at Cornell University. Along with that the artist studied native American mythology and arts.

Early works

The master returned to art in 1944 – crayon drawing “Blessing” is one of his earliest surviving works. Besides, he was actively engaged as a writer, contributing forewords to some art catalogues and art reviews for “La Revista Belga” magazine, and organizer of exhibitions – in 1946 he prepared a show of Northwest Coast Indian painting at the Parsons Gallery. The same year Barnett Newman participated in the exhibition there, which the first time the artist publically displayed his works since 1940.

Initially his pieces were more in the surrealistic vein, with typical to that movement symbolism, biomorphic motifs – figures of seeds, sprouts, microorganisms, which reminded of the first days of Creation (“The Song of Orpheus”, 1944 – 1945). Major features of Newman’s style emerged around 1946 – 1948. They can be already observed in the untitled black and white ink drawing (1946) from collection of the Museum of Modern Art or “Death Evklida”canvas (1947): both of them absolutely abstract, with space divided with solid vertical lines into large fields of color. “Onement I” (1948) – was the first painting, where the vector of the author’s experiments became clear. Here the idea of a “zip” (vertical strip) allowed him to divide and unite the structure of composition, achieving the effect of permanent staticity and dynamism at once.


Gradually Barnett Newman shifted to larger formats and brighter tints, so the vertical color fields became bolder and more continuous, transgressing a common rectangle of a canvas (“Abraham”, 1949). But his pieces shouldn’t be perceived only from their formal side – the author himself claimed them to be almost symbolical. He, as many other artists of his time, unite witty theoretical background, metaphoricalness, intellectuality and poetry with simplicity of expressive means.

In Newman’s mature paintings the inclination towards mysticism and contemplatively was represented in weird, sometimes untranslatable titles. “Onement” series (at least six canvases have that title) embodied the idea of harmony, unity an integrity. The artist’s biographer Thomas Hess notices that there’s no such word “onement” in English – it derived from “atonement”. Other titles also gave the works a sort of metaphysical flavor: “Galaxy” (1949), “Concord” (1949), “Cathedra” (1951).

Up to 1960 Barnett Newman occupied a modest place in American art. But even then his austere forms and understanding of painting surface largely affected Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, who also decided to concentrate on spatial relationships of color and forms. In 1955 in his essay “American Type Painting”, published in “Partisan Review” magazine, famous art critic Clement Greenberg first used term “field painting” to stress the distance between sensual abstractions of Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning and vibrating and ascetic surfaces of Barnett’s art. He wrote: “The limiting edges of Newman’s larger canvases, we now discover, act just like the lines inside of them: to divide but not to separate or enclose or bound: to delimit but not limit”.

Biblical motifs

Being a well-educated person, Barnett Newman often demonstrated interest in Christian subjects – a significant number of his works contain echoes of biblical motifs in the titles. In 1958 – 1959 he created a series of paintings called “The Stations of the Cross”. During the show in the Guggenheim museum in 1966 it was displayed in one room, surrounding a viewer with their taut rhythmic of laconic vertical lines on all sides. These pieces convinced even those specialists, who praised Newman’s technical skills above all and ignored the metaphysical side of his oeuvre, which was extremely important for the author himself. It was an essential part of his working process and Barnett often used to repeat “Studio is Sanctuary”.

Late period

1960s were a fruitful period for the author: during the last decade of his life Barnett Newman was actively experimenting with coloring, introducing, along with his favorite monochrome gamma, various color zones and complicated contrasts. One of a noticeable cycles, which illustrates this tendency, was “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue” (1966 – 1970) – there he used triad of primary colors. The series is sadly known for its destiny, as “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV” was cut with a plastic bar at the National Gallery in Berlin on April 13, 1982 and “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III” with a knife, while being on display at the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam on March 21, 1986.

The painter also created compositions in shape of isosceles triangle (“Chartres”, 1969, “Jericho” 1968 – 1969). Moreover, the master tried himself in sculpture, mainly of steel (“Here I”, 1962, “Here II”, 1965, “Here III”, 1965 – 1966, “Broken Obelisk”, 1962 – 1967, “Zim Zum”, 1962), designed a model of a synagogue (1963) and completed a series of lithographs (“Cantos”, 1963 – 1964).

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