Barnett Newman (1905-1970)

Barnett Newman is famous for his ‘zip’ paintings.   This ‘zip’ style is characterised by large expanses of color which feature narrow, vertical lines of a contrasting color. The uneven edges of these thin lines have the appearance of torn paper.

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Canto XIV, c.1964
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These are big, powerful works.  There is a sense of stillness around them and for the viewer there is also a sense of another world, deeper within the painting, a world unzipped and revealed, although Newman claimed this wasn’t the intention.

For him, the contrasting color of the ‘zip’ against the dominant background color was the unifying factor, providing the viewer with a complete experience, as he put it “a totality”. He believed that the paintings should be viewed up close so that the viewer could experience a sense of his own separateness in the world.

Early Years

Newman was born in Manhattan in 1905 into a Polish Jewish family.  He had a keen interest in art from a young age and in 1922 he enrolled at the Arts Students League and from 1923 to 1927 he also studied at the City College of New York.

His father owned a successful clothing manufacturing company which  was almost wiped out in the 1929  Wall Street crash.  In support of his father, Newman worked on a part-time basis in the business and part-time as a substitute art teacher. When ill health finally forced his father to retire, the company was liquidated and Newman was again free to pursue his art career.

Newman was always outspoken and controversial in his opinions.  In 1933 he sought election as Mayor of New York with a manifesto entitled “On the Need for Political Action by Men of Culture”  which promoted “more extensive education, a greater emphasis upon the arts and crafts, and the fostering of cultural living conditions.”

During the early 1940s, Newman studied botany and ornithology.  He was also a writer and critic, publishing essays and writing for exhibition catalogues featuring  the work of many of his contemporaries.

‘Zip Paintings’

In the mid-1940s he returned to painting and had his first break-through when he produced his painting, Onement 1 in 1948.  This marked the development of what was to become known as his ‘zip’ paintings.

This ‘zip’ style was characterised by large expanses of color which featured narrow, vertical lines of a contrasting color.  The edges of these lines were uneven and had the appearance of torn paper.  The contrasting color of the thin line against the dominant background color was, for Newman, the unifying factor, providing the viewer with a complete experience, as he put it “a totality”.   The paintings were made on large canvases and Newman believed that in order to fully engage and connect with them the viewer needed to stand up close to them. 

Success as an Artist

Newman had his first one-man show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1950.  He was well-known for his outspoken and controversial opinions and his show was well attended by the art world but the work did not immediately gain recognition.   A second exhibition the following year was poorly attended and left Newman feeling disappointed and alienated from his fellow artists.  Life was difficult financially and it wasn’t until the late 1950s that things began to improve.

Four of Newman’s paintings were included in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition The New American Painting which toured to Europe in the 1950s.  Other exhibitions followed at Bennington College and in a new exhibition space on Madison Avenue. Newman’s reputation was finally established.  His Stations of the Cross exhibition took place at the Guggenheim Museum in 1966, by which time he was a highly respected figure in the art world. 

Barnett Newman died in 1970.