In the years that followed the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust, artists sought ways to break with European conventions and instead engender a new visual culture, one that could exist in the wake of such horror. Alongside his peers, Newman broke with established traditions in art history, challenging the long-established ideals of beauty and subject matter. In the catalogue for Newman’s retrospective in 2002, Ann Temkin writes: “The Greek notion of ideal beauty had opposed the aesthetic of the sublime, Newman explained, and as heir to that tradition of beauty the European artist continues down a blind alley. ‘I believe that here in America,’ he wrote, ‘some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it.’ Newman declared a tabula rasa for his generation: ‘We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting.’” (Barnett Newman in Exh. Cat., Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art (and travelling), Barnett Newman, 2002, p. 32) Newman’s decisive break with a centuries-old tradition is manifested not only in his avant-garde paintings but also in their evocative and enigmatic titles, which reflect the artist’s commitment to pure painting as a totality of transcendence comparable to spiritual or religious experience. Indeed, Newman’s arrival at the form of the zip in Onement I from 1948 can be considered a visual representation of Genesis itself – an act of dividing light from dark and an echo of God’s primal gesture in creating man, an animal who, like the zip, stands vertically.
Following this epiphanic moment, Newman continued to paint, slightly altering each instance of the vertical line either in thickness, placement on the canvas, size of the painting, or color. Galaxy from 1949 is the very first instance in which Newman introduced two zips, a format he would repeat in later works such as Concord, held in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and The Promise, held in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Whereas a single vertical line draws the eye up and down the painting, the presence of two zips in Galaxy sends the eye horizontally across the composition, the contrasting vertical stripes punctuating the field of rich burgundy. Each zip offsets the other, the thickness of the khaki channel throwing into sharper relief the thinner, yet more built-up stripe of dark bronze on the right, which displays a more prominent brushstroke. The resulting work is austere in its deceptive simplicity and lush in its velvety surface of sensuous and moody hues. Galaxy also marks a moment in Newman’s career when he strayed from the symmetry to which he had previously adhered. Yve-Alain Bois writes that the zip “declar[ed] the surface as a totality. The zip was its measurement. It gave the viewer a yardstick to gauge its width intuitively. It was also a command to the beholder: Stand here, just in front of you, and you will know exactly where you are, for this will be the middle of your visual field, just as it is the middle of this painting. Newman always said that what he wanted most to achieve was to give the beholder a sense of place. In bilateral symmetry, which relates so directly to our body structure and to the way we, as humans, organize our perception of the world, he had found a perfect mode of address.” (Yve-Alain Bois, “Newman’s Laterality,” in Melissa Ho, Ed., Reconsidering Barnett Newman, Philadelphia, 2002, p. 33) Although the composition of the present work is no longer symmetrical, Galaxy nevertheless evokes an unexpected harmony and equilibrium in its crisply demarcated passages of solid color. In its execution and title, Galaxy is a natural extension of the painting Abraham, also from 1949 and housed in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Although much grander in scale than the present work, Abraham features a zip placed slightly off-center, an exploration into asymmetry that would spur the creation of Galaxy. By shifting the placement of the zips in Galaxy to the periphery of the canvas, Newman tests the viewer’s perceptual capacity, challenging him to regard the subtle inequalities of the zips while simultaneously perceiving the irregular blocks of maroon on either side of the vertical stripes. The title of the present work also logically follows its forebear Abraham, as God promised Abraham that he would have a son whose progeny would be as numerous as “the stars of heaven.” (Genesis 22:17)
Galaxy’s intimate scale affords the viewer a deeply personal viewing experience. Temkin observed of the variously sized canvases in Newman’s oeuvre: “Newman, however, always talked in terms of scale, not size…Newman’s paintings prove that the dynamics on which they depend for success could operate on very little surface. What counted was the emotional resonance – the perfect adjustment of a color and the size and shape of its extent and to what neighbored it.” (Ibid., p. 42) Although Newman’s paintings vary in color palette, number of zips, and size, they share the singular goal of instilling in the viewer a profound sense of the spiritual and provoking an existential sense of awe and wonderment for human existence. Having reduced subject matter to the equivalent of zero – thereby elevating the chromatic intensity of his palette to the highest pitch – Newman articulated a new lexicon for painting, one that defied academic practice and instead privileged a new beginning in the story of modern art.
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