PRINT Summer 1965

Barnett Newman

Born New York City, 1905.
Studied at Art Students League, New York City, with Duncan Smith, John Sloan, William Von Schlegell, 1922–26.
BA, City College Of New York. Graduate work at Cornell University.
Married Annalee Greenhouse, 1936. 1947–48, Associate Editor of “The Tiger’s Eye,” Westport, Conn.
With Baziotes, Motherwell, Rothko, founded school on East 8th St., New York City, “Subjects of the Artist,” out of which grew “The Club.”
Lives In New York City.

ONE WAY TO APPROACH THE PAINTING OF BARNETT NEWMAN is by raising the question, do you believe in masterpieces? This is more problematic than it sounds at first, because assent is often no more than a cultural reflex. In fact, there are persistent, if not open, traditions of anti-masterpiece opinions and procedures in modern art. Artists who work in open-ended series of the same image and the same size, for example, tend to confer equal validity on all the works executed as a group, with the result that it is the whole series that counts as the expressive unit. Under the conditions of serial painting, as we may call it, the continuity of sequels tends to outweigh the determinate form of any one of the works in isolation.

Anti-masterpiece opinion also arises from that taste for casualness and naturalness in art, which values spontaneous sketches and unfinished works as the most authentic evidence of the artist. The nonchalance of the artist, or his torment, issues in works which are his life’s intimate record, a form of diaristic notation. From this point of view the masterpiece is criticized because it is finished and complete, rather than an incident in a growing and changing process. In fact, the masterpiece is not a point of dead perfection beyond history; on the contrary, it is the point of maximum concentration and, as such, likely to have a more eventful history and contradictory reputation than less consequential works.

Newman’s paintings are opposed to work which follows an artist’s life in autobiographical or serial form. His art is more like a monument than a logbook. In addition, he has an extraordinary sense of scale which diversifies his central image so that none of the run-on effects of serial painting blurs the identity of individual works. His paintings depend, basically, on one field, whether of color or of bare canvas. This field is controlled in various ways: by the intensity of a single color; by the extent to which the tracks of the brush, the hand’s most intimate extension, are visible within the color; and by the bands, usually vertical. These bands do not function as divisions of or cuts in the field, but as accents or phases in the field’s continuity. Some of Newman’s paintings, on first sight, have an illusory connection to geometric art. However, the traditional compositional balances and the hierarchy of large, median, and small forms of geometric art are worlds away from Newman’s edge-to-edge planes. His field is wholistic, but phased, like, say, the phases of the moon, parts of one movement. The exhilarating or ominous all-over color of Newman’s paintings are not simply sensational. On the contrary, the color embodies an act of order. Such a continuous plane, like a magnetic or electric field in physics, contains all potential force within it and it is important to bear in mind that an order of this nature is implicit in Newman’s art. He presents the field and its phased modification, both as a finite visual image and as a statement of continuous potential order. Each work resides securely in an order that the artist has created by means of all his works, without public autobiography or improvisational stammer.

Newman has written of “the majestic strength of our ties with the earth” which the color brown can express, “from the rich tones of orange to the lowest octave of dark brown.”1 Evocations of light and the void, of primal mythology, give his work the character of hieroglyphs. The word hieroglyph (a figure or sign having some hidden meaning) is derived from the Greek for “sacred carving” and the root always retained a solemn air. Without any archaicism of form he can give an hieroglyphic quality to a tall blue slab, which relaxes into light blue at the widely separated top and base, or to a narrow white band in a strong red field. Newman insists on the anti-functional origins of speech and art. “The God Image, not pottery, was the first manual act.” “What is the explanation of the seemingly insane drive of man to be painter and poet if it is not an act of defiance against man’s fall and an assertion that he return to the Adam of the Garden of Eden?”2 Thus, when Newman gives his pictures such titles as “Day One,” “The Name,” “The Third,” he is not using mythology simply as subject matter, but assimilating myth into the creative act itself.

Newman’s art is not approached lightly which is, certainly, a preliminary requirement of masterpieces. Various tensions and paradoxes are resolved in his work. What looks like geometric abstract art is not. What may seem to be, from the title, a religious painting is not an idol, but a presence. The presence is one, moreover, that the artist shares with any invoked mythological being. His one-color surfaces are continuously modulated by the pressure of the brush and the thickness of the paint and, similarly, there are animating movements in and around the bands, which often seem to throw off drops or sparks of paint. These paintings were started when a highly gestural mode of painting was dominant and their reticence was mistaken for inertness. Now that (partly under his influence) a younger generation is working with even more neutral surfaces, Newman’s personal quality is clear. His handling, neither tidy nor demonstratively loose, is clearly autographic; he is evoked,in terms of touch, at the center of his hieroglyphs.

The power of an artist to revalue such varied factors within a compact, original image is an extraordinary achievement. We can attempt to verbalize aspects of his art now, but it was unprecedented as he approached it in the ’40s and laid the foundations for his future. Although he appeared to have reduced the elements of his art so drastically, the economies were sustaining ones. The ambition with which he revised our ideas about the formal definition of a work of art and, at the same time, minted an imagery which unexpectedly provokes terms like hieroglyph by its atmosphere of meaning, is immense. Newman’s is the kind of ambition that produces masterpieces, works which condense, with unique power, the tensions and resolutions of the artist and his culture.

Lawrence Alloway


1. Barnett B. Newman. ‘La Pintura de Tamayo y Gottlieb’, “La Revista Belga,” 4, 1945.

2. Barnett B. Newman, ‘The First Man Was An Artist’, “The Tiger’s Eye,” 1, 1947.