As Newman recounted in an interview about Onement I, “I actually lived with that painting for almost a year trying to understand it. I realized that I’d made a statement which was affecting me and which was, I suppose the beginning of my present life, because from then on I had to give up any relation to nature as seen.” (Interview with David Sylvester on March 3, 1967 as cited in John P. O’Neill, ed., Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990, p. 255) With these words, Newman concisely articulated his commitment to pure painting as a totality of transcendence, devoid of subject matter. Newman’s iconic and revolutionary 'zip' served as a vertical signifier of the human presence and a visual portal to the ineffable sources of inspiration that profoundly inform the artist’s oeuvre. The titles of Newman’s early paintings – Genesis-The Break and The Beginning from 1946, and Covenant and The Promise of 1949 – exhibit a close affinity for the Old Testament, while By Twos is also a reference to the animal pairs who survived the Flood in Noah’s Ark, perhaps an elegiac reference to the recent tragic history of the European Jews. While Newman’s Jewish heritage gives a rich context for these titles, his intent was not spiritual in the religious sense. He equated the act of genesis to an artist’s creation of a sublime work of art, and in turn, sought to instill in the viewer an existential sense of awe and wonderment for the miracle of existence. By Twos, in its sumptuous elucidation of Newman’s skill in composition, technique and color, as well as its symbiotic relationship to the sister paintings of 1949, memorializes Newman’s achievement of these aspirations. The demarcation of the 'zip', in its placement, vertical format and complementary hue of light blue, serves both a temporal and spatial purpose in the personalized experience of this masterpiece of Newman’s aesthetic.
As noted by Harold Rosenberg, the 'zip' aptly “takes its meaning from being experienced as an undifferentiated whole, thus functioning as a ‘space vehicle’ for the idea of singularity. Oneness itself in Newman’s terms is an exalted ‘subject matter’.” (Harold Rosenberg, Barnett Newman, New York, 1978, pp. 59-60) As an agent of such inner coherence and unity, the 'zip' of By Twos is also the avatar of identity and universality, brought memorably to life in the sculptures of the 'zip' form, such as Here I (To Marcia) of 1950/1962, so named when the collector Marcia Weisman prevailed upon Newman to cast a 1962 bronze based on his 1950 plaster and wood construction. In terms of sculptural affinities, one thinks of Alberto Giacometti’s elongated and abstracted figures which were first shown in New York in February 1948. Newman acknowledged a sympathetic response to the “new things, with no form, no texture, but somehow filled” with a succinct “I took my hat off to him.” (cited in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Barnett Newman, 1972, p. 36) Yet even more than Giacometti, Newman abandoned any substantive reference to representational figuration and sought instead to convey a noncorporeal state of being and communion that is more resonant with the elegant geometry and formal power of Constantin Brancusi’s paean to infinity, Endless Column of 1938.
The placement and interrelationships of the 'zip' in Newman’s 1949 paintings exhibit the subtlety with which the artist refined his parameters, particularly in terms of the modernist elements of color and spatial rhythms. Although critics would initially deride Newman’s work as too simplistic, he in fact employed almost a “secret symmetry,” a phrase adopted by Thomas B. Hess in the catalogue for the artist’s 1971 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1949, Newman continued the use of a single vertical 'zip' as the central divider of his monochromatic grounds originated in the Onement paintings, but he also experimented with two or more 'zips', both vertically and horizontally, in differing situated proportions and optical import. In paintings such as Concord, By Twos and Abraham, the paired lines can be seen either as edges that define a central 'zip' formed of the same color as the ground, or they can be seen as separate dual 'zips', vibrating toward and away from each other as they float above an expanse of uninterrupted ground color. In By Twos, Newman complicates this reading further by altering the sheen and texture of the black pigment both between and outside the blue lines, thus increasing the sense of a black 'zip' subtly separated by blue from the outer sections of black ground. As the viewer negotiates a canvas that can be visually read in two contradictory ways, this duality of composition may also be an interesting play on the title By Twos. Abraham and By Twos are even more complex spatially, since the central band or 'zip' no longer bisects the canvas evenly, but is now at center and off center simultaneously. As seen in By Twos, the far left edge or 'zip' is the vertical that splits the canvas in two, so our eye clearly registers a thin blue dividing line that leaves the left half an uninterrupted expanse of velvety black. However, if the dual blue lines are read as edges delineating a single black 'zip', its proportion and optical weight now pulls the balance of the painting toward the right and away from the concept of two evenly divided halves. As Hess noted in discussing By Twos and the black-on-black Abraham: “By widening the zip until it almost becomes a section of the ground, both its edges become independently important – thus further disguising the secret symmetrical action.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Barnett Newman, 1971, p. 59)
By Twos revels in the poetry of Newman’s primal 'zip' which lies at the core of his ambition to create paintings free of objects, dogma, precedence or referential subject matter. Along with other heroic artists of the mid-Twentieth Century, Newman wanted to regenerate art and society through the invention of new forms of expression that could capture the ineffable essence of existence. In Newman’s devotion to a restrained color palette and reductive use of demarcation with his sparsely employed 'zips', his paintings were deemed provocative and shocking when they appeared at mid-century, but the aura of quietude and penetrating sophistication of By Twos is eloquent testimony to the far-reaching import of Newman’s corpus. In company with Brancusi’s Endless Column and Malevich’s Suprematist manifesto of 1915, Newman’s eloquent and elemental `zip' and his deft tonal chromatics were a legacy of vast import to the birth of Minimalism concurrent with the reappearance of By Twos in Newman’s 1959 exhibition.
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