Executed at the height of Barnett Newman’s career, Galaxy from 1949 is the very first painting in which the artist featured two of his iconic and revolutionary ‘zips’. Galaxy will highlight the upcoming Contemporary Art Evening Auction (16 May, New York) and is estimated to fetch $9,000,000–12,000,000.
An exceptional and rare masterpiece, Galaxy is among Barnett Newman’s earliest paintings and a brilliant embodiment of the burgeoning philosophical and conceptual theories that would come to inform his celebrated output.
Gifted to his friend the influential minimalist sculptor Tony Smith, Galaxy incorporates here for the first time a second of Newman's iconic ‘zips.’ In order to see both axes at once, the viewer must engage their peripheral vision, rather than observing the painting straight on. In this way, Newman radically transformed the traditional mode of pictorial perception.
Galaxy is one of just eleven oil-on-canvas paintings featuring more than one zip; examples from this limited suite are in the permanent collections of important museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In a number of ways, Galaxy is a natural extension of the painting Abraham, also from 1949 in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Of a grander scale, Abraham features a zip placed slightly off-center, an exploration into asymmetry that would spur the creation of this artwork.
With its evocative and enigmatic title, Galaxy represents Newman's continued commitment to painting as a means of pure transcendence, comparable to spiritual or religious experience. Newman first introduced the zip in Onement I (1948), which itself can be considered a visual representation of the bibical Genesis – an act of dividing light from dark and an echo of God’s creation of man, who, like the zip, stands vertically.
Whereas a single vertical line draws the eye up and down the painting, Galaxy's two zips draw the eye horizontally across the composition, the contrasting vertical stripes punctuating the field of rich burgundy. By placing the zips in Galaxy towards the periphery of the canvas, Newman tests the viewer’s perceptual capacity, challenging the eye to regard the subtle inequalities of the zips while simultaneously perceiving the irregular blocks of maroon on either side of the vertical stripes.
The work is an important break in the symmetry of Newman’s earliest works, yet nevertheless presents an unexpected harmony and equilibrium in its demarcated passages of solid color.
Recently this pivotal painting was featured in the critically acclaimed exhibition Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, a long-awaited show that celebrated the bold and courageous careers of artists including Newman, Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and David Smith, among others.
Before coming to auction, Newman's historic Galaxy will be view beginning 4 May at Sotheby's New York galleries.