"I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality." - Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman was a member of the New York School, which included Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.
Newman found his “voice” when he completed Onement, I in 1948. The “zip”, first appearing in Onement, I, was a visual device that both separated and united the figure-ground relationship without referencing a single object. Newman used “zips” in the majority, if not all, of his work following Onement, I.
The art world didn’t like it at first. Not even by his fellow New York School friends. At his first one-man show, Newman did not sell a single piece of work. To add insult to injury, Robert Motherwell told Newman: “We thought you were one of us. Instead your show is a critique against all of us.” After his first show, many of his fellow artists distanced themselves from him. Only Jackson Pollock is said to have stood by Newman. I find this both remarkable and terrifying. Newman continued to make his “zips” despite the poor press and a lack of support from his colleagues. He must have been incredibly confident to be so faithful to his work.
By 1951, Newman turned his attention to scale. Vir heroicus sublimis (“Man, heroic and sublime.") is nearly 8 feet tall and 18 feet wide. It is a large red painting disrupted by zips of various colors at irregular intervals. While I have not experienced Vir heroicus sublimis in person, I can image (to some extent) that is very much an experience to be had. It is enormous. Standing 3 feet away, your whole field of vision would be filled with an expanse of red yet the zips would infiltrate and cut your peripherals as you attempted to take the whole composition in.
This expansiveness and emphasis on the experience relates back to Newman’s concept of the “Sublime” which he defined as “something that gives one the feeling of being where one is, of hic et nunc—of the here and now—courageously confronting the human fate, standing without the props of ‘memory, association, nostalgia, legend myth,’” according to Hal Foster in Art Since 1900.
Interestingly, Newman destroyed all of his early work. He controlled his legacy and very intelligently developed an image of both himself and his work to be used later on in art history. Another noteworthy tidbit, Newman considered Piet Mondrian his nemesis! Foster argues that Newman considered Mondrian’s work to be simply “good design” and nothing more.
Yes, Newman’s work was not immediately accepted by the art community–in fact, his work has been attacked multiple times. However, Newman was very articulate and a good writer. I believe he managed to remain confident and continue creating his work because of his ability to discuss and defend it well. He was bibliophile and a theorist. The Barnett Newman Foundation lists all of the titles in Newman’s private library.
If you are in Houston, you can view Newman’s work at The Menil Collection. They have several of his paintings in their collection. Broken Obelisk, one of Newman’s few sculptures, is located in front of The Rothko Chapel.
Inspired by Newman’s work and his will to create an experience of totality and hic et nunc, I created my own “zip” painting. I wanted to show that the future, particularly my own, is undefined. Whatever happened in the past does not define the future. Rather the past is just a backdrop. The background, while it cannot be erased, can be added to and developed. The now and the future are always different. Time passing is the only constant.