Quotes by Barnett Newman:
"The problem of a painting is physical and metaphysical, the same as I think life is physical and metaphysical."
(Interview with David Sylvester, republished in: Barnett Newman, John Philip O'Neill (1992), Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews. p. 254-259)
"The new painter owes the abstract artist a debt for giving him his language, but the new painting is concerned with a new type of abstract thought.. . He [the new painter] is declaring that the art of Western Europe is voluptuous art first, an intellectual art by accident. He is reversing the situation by declaring that art is an expression of the mind first and whatever sensuous elements are involved are incidental to that expression. The new painter is therefore the true revolutionary, the real leader who is placing the artist's function on its rightful plane of the philosopher and the pure scientist who is exploring the world of ideas, not the world of the senses.. ..so the artist is today giving us a vision of the world of truth in terms of visual symbols."
(Barnett Newman, The Plasmic Image, 1943-1945; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrahams Publishers, New York 1990. p.127)
Barnett Newman is a giant of 20th century art for a reason! It doesn't matter much if you like his art or not because nothing will change the significance of his contribution. Newman gave us a new way to understand what art 'is' and why it is an important channel of discovery for the 'human' condition!
At the end of WW2 and after almost half a century of bloody human carnage the likes of which history had never seen before Newman created an art that eliminated the figure/field dichotomy. In 1948 he created 'Onement 1' his first 'zip' painting and nothing was quite the same after that.
Although officially a member of the New York 'Abstract Expressionist' group of artists his accomplishments weren't formerly recognised until around 1959 when he became a leading influence on two succeeding generations and a 'father' figure to the 'minimalists' and the 'colour field 'painters.
Newman found a way to illustrate the so called 'existential' human condition which had become prevalent in philosophical thinking during the 40's. He believed art was done with issues of 'beauty' and needed to focus on the 'sublime.' He believed that, "old standards of beauty were irrelevant: the sublime was all that was appropriate - an experience of enormity which might lift modern humanity out of its torpor."
He believed that artists were the 'creators' of the world, unique individuals whose focus was to fashion a new vision for humanity. Moving away from gestural abstraction he developed his own methodology using only large fields of colour intersected by strips 'zips' of white or muted colour. Initially, even his peers did not recognise what he was doing.
Newman stated, "The subject matter of creation is chaos. The present feeling seems to be that the artist is concerned with form, colour, and spatial arrangement. This objective approach to art reduces it to a kind of ornament. The whole attitude of abstract painting, for example, has been such that it has reduced painting to an ornamental art whereby the picture surface is broken up in geometrical fashion into a new kind of design-image. It is a decorative art built on a slogan of purism where the attempt is made for an unworldly statement..."
Barnett Newman, The Plasmic Image, 1943-1945; Republished in: Barnett Newman, John Philip O'Neill (1992), Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews. p. 138-155
He was clear then, in his distinction between an art of mute 'decoration' or 'ornamentation' and one that was 'rational' and filled with metaphysical 'intent.'
Philip Shaw in his essay 'Sublime Destruction: Barnett Newman's Adam and Eve' states, "In religious art, for Newman in particular, a preoccupation with the beautiful – with its emphasis on the figurative, the perfection of form, and the ‘reality of sensation’ – has impeded the perception of ‘the Absolute’. Newman agrees with Kant, the sublime, unlike the beautiful, ‘cannot be contained in any sensible form but concerns only ideas of reason’. The sublime, that is, is on the side of the mind rather than nature; and since the extent of the mind is unbounded it cannot be adequately represented by an object with determinate bounds."
Further, Shaw cites Arthur Danto where he states, 'Newman’s painting is about something that can be said but not shown, ‘at least not pictorially’. Abstract painting, he concludes, is thus ‘not without content’.The sense of the work as a presentation of that which can be ‘said but not shown’ is enhanced by Newman’s insistence that viewers should place themselves close to the surfaces of his canvases so as to become enveloped or overwhelmed by a sense of boundlessness.'
In 1965 in an interview with David Sylvester Newman stated, "One thing that I am involved in about painting is that the painting should give a man a sense of place: that he knows he's there, so he's aware of himself. In that sense he related to me when I made the painting because in that sense I was there. Standing in front of my paintings you had a sense of your own scale. The onlooker in front of my painting knows that he's there. To me, the sense of place not only has a mystery but has that sense of metaphysical fact."
Barnett Newman believed that 'man' was alone and was responsible for his own 'salvation.' He believed the old ideals weren't sufficient to carry humanity forward into a 'brave new world' and that the answers to man's problems were within man!
Agree or disagree with his philosophy, he certainly managed to create a new kind of art using a combination of metaphysical content, colour and human scale that is still bearing down like a locomotive on the human creative project.
Listen to Barnett Newman speak in the video below!
Barnett Newman was successful in 'making it up out of himself' and thereby bequeathing to the rest of us a body of work that is not only poignant and of its time but enigmatically universal as well. There is much to learn from studying his oeuvre and his ideas.
From where i stand, there is no doubt the last two generations of artists in many respects have built on the formidable foundation he laid down.