Wednesday 23 July 2014

Barnett Newman at the Stedelijk

Barnett Newman at the Stedelijk, Amsterdam.
Newman is considered an Abstract Expressionist, though his monochrome fields of colour might at
first appear to be examples of Minimalism. He considered himself an intuitive artist: 'I start each painting as if I have never painted before', he said. He recommended that viewers stand close to his works to experience physical and emotional sensations so as to elicit a sense of self within the universe. Using masking tape to paint narrow, vertical bands within the fields of colour, Newman divided the canvases, thereby providing a means of visual focus. He referred to these lines as 'zips', describing them 'as bands of light' that bring 'the entire thing to life'.
Like that of other American Colour Field painters, his art was created in reaction to the atrocities of WWII. With the void and light as his visual references, Newman explored the relationships of people and the absolute.
Who's afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, 1967-68
Newman began the series Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue I-IV without a preconceived plan - it was a voyage of discovery. He had planned the first work to be larger than any he had done before
and to be completely asymmetrical. He painted the canvas red which led him to add yellow and blue, 'the only colours that would work'. In so doing, he confronted the historical use of primary colours, and he particularly looked to Piet Mondrian, his forerunner in abstraction. Newman thought that Mondrian had wrongly attempted to bring these colours into balance, but, in contrast, he had no ambition to achieve balance. Instead, he wanted to invite the viewer to experience the explosive force of the colour red. In fact, Newman wanted to use imbalance as a way of freeing the trinity of primary colours from its art-historical burden.
In this painting the dominance of red is emphasized by a horizontal format. He used resilient loom-wide cotton, a material intended for the production of military tents. He integrated the fabric's rough texture into the work, allowing it to remain more or less visible beneath his painted layers. He painted the red in four separate layers to create an opaque colour, of which the top layer was characterized by vertical brushstrokes. The narrow strip of yellow is thicker and the blue is more transparent so that both colours contrast more emphatically with the red.


a closer look

Cathedra, 1951 (oil and acrylic on cotton)

Newman achieved the intensity of Cathedra by applying six separate layers of paint, each consisting of different blue pigments. The result is a richly nuanced pictorial surface - a carefully blended field of colour that conjures spatial illusion. Cathedra, or Throne, refers to the blue of the heavens and the throne of god, described in the Old Testament. With his title, the highly spiritual Newman wished to convey the connection he felt with the higher, mysterious forces of life while in the process of creating Cathedra. In 1997 the work was badly damaged by a visitor to the Stedelijk Museum. The  prime objective of the restoration process was to match Newman's original colour layering method as closely as possible.


Right Here, 1954

The Gate, 1954
The contrast between the bands of light turquoise, dark brown and black suggests that the viewer of this work is about to step through an open doorway and into an endless space. The title Newman gave
this painting ('to help the public out', as he said) invites a religious interpretation. The 'gate' of the title refers to the tabernacle in the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament.



  1. Intellectually, Newman's work excited me in my teens. It was interesting to see it again in your photos, and remember what a joy it was when I first saw the huge paintings of the colour field artists in US galleries in the early 80s.

    1. Yes, I can imagine. I love their work - when visiting Tate Modern I always go and spend some time in the Rothko room. And it was a delight seeing Newman's work in Amsterdam.