Lot 129
  • 129

BARNETT NEWMAN | Untitled

Estimate
6,200,000 - 8,200,000 HKD
Sold
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Description

  • Barnett Newman
  • Untitled
  • brush and watercolour on paper
  • 55.9 by 38.7 cm; 22 by 15¼ in.
Executed in 1945

Provenance

Estate of the Artist (AN #11)
Collection of Annalee Newman
Private Collection (acquired by from the above in 1990)
Sotheby's, New York, 16 November 2017, lot 11
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Exhibited

New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Baden-Baden, Staatliche Kunsthalle; and Bremen, Kunsthalle Bremen, Twentieth-Century American Drawing: Three Avant-Garde Generations, January - August 1976
Baltimore, The Baltimore Museum of Art; Detroit, The Detroit Institute of Arts; Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou; Cologne, Museum Ludwig; and Basel, Kunstmuseum Basel, Barnett Newman: The Complete Drawings, 1944-1969, April 1979 - July 1981, pp. 70-71, no. 19, illustrated in colour and black and white (in different orientations) (Baltimore); n.p., no. 19, illustrated in colour (Amsterdam); p. 13, no. 19, illustrated (Paris); p. 13, no. 19, illustrated in colour (Cologne); p. 13, no. 19, illustrated in colour (Basel)
Providence, Rhode Island, Bell Gallery, Brown University; Worcester, Massachusetts, Cantor Art Gallery, College of the Holy Cross; and Southampton, New York, Parrish Art Museum, Flying Tigers: Painting and Sculpture in New York 1939-1946, April – July 1985, p. 78, no. 37, illustrated
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; Saint Louis, The Saint Louis Art Museum; and New York, The Pace Gallery, The Sublime is Now: The Early Work of Barnett Newman, Paintings and Drawings 1944-1949, March - November 1994, p. 49, no. 17, illustrated in colour and p. 20 (text)

Literature

Barnett Newman, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1971, p. 46, illustrated (in incorrect orientation)
Benjamin G. Paskus, "The Theory, Art, and Critical Reception of Barnett Newman (Ph.D dissertation)," University of North Carolina, 1974, p. 74 (text)
Harold Rosenberg, Barnett Newman, New York, 1978 (reprinted 1994), p. 167, no. 133, illustrated in colour
John Russell, "Newman's Mastery of the Pen and Crayon," The New York Times, 27 May, 1979 issue, p. D25 (text)
David Elliott, "Newman's Sober Crusade in Esthetics," Chicago Sunday Times, November 11, 1979 (text)
W. Jackson Rushing, "Decade of Decision," Art Journal 54, Spring 1995, p. 89 (text)
Mollie McNickle, "The Mind and Art of Barnett Newman (Ph.D. dissertation)," University of Pennsylvania, 1996, pp. 168-169 (text), pp. 178-179 (text) and p. 181, no. 3 (text)
Richard Shiff, Carol C. Mancusi-Ungaro and Heidi Colsman-Freyberger, Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 2004, p. 384, no. 137, illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

If we are living in a time without a legend or mythos that can be called sublime, if we refuse to admit any exaltation in pure relations, if we refuse to live in the abstract, how can we be creating a sublime art?

Barnett Newman


Glimpse of the Sublime

Barnett Newman's Untitled from 1945 is arguably the first instance of the iconic 'zip' in the artist's entire oeuvre. Newman’s destruction of his early body of work in the early 1940s created a new beginning out of which his subsequent and prolific output would evolve. Untitled, 1945 is among four similarly sized watercolors Newman executed after his return to art in 1944 and is the first in which the vertical strip features significantly as a formal element. The present work is exemplary for its Surrealist-inspired vocabulary, presenting an enigmatic and recondite composition that for years puzzled curators and his own wife. Although Thomas Hess believed in an alternate orientation with the darker half of the watercolor on the left hand side, Annalee Newman, the artist’s wife, advocated for and remained committed to the orientation currently illustrated. Reverberating with an ineffable lyricism in its richly saturated zones of color and curlicued application, the present work represents a significant triumph in Newman's career.

Throughout his career, Newman remained steadfastly fixated on finding a new creative form divorced from representation and precedence. The eventual ‘zip’ paintings he would achieve in 1948 were the product of a relentless period of exploration; indeed, although Untitled, 1945 does not bear the ‘zip’ in the traditional sense as Newman would later execute it - by placing masking tape on the canvas in order to leave a part of the composition in reserve - the light plum colored band bisecting the two halves of the work prefigures the motif the artist would later commit himself to. If tilted 90 degrees to the right and read horizontally, Untitled, 1945 presents a Surreal landscape, the horizon line dividing the foreground of land or sea and atmosphere, biomorphic shapes of luxurious brushstrokes emerging from the diaphanous color. Nude and tan watercolor swaths bleed across the surface of the paper, divided from the rich earth tones on the right by the singular strip of purple. In the rightmost register, dark calligraphic lines appear nearly anthropomorphic in structure and echo a similarly curved tadpole-like shape on the left. When viewed vertically, as illustrated, this accessible subject matter dissolves, and the audience is left with an enigmatic, but ethereal and atmospheric image that nevertheless bears an elegant form and rhythm. To Newman, the devastation of World War II and the Holocaust demanded an original form of art unencumbered by an oppressive historical canon. Newman turned to botany and ornithology, gathering a lexicon of words and images rooted in the most basic life forms. Arguably more influential for Newman was a fascination and deep intellectual engagement with ‘primitive’ art, significant for its power as truly authentic and separate from any artistic tradition; indeed, in 1944, Newman organized an exhibition for the Wakefield Gallery of Pre-Columbian objects, including masks, figures and vessels from ancient civilizations.

Having matured during one of the most tumultuous periods in Twentieth Century history, Barnett Newman is among a tight-knit group of artists who questioned the very nature and meaning of art following the ravages of two World Wars and the Holocaust. “You must realize that twenty years ago we felt the moral crisis of a world in shambles, a world devastated by a great depression and a fierce World War, and it was impossible at that time to paint the kind of paintings that we were doing - flowers, reclining nudes, and people playing the cello. At the same time we could not move into the situation of a pure world of unorganized forms, or color relations, a world of sensation. And I would say that for some of us, this was our moral crisis in relation to what to paint. So that we actually began, so to speak, from scratch, as if painting were not only dead but had never existed.” (Barnett Newman quoted in Jeremy Strick, “Enacting Origins,” Exh. Cat., Minneapolis, Pace Wildenstein (and travelling) The Sublime is Now: The Early Works of Barnett Newman, 1994, p. 11) It is therefore fitting that the present work represents an origin of sorts, a fertile environment from which the most nascent forms of life can find a new beginning.

The present work has been displayed internationally as a pivotal example in Newman’s oeuvre. Its exhibition history includes the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, The Baltimore Museum, The Detroit Institute of Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, among many others. As the earliest example of Newman's work featuring the vertical motif that prefigures his iconic ‘zips,’ which would become his defining contribution to the pantheon of art history, Untitled from 1945 occupies a position of supreme significance in the limited output of Barnett Newman.
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