The Stations of the Cross, Newman’s spectacular series of fourteen black and white paintings, represents a triumph of Newman’s intellectual and spiritual explorations into the transcendental power of art to elicit an almost religious experience from the viewer. The restricted formal means and limited color palette forced Newman to work with different permutations of the zip, in different placements, and with subtle variances. Newman experimented with everything from the thickness of his oil paint and the width of the zip, to its placement on the canvas. These seemingly minor discrepancies activate each zip in enormously varying roles; indeed, it can be read as ‘positive,’ in the case of a dark brushstroke, or ‘negative,’ in the case of raw canvas peeking through a swath of ink, much like the focal point of the present work. The Stations of the Cross was initially exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1966. Of the group of 1960s drawings that preceded this series, Brenda Richardson noted: “The drawings are a kind of incubation for the Stations, not in the sense of preparatory studies but as the preliminary exploration necessary for Newman to confirm his visual instincts, to achieve a sense of conviction (both metaphorically and formally) about the direction he found the work taking in 1958-1960. The drawings bespeak precisely that kind of exploratory energy, a tentative posing of questions: is a palette composed exclusively of black and white too limited to sustain an extended series of paintings? How much inventiveness is possible with both a reduced palette and a reduced repertory of forms?” (Exh. Cat., Baltimore, The Baltimore Museum of Art, Barnett Newman: The Complete Drawings, 1944-1969, 1979, p. 158)
Within this series of fourteen by ten inch ink on paper drawings, Newman examined how to sustain a restricted color palette in executing numerous iterations of his zip. In the present work, a dark stroke of ink articulates a ground against which the tape-reserved zip bisects the composition into two equal passages. To create this signature bar, Newman applied masking tape to the paper, painted around the tape, and then removed it, creating the zip left in reserve. A dry, brushy stroke of ink on the left hand side of the drawing balances a modulated and saturated swath on the right, lending a sense of harmony and balance to the overall composition, despite its asymmetry. Untitled is particularly unique in that the paper, which allowed the ink to bleed slightly into the blank strip, betrays the regularity of the masked-off zip.
Perhaps most importantly, the present work exemplifies Newman’s continued probing into the spiritual effect art could produce in the wake of World War II and the atrocities of the Holocaust. Rejecting the restrictions of an art historical tradition he found oppressive, Newman sought to create a divine and emotional statement by focusing on the subtle nuances of spatial relationships and expressive brushwork. Although most renowned for his monumental oils on canvas, Newman held the practice of drawing to the same elevated status as that of painting. In a 1962 interview, just two years after the present work was completed, Newman said: “For example, drawing is central to my whole concept. I don’t mean making drawings, although I have always done a lot of them. I mean the drawing that exists in my painting. Yet no writer on art has ever confronted that issue. I am always referred to in relation to my color. Yet I know that if I have made a contribution, it is primarily in my drawing.” (The artist in an interview with Dorothy Gees Seckler, “Frontiers of Space,” Art in America 50, no. 2, Summer 1962, pp. 86-87) Proof of the immense contribution this drawing has made both to the artist’s practice and to Twentieth-Century art, Untitled has been exhibited in numerous institutions around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Tate Gallery, London, the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris, the Grand Palais, Paris, the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, among many others. Untitled endures as an austere and successful exploration of Newman’s signature zips, testifies to his brilliant artistic prowess, and represents a triumphant realization of his heroic creativity, brazen gesture and unceasing spiritual inquiry.
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