Regarded as among the most independent and courageous artists of the Twentieth Century, Barnett Newman was distinctly influential at two critical junctures in American art: first among his peers and later with the next generation of artists who sought the means to redefine and celebrate painting in their own time. One of the great writers and philosophers during the creation of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s and early 1950s, Newman was deeply admired by his colleagues and friends such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Adolph Gottlieb. As an organizer of exhibitions for the newly opened Betty Parsons Gallery in 1946, Newman played a critical role in the advancement of their careers; through his introductions, Rothko and Still joined Parsons in 1946 followed by Pollock in 1947, solidifying Parson’s gallery as the new forum for American avant-garde art upon the closure of Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century in spring 1947. Newman showed his own work with Parsons in his first and second one-man shows in 1950 and 1951, yet the public and critical attention that had come to his comrades was to be deferred for Newman which was a tacit acknowledgement of the radical nature and unique boldness of his painterly vision. Newman had withdrawn from the Parsons Gallery – and all commercial art endeavors - after the 1951 show when critic Clement Greenberg, the great proponent of Pollock since 1943, wrote a 1952 article in Paris Review which included a belated admiration of Newman’s exhibitions that “displayed both nerve and conviction” and declared the painter “to be an important as well as original painter.” (excerpted from Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston, 1961, p. 150)
Among the works in Newman’s 1951 show was one of his great masterpieces, Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51, Museum of Modern Art, New York) which, at 18 feet in length, is a grandiloquent statement of the revolution of Newman’s work which began with the artist’s first zip in Onement I which is only roughly two feet high. As he recounted in an interview in 1967, “I’d done this painting [Onement I, 1948] and stopped in order to find out what I had done, and 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. .. I remove myself from nature, but I do not remove myself from life.” (Interview with David Sylvester in New York 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 memorialized his commitment to pure painting as a totality of transcendence, devoid of subject matter aside from the belief in the visual and spiritual phenomena of his creations so beautifully embodied by Onement VI of 1953. Newman recognized that his aesthetic ideas had been at last given form and his own unique pictorial language had been realized. Aided by his move to a larger studio at 110 Watt Street in August 1950, Newman’s paintings expanded in scale as the grounds, voids, rhythms and zips spill beyond the edges of his canvas to encompass the viewer in a spiritual dialogue. The ambitious size of paintings such as Onement VI, which at the time was not accommodating for most homes or even galleries, was not however related simply to mere measurements or illusionistic depth, as Ann Temkin observed in her essay for the 2002 retrospective of Newman’s work in Philadelphia: “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.” (Exh. Cat., Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Barnett Newman, 2002 p. 42)
In Newman’s devotion to a single color and reductive use of demarcation with his sparsely employed zips, his work was deemed provocative and shocking, even among his fellow artists at the time of his 1950 and 1951 exhibitions; yet by the time of the first public appearance of Onement VI at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1961, Newman’s enigmatic works had struck a chord with a breed of younger artists who investigated the future of painting as Abstract Expressionism waned and the movements of Minimalist, Conceptual and Process art were in ascendance along with Pop art. By the late 1950s, Newman had begun to show his work again and his 1959 exhibition at French & Co. in New York was a revelation to artists such as Frank Stella. His banded Black Paintings, begun the same year, inaugurated the era of Minimalism in paint, and claimed a kindred spirit with Newman’s prescient work; yet the intent of the artists were diametrically opposed. For Stella, his paint was paint, his canvas an object, his bands methodical; for Newman, paintings transcend their objectness and his zips flicker with portent and presence. The subtlety of the surface of Onement VI is simultaneously voluptuous and diaphanous, proving in its sensuous evocation of atmosphere that Newman was as great a colorist as Rothko or Richard Diebenkorn. The zips were created by masking tape that reserved the area for the vertical band, and Newman welcomed the chance effects of bleeding that lend the zips their simultaneous sense of void and substance. As Richard Shiff noted in the catalogue raisonné of Newman’s paintings, Clement Greenberg had Onement VI in mind when he wrote of Newman: “If he uses his skill, it is to suppress the evidence of it. …Other contemporary painting begins to look fussy.” (Excerpted from The Collected Essays of Clement Greenberg, Vol. 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969) Shiff further elaborates on the distinction between Newman’s “disposition” of his zips and colors, as opposed to schematic composition. “Despite the generous scale of Onement VI …bleeding along the taped edge becomes visually prominent, probably because it is much more pronounced toward the top of the band than at the bottom. This unevenly distributed feature creates something of a tapered effect that catches the eye, an anomalous element in an otherwise symmetrical image. Yet this anomaly belongs to, coheres with, the painting as much as any other feature …As Newman said of perceiving the human face, it requires no scrutiny, no differentiation of parts, just a vision of the integrated whole.” (Richard Shiff, Carol C. Mancusi-Ungaro and Heidi Colsman-Freyberger, Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, New Haven and London, 2004, p. 58)
With its title, Onement VI honors Newman’s quest for the totality of the art object, evoking emotional and spiritual resonance with essential and organic features. Newman’s aesthetic philosophy was expressed in his greatest essay on abstract art, “The Plasmic Image”, which was published posthumously. In this lengthy treatise, Newman outlined the search for a universal art and defined abstract forms as ‘plasmic’ – which he identified with an organic fluidity like the movement of thoughts as opposed to the ‘plastic’ of inert matter like paint or marble. As Newman elaborated, “The new painter feels that these (abstract shapes) must contain the plasmic entity that will carry his thought, the nucleus that will give life to the abstract, even abstruse ideas he is projecting. …The effect of these new pictures is that the shapes and colors act as symbols to (elicit) sympathetic participation on the part of the beholder in the artist’s vision.” (John P. O’Neill, Op. Cit., pp. 141-142) In Onement VI, the single zip resonates within the canvas and with the viewer; it is described both by sharp tactile edges that retain a crisp memory of the delineating tape and by the gentle laps of marine blue that seep into the void of the cool light blue. Soft ghostly traces toward the bottom of the zip disperse as if into air, while deeper bleeds at eye level seek to bridge the gap of the zip from edge to edge, creating a spatial tension. The act of the pigment bleed is the locus of the temporal element in Newman’s work that finds corresponding resonance with the temporal experience of viewing Onement VI at our leisure and contemplatively.
As Harold Rosenberg wrote in his 1978 monograph on Newman, “The format of Onement I 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 the agent of inner coherence to the painting, the zip of Onement VI is also the agent of identity and universality, brought so memorably to life in the sculptures in zip form, such as Here I (To Marcia) of 1950/1962, so named when Marcia Weisman, the purchaser of Onement VI in 1961, prevailed on Newman to cast a 1962 bronze based on a 1950 plaster and wood construction. Placed prominently in the Weisman’s collection, Newman’s painting and sculpture gave graphic testimony to the enduring power of Newman’s creations. Critics who were puzzled at Newman’s work in the early 1950s sometimes regarded his paintings as philosophic statements made without artistic attributes, or conversely, as pure painting devoid of a subject. Paintings such as Onement VI, in truth, involve both spirit and nature, and Newman sought to instill in the viewer a profound sense of the spiritual. This did not imply that Newman was religious, but rather that he sought a profound faith in the role of the artist in attaining the highest realm to which a man could aspire. For Newman, art was capable of provoking in the viewer an existential sense of awe and wonderment for the sublime miracle of existence.
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