WORKS FROM DIA ART FOUNDATION, SOLD TO ESTABLISH A FUND FOR ACQUISITIONS
Genesis – The Break is the third painting recorded in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, as Newman destroyed all of his artistic efforts prior to 1944. Throughout his career Newman remained steadfastly fixated on performing his creative act freely, ultimately developing a groundbreaking style that enabled him to achieve his goal. He felt an inescapable need to liberate painting from its formal preconditions and conventional properties as an object. Thus he abandoned as many established devices of presentation and composition as he could identify. In an interview in 1963, Newman confirmed the consistency of his artistic project, almost twenty years after creating his first preserved paintings, stating: “I want my painting to separate itself from every object and from every art object that exists.” (the artist in a statement prepared for an interview with Lane Slate and aired by CBS, March 10, 1963) The artist’s mature works, which indubitably result from the compositional innovations witnessed in Genesis –The Break, are unique in an age defined by individuality; to an unprecedented degree, they lack precedent.
Genesis – The Break epitomizes the earliest development of Barnett Newman’s aesthetic of the ‘zip,’ a ubiquitous and defining stylistic feature of his painted oeuvre, and thus represents a historic moment in the course of twentieth-century art. Newman’s ‘zips’ are vertical bands that span the full height of his canvases, simultaneously uniting and dividing the composition. This remarkable painting’s composition includes three formal elements that were critical to Newman's output of this time: the disk, the tapered ray and the vertical band. Moreover this painting exemplifies Newman’s first use of the very distinctive hue of aquamarine turquoise that later became so central to a host of masterpieces such as Uriel, The Gate, and Onement VI. As a monumentally significant early painting of Barnett Newman’s vital career, Genesis – The Break stands as an indisputable arbiter of Abstract Expressionism and, accordingly, a new and iconic era of American art.
Following high school in Manhattan, Barnett Newman enrolled in City College in 1923 majoring in Philosophy. He always displayed an artistic sensibility, albeit more theoretical than practical for most of the 1930s, a tendency that was exhibited in 1933 when he ran for mayor of New York City on a ticket for education, the arts and cultural life. By 1942 Newman had already established his steadfast belief in a new American art, a view he extolled in a foreword he wrote for a counter-exhibition staged by the Artist Cultural Society against a juried exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The activist exhibition showed the work of forty-five contemporary artists, and Newman wrote that the pieces being shown constituted “a body of art that will adequately reflect the new America that is taking shape today and the kind of America that will, it is hoped, become the cultural center of the world.” (Barnett Newman, “American Modern Artists,” 1943, in John P. O’Neill, ed., Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, New York, 1990, p. 29) This sentiment is a concise summary of the essential guiding principle of Newman’s artistic theory.
In the winter of 1943-44 Newman met the gallerist Betty Parsons, thus beginning a personal and professional relationship that would become crucially important for Newman’s career as an artist. Throughout the mid-1940s Newman conceptualized and curated exhibitions for Betty Parsons, first at the Wakefield Gallery and then at her eponymous gallery at East 57th Street. After a three-decade long period of artistic incubation, and perhaps due to inspiration gained from his organization of a Pre-Columbian art exhibition at the Wakefield Gallery, Newman created the first works of art that he would preserve in 1944. Throughout the latter half of the decade Newman’s thirst for originality continued unabated. He wrote his first essay for the influential arts quarterly The Tiger’s Eye, which was published by John and Ruth Stephan, the first owners of Genesis – The Break. The piece was titled “The First Man Was an Artist,” and in it Newman argued that Adam was an artist insofar as he attempted to become a creative being by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Written in the exact same period as the conception of Genesis – The Break, this essay presents us with a literary complement to the work. Although Newman was never forthcoming with his views on current events in Europe during the 1940s, the war years brought with them a keen sense of the end of European civilization and the genesis of a new world order. By extension of his argument in “The First Man Was an Artist,” Newman was stating that all contemporary artists were like Adam, forging a new creative path independent of Western European precedent.
Critics who were puzzled by Newman’s work in the early 1950s sometimes regarded his paintings as philosophic statements made without artistic attributes, or conversely, as pure painting devoid of a subject. His paintings, in truth, involve both spirit and nature, and Newman sought to instill in the viewer a profound sense of the spiritual. This did not imply that Newman was religious, but rather that he sought a profound faith in the role of the artist in attaining the highest realm to which a man could aspire. The central importance of Genesis – The Break to Barnett Newman’s celebrated corpus is undeniable. As the earliest example of the seminal 'zip' technique that would become his defining stylistic feature, and the ultimate expression of his passionately conceptual artistic practice, the present work occupies a place of incredible significance to the development of art history in the second half of the Twentieth Century.
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