PRINT December 1971

Color, Culture, The Stations: Notes on the Barnett Newman Memorial Exhibition


IN OCTOBER 1949, A NEWSPAPER REVIEWER writing about a group show at Betty Parsons Gallery described Newman’s contribution as a “mural size canvas painted an unrelieved tomato red with a perfectly straight narrow band of deeper red cleaving the canvas in two.”1 This clipping has a double interest: it is evidence that Newman was early with a big (“mural size”), one-color (“unrelieved tomato red”) painting and it recovers something of the contemporary prejudice that Newman’s work was antipainterly. If, as seems likely, the painting referred to is Onement III, 1949, it does not look bare and unrelieved in the retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. It has moved from object to symbol in the intervening years. Newman is the last of the Abstract Expressionists to have a comprehensive exhibition and it is the first time to see this and the other paintings in a context set by the work itself. The show at the museum has been arranged and cataloged by Thomas B. Hess, to whom we are grateful for revealing so much. It is thanks to his exhibition that we can see, for example, that Newman had a sustained interest in paintings that seemed less than the work of his contemporaries. In 1958 Newman made the first two paintings of the Stations of the Cross and one’s initial impression was, again, of bareness, though it was a bareness that proved capable of extended modulation. In 1967, in three absolutely symmetrical paintings, Newman combined the strictest layout with the smoothest color planes he had ever used. Thus, after Onement, Newman returned twice to an apparent zero-point of style to demonstrate, after each renunciation, the maintenance of his art.

In 1962 Newman said “I know that if I have made a contribution it is primarily in my drawing,”2 and in 1964: ”I depend entirely upon color."3 There is no contradiction here once it is realized that what he is referring to is his idea of stating the whole area of a picture as space, without division. This is a process we can trace in the development of Newman’s use of color. Between 1944 and 1946 he used colors rather than color, vivid but unrelated arrays of hue. In the next two years a potential for monochrome emerged in his work, as in The Command, 1946, which led to the decisive Onement 1, 1948, the orange-red of which remained his preferred color through 1952, as in Tundra, Eve, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, Day One, and Achilles. In this period Newman used other colors, but not in conjunction: black in The Promise and Joshua, white in The Name II and The Voice, and there is a single Yellow Painting. During this time, within the limits of a narrow color range, Newman developed the symmetrical format of Onement into a three-part image, with flanking forms round the central band, as in The Name, and extreme asymmetry, as in Eve with its peripheral thrust. In both cases, it was the unification of non-primary color that held these formats together. Newman tended to use one color at a time or, at the most, one section of the spectrum at a time. In 1951–53 there was a group of blue paintings, Cathedra, Day Before One, Ulysses, L’Errance, and Onement 6. The declarative unity that he sought, a consolidation of the painting into a holistic configuration even as he enlarged its dimensions, required spectral closeness. It is the continuity of the colors that makes the vertical bands act as inflections of a single plane rather than as divisions of it. Newman used color as area and though it was somewhat excavated by manual variation and atmospheric shifts it rarely lost its firm lateral presence. The color area and the picture surface are closely identified. Only in L’Errance does Newman combine the warm reds and his empyrean blues, in a painting whose importance is only now apparent; the widening of the spectral choice anticipates his later work.

The relation of painting and drawing in Newman’s art is not clarified by Hess’ use of the term “zip” to describe the bands within the paintings, a usage that, as he notes, originated with the artist himself. However, if this term is applied indiscriminately to all phases of Newman’s work, as Hess does, it is misleading. The word that Newman preferred earlier was band and it is still appropriate. In fact there is a group of tall narrow paintings, between 3 and 6 inches wide, done in 1950, the purpose of which was to stress, as Newman told me, that the verticals in his paintings were not lines but areas, not tracks but planes. Zip has two meanings: “to act or move with speed and energy” or “to become fastened or unfastened by means of a zipper.” The first usage is the one generally intended, but the second has possibilities as a metaphor, either in the sense of the color areas each side of a zip being bound together, or in the sense of a message zipped up inside the picture. As a term zip has an unshakable directional push which gives a linear emphasis to forms so described. Band, on the other hand, is a neutral term so far as direction is concerned. There are later paintings (in which the bands are very active) to which the term zip applies, but to spread it over the whole work introduces a kind of covert expressionistic reading as well as a revival of figure-ground organization. Harold Rosenberg also uses zip, glossing it as “the vertical . . . that could zip up to heaven.”4 Here, again, an undesirable Abstract Expressionistic momentum is conferred on a part of the paintings. The term was probably used by Newman in the first place in the spirit of Pop culture, as a witty assimilation to his art of words like “pow,” “blah,” and “zap.”

In 1964 there is a group of paintings done very flat: Primordial Light, The Gate, and The Word II represent this phase at the museum. These are respectively black and aqua; black, aqua and brown; and black, aqua, brown, and blue. (The largest work of this group is missing from the exhibition and missed, particularly since it has never been exhibited in the United States: it is Uriel, in an English collection.) Although more points in the spectrum are being touched in these paintings, the different colors are muted in effect. The handling has changed considerably from the preceding phase which is, on the whole, painterly but reserved, neat but not compulsive. Here the marks of the hand are minimized and the colors unassertive. Neither the solemnity of the orange-red pictures nor the elation of the blue ones disturb the subdued surfaces which are somewhere between withdrawn and bland. There is a break in Newman’s art here until he painted the black pictures on raw canvas—in the first half of 1958—which initiate The Stations of the Cross, on which he worked until 1966. During this time he made three paintings in bright orange tinged with yellow bands (The Third, Tertia, Triad) which blaze out with a flat directness new in his handling. Instead of the internal emphases of Vir Heroicus Sublimis or Cathedra, diversification is obtained by changes in the definition of edges. In the Stations Newman had developed a variety of faired, splashed, and scumbled edges in the painted forms set in isolation on raw canvas and they are here transferred to bright color. In place of ominous internal activity, such as Cathedra’s curling turmoil of blues, there is an increase of unevocative splendor.

There is a scatter of unsigned paintings in Newman’s earlier work: sometimes the reason is clear, such as the lack of room in the skinny paintings of 1950 or preservation of a delicate visual field as in two white paintings of the same year. Until 1967, however, Newman was diligent in signing his works. I remember a moment in 1960 when he went over a bunch of earlier works and signed them because, as he said, he was against icons. He was separating himself from paintings in which the presence of a signature could be construed as a reduction of formal purity. Of his last thirteen paintings, however, only Profile of Light and Queen of the Night II are signed. In the earlier ’60s the signature was unquestionably intended as an existential statement of authorship which is the equivalent, here, of identity. The conspicuous signature in The Stations, fourteen times repeated in the uniformly sized paintings, is certainly central to the meaning of the series. What is the shift in painting that led to the virtual abandonment of the act of signing?

In 1967 Newman produced several paintings that take their point of departure from an existing image, but done bigger and harder. Now II in stark black and white, Profile of Light in clear blue and white, and Voice of Fire, deep blue and red, pick up the symmetrical columns of The Way I, 1951, with its equal center and sides. (According to Hess, Newman also made a large version of this painting in 1969, The Way II.) The colors are solid and imperturbable, layered in acrylic to obtain an opaque surface. It is very different from the porous films of oil paint in the preceding works in which even emphasis and direct application carried moderate manual traces. Signatures, also manual, were compatible with such paint properties, but not with the later closed surfaces. Their irradiating and pulsing color would be interrupted by the presence of the words Barnett Newman; recognizing the change in his color usage, and hence of his space, Newman accordingly revised his views on signing.

In addition to the strengthened statements of symmetrical two-color paintings, Newman embarked on a group of paintings in primary colors. He has recorded that he started the first by wanting the painting to be asymmetrical: “It was only after I had built up the main body of red that the problem of color became crucial, when the only colors that would work were yellow and blue.”5 This left him with Mondrian’s mandate that the primaries were the only colors fit for art, a view that Newman, with his earthy reds and heavenly blues, had knowingly rejected, just as, in 1959, he explicitly rejected de Stijl geometry as a “death image.” To make “these colors expressive rather than didactic” became the reason for his second confrontation with Mondrian, and for the title, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue. In the first painting the blue and yellow are in subordinate roles, hugging the sides of the painting, a narrow bar of fat yellow and a column of translucent blue.

Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue II is optically charged, with a central blue band, flanked by two narrow yellow bands, on a bright red ground (the animated descendant of The Name). The large expanses of color in Newman’s earlier work induced compensatory retinal color, but slowly, in a way that was held down by the specifics of textural changes on the surface. In this and other late pieces, however, the even paint dematerializes the surface, stimulating optical flickering. The yellow and blue could as well be called zips as bands here, but then this painting was done around the time that Newman coined the term. The third in the series is a lateral expansion of the first painting, with the red still an uncontested dominant contained by asymmetrical rims of blue and yellow. It seems clear that the red interested Newman more than the other colors at first, as was natural to a painter who had been concerned for so long with color in its singleness. Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue IV is symmetrical, with a broad central band between big red and yellow zones and, to my eye, it is the great one in the run, both in its strict format and its bold distribution of the primaries. It is more than an expanded one color picture. A piece inexplicably missing from the museum is Chartres, one of two triangular paintings of 1969, with a yellow center, two red corners, and three blue bands. Its absence is regrettable as it curtails the demonstration of Newman’s diversified color usage, his move into a theory of color, and his conversion of it to a radiant physical display.


NEWMAN’S ARGUMENT “THAT HERE in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it,“ is familiar.6 Another statement from the same source expands on the topic of American identity: ”we are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting." This is taken from an article on the Sublime, an esthetic category of Greek origin, expanded into usable modern form by Boileau (French) and Burke (British). It is written, too, by a man who called his paintings by such names as Abraham, Achilles, and Adam; indeed a list of his titles would be a lexicon of the summarizing heroes of Hebraic-Classical-Christian lore. What is the distinction between Newman’s rejection of tradition and his use of it?

He assumes a polarity in which “Europe” represents the forms of divisive classification and “America” stands for the unification of cultures. The agon with Mondrian rests on a comparable notion. Newman’s opponent was historical order, the diachronic arrangement of events. In these terms European art was oppressive as the accumulation of successive data. Newman was concerned with culture rather than history, with the synchronic existence of ideas and events, not their progression. The alignment of the Passion of Christ and the creative act in Newman’s version of the Stations of the Cross rests on the assumption that chronological time is irrelevant and cancelable. In his texts on primitive art, Newman stressed the intimacy of primitive and modern artists; he looked for the endless extension and global correspondence of art. If we have access to the art and myths of other societies, other artists, it is because there are constants. Concerning Pre-Columbian art he wrote: “While we transcend time and place to participate in the spiritual life of a forgotten people, their art by the same magic illuminates the work of our time.”7 Similarly he considered that “the Oceanic artist and the Surrealist form a fraternity under a common fatherhood of aesthetic purpose,” despite the fact that “we know that, historically the Surrealists arrived at their statement through Freud.”8

Between 1944 and 1949, Newman wrote a series of important texts dealing with primitive and modern art and points of connection between them. One of the constants Newman proposed was terror. “Modern man is his own terror. To the African and to the Mexican, it was the jungle. To the South Sea Islander, it could not have been a like terror before an immobile nature, but a terror before forces, the mysterious forces of nature, the unpredictable sea and the whirlwind.”9 This parallels what Newman wrote concerning the question, “how can we be creating a sublime art?” in the absence of legend. “Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or ‘life’, we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”10 In both cases the situation of the modern man is to be on his own, but subject to the new form of a recurring experience. The Sublime, linked with Newman’s interpretation of primitive art, provides a verbal account of both the “emptiness” and the intensity of his paintings.

Of his painting Abraham Newman observed that he considered the tragic figure to be the father, not the mother or the son. Continuities between the biblical Abraham and his own father, who was so named, are therefore a part of the picture which, as Newman said, was “more than black on black.” On the other hand, he cautioned that the title should not be taken literally: “titles for me are metaphors in relation to the emotional content.”11 Even allowing for the distinction, a metaphor does have something to do with the object to which it is attached and Newman’s metaphors are no exception. What would Vir Heroicus Sublimis mean without its title? Much the same, I think, and for two reasons. It would be reinforced by other works of Newman’s which would provide a context for interpretation. At the museum, for instance, it hangs in a cluster with other orange-red paintings, Adam and Achilles. If we went further and posited only this painting, in the absence of others, what would be expressed? Iconography is not only the matching of images to words; visual qualities themselves have symbolic properties, and the se would still be evident in the imaginary isolation of a single work. In this case, earth colors and human height are expressive at a level of natural or spontaneous iconography. Newman’s use of red, orange, and brown in the ’40s, for example, was linked by the artist to the ”majestic strength of our ties with the earth,"12 a clear example of inherent symbolism.

The sense of artistic quality can function as the analogue of moral values, as what E. H. Gombrich calls “visual metaphors of value in art.” The metaphors are culturally mediated, of course, and exist in the general knowledge with sufficient density for an artist to rely on activating them, by scale, by color. I think that Newman’s Sublime depends to some extent on his power to cue one’s sense of awe or terror by the organization of the work itself. In the earlier works, such as Cathedra, with its cloudy riches, there are references to blue as the Heavenly color. At another level, one’s knowledge of all the formal resources eliminated from the paintings, provides an idea of the renunciation of detail in the service of something higher, as Newman demonstrated in 1947, 1958, and 1967. The resulting images of “uniformity” or “infinity,” to use two of Burke’s terms for the Sublime, show formal structure serving as iconography.

The extent to which Newman took culture as subject matter can be discussed in relation to The Broken Obelisk, the sculpture (now dated 1963–67) in which he added Egyptian to the Jewish, classical, and Christian allusions elsewhere. Both the pyramid and the obelisk are Egyptian forms. Newman has inverted the obelisk and balanced it on the apex of the pyramid. The two forms are locked at that point: as an image of opposing forces arrested, it is certainly in the Newman canon. Earlier, discussing the “romantic dream of the past” that each age holds, the yearning “for the great work of some other times,” Newman wrote that “for the Greeks, the Egyptian pyramid stood as a standard of absolute beauty, the symbol of all their esthetic hopes.”13 The art of the Greeks represented for Newman the erroneous idea “that the sense of beauty is to be found in perfect form.”14 Thus the conjunction of the pyramid and the obelisk, no less than the broken end of the uprooted obelisk, are symbols of his opposition to “perfect form.” It is possible to propose a further level of symbolism, though it is not mentioned by Hess in his extended attention to Newman’s Jewish culture. The sculpture is the collision of the two monuments that particularly symbolize Egyptian culture. It was concluded in 1967, the year of the Six Days War, though Newman did not need to wait for that. The idea of the sculpture as an image of the Arab smitten is borne out by the fact that one of the triangular paintings, the idea of which grew out of the sides of the pyramid in Broken Obelisk, is called Jericho. The title links it with Joshua, an early painting in the same colors, and with the city which fell to Joshua, like Egypt to the Israelis. This reading is supported by the rhetorical character of the sculpture (the two forms are reconciled by an urnlike contour) and by a construction of the succeeding year, Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley, an adaption of Newman’s style to political cartooning. It is a field constructed of barbed wire, splashed with red paint. Neither of these pieces are at the center of Newman’s work, but they reveal in simple form the symbolic imagination that elsewhere in his work moves subtly and in terms of painting. Of course, Newman’s metaphors are not simple to decode: in the picture entitled Achilles the central column is, it appears, broken short at the base, which I supposed might be an allusion to the wrath of Achilles, the tragic flaw in the hero. Newman, on the other hand, said that he regarded the glowing orange form as a shield and therefore named it after that of Achilles as described by Homer. A shield would be better symbolized, I think, by any one of Newman’s paintings with intact forms spanning the whole, rather than (uniquely) interrupted.


HESS SUGGESTS (I CAN’T GIVE all the argument here) that the ideal spectators presumed by Newman for his Stations of the Cross are “the Jews who had followed Jesus’ teaching as a prophet and a king, but not as the Messiah. Christians, on the other hand, would concentrate on the ultimate reforming nature of the Resurrection.” Hess tells us that “Newman is telling us that He [the Messiah] is yet to come.” This interpretation seems of the same kind as the early Christian reading of Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue as prefiguring the birth of Christ. To read The Stations as prophecy is to interpose ingenuity between the paintings and ourselves. It seems more in line with Newman’s work to suppose that Christ is referred to in terms of presence, not absence. Newman himself linked the series to “the unanswerable question of human suffering.”

In his early work Newman moved from the depiction of mythological symbols—concerning fertility and the void—to the Onement group in which myth is condensed into a primal form of high simplicity. It seems to me that what happened is that Newman internalized mythology, connecting it to the act of creation rather than to images in the picture. He wrote in 1947, at the time of Onement, that the artist’s creativity makes “an act of defiance against man’s fall and an assertion that he return to the Adam of the Garden of Eden.”15 And from the same source: “The God image, not pottery, was the first manual act.” He transferred the aura of myth to the process of work, in an extension of the heroic ideal of the artist’s power to create as an analogue of God’s power. (This is the basis for Newman’s initial resistance to the idea of action painting, which he considered to be a term taken from politics, unlike the act which is the artist’s.)

The traditional form of the Stations provides, in its sequential exposition, an analogue of Christ’s journey to Calvary. It assumed a reenactment of the sequence of events on the Via Sacra and was, for that reason, presented serially in churches. The form was a participatory one and it remains so in Newman’s version, though there is no point-for-point correspondence with the original events. Newman’s fourteen acts are the analogue of Christ’s Journey. The Old Testament as a source of types that prefigure New Testament antetypes has been audaciously switched by Newman so that Christ is the type and the creative act of Newman becomes the antetype. It is “the imitation of Christ” enacted in the studio by the production of paintings. The advantage of this reading is that it takes account of the physical reality of the paintings, though it should be stressed, in view of later developments in painting, that physical presence was not a factual concreteness to Newman. He took art to be a carrier of humanistic themes, embodied in the works, not merely illustrated by them. There is an unbroken connection in his art to the sententious tradition of great thoughts and high feelings in art. It was necessary at the time, both as a defense against expressionist theory and as a way of waking up abstract art.

At the museum the paintings are hung mainly by color, which is appropriate to Newman’s work as a whole. There are connections between early and late paintings, configurations and colors that recur across spans of time, and the similarities mean as much as the facts of succession. There are changes in Newman’s art, some of them mentioned here, but the internal correspondences provide a better structuring device than chronology. The Stations are hung, after an initiating corridor of early works and before the bulk of the show in a room somewhat apart, as a unit, in accordance with the artist’s wishes, but they are not seen to advantage. The paintings are squeezed into a low ceilinged room of 137 running feet. When the series was first shown at the Guggenheim Museum, a tentative arrangement put all the work into a tall room of 135 running feet and Newman rejected emphatically the congested effect. The sequential flow of the paintings is obliterated by the simultaneity of a tight hanging. The jam in that room is something Newman would not have tolerated.

In addition, the Stations have been hung counter- clockwise: I wonder why? If you start at the right and go round, you see the Fourteenth Station first, which is white. The last five Stations consist of three white, one gray, and one black painting, and the remaining nine are black. The variety of the last five pictures is greater than that of the first nine, which gives a sense of closure in the sequence. The white, for instance, is not divulged until the Ninth Station if you see the series in order. If you go from First to Fourteenth in the present installation, there is another problem. The left to right movement of the act of reading applies also to looking at paintings and Newman assumed and worked with this eye movement in the phasing of the sequence. To go from the Fourth Station to the Fifth, for instance, is to enter the Fifth not by its leading left-hand edge, but by its concluding right-hand edge. The equilibrium of the series is seriously jolted by entering the Stations backwards, as it were. Aside from this aberration, the show follows the lineaments of Newman’s art, faithful to his insistence that art should have “a physical reality and at the same time, an ethical and meaningful content.”16

Lawrence Alloway


1. The New York Sun, October 14, 1949.

2. Dorothy Gees Seckler, “From Tiers of Space,” Art in America, 2, 1962.

3. Barnett Newman, “Art: New York,” interview with Frank O’Hara, Channel 13, WNDT, December, 1964.

4. Harold Rosenberg, Barnett Newman: Broken Obelisk and Other Sculptures, Seattle, 1971.

5. Newman, Art Now: New York, I, no. 3, 1969.

6. Newman, “The Sublime is Now,” The Tiger’s Eye, 6, 1948.

7. Newman, “Pre-Columbian Stone Sculpture,” introduction in catalog for Wakefield Gallery, 1944.

8. Newman, “Art of the South Seas” (written 1946), Studio International, 179, no. 919, 1970.

9. Ibid.

10. Newman, “The Sublime is Now.”

11. Newman, “Art: New York.”

12. Newman, “La Pintura de Tamayo y Gottlieb,” La Revista Belga, 2, no. 4, 1945.

13. Newman, “Art of the South Seas.”

14. Newman, “The Sublime is Now.”

15. Newman, “The First Man Was an Artist,” The Tiger’s Eye, 1, 1947.

16. Newman, “Art: New York.”