"In titles I try to evoke the emotional complex that I was under."
- Barnett Newman
Coming of age as an artist in the atmosphere of moral crisis that, in America as elsewhere, pervaded the post-war period, Barnett Newman believed that a completely new art was needed. After studying at the Art Students League, New York, in 1922 and again in 1929, Newman destroyed most of his work and stopped painting from 1939–40. In his view, Western art – sidetracked by a search for beauty and formal perfection – had lost contact with "man's natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relation to the absolute emotions." Newman felt that an art of the sublime was both necessary and possible in his time, but that to achieve it artists would have to free themselves from the past and paint as if painting had never existed. "Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or 'life,'" he wrote, "we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings."
Newman's artistic response to the revolutionary project he had articulated are found in The Plasmic Image, a series of essays in which he grapples with the subject matter of the new abstract painting.
Three essential ideas shaped his thoughts and work. The first, derived from the writings of the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, was his belief in the responsibility of the individual to free himself from all dogma, whether of the right or the left. The second, inspired by the Kwakiutl art of the Northwest Coast, was his understanding that the abstract shape had its own reality and could convey ideas and feelings directly, without reference to the visual world. The third, occasioned by his reaction to Indian mounds seen on a visit to Ohio, and later deepened by his insight into the Jewish mystical concept of makom – the "place" where God is – was his desire to create a sense of place in his paintings that would convey a similar mystery. In his view, this feeling of being situated is the fundamental spiritual dimension of art; through the attention that he paid to place in his paintings, he hoped to give viewers a “feeling of their own totality, their uniqueness, and, simultaneously, their relationships with others, who are also separate.”
The Betty Parsons Gallery in New York presented a solo exhibition of Newman’s works in 1950, and a second one in 1951. During the first exhibition, a note recommended that viewers stand close to the works so that they could interact with the surfaces of the paintings. The second exhibition included Newman’s first painting measuring 8 x 18 feet. He received little critical coverage in the press; nor did certain of his friends have much to say. He therefore withdrew all of his paintings and decided never to show them again in a commercial gallery.
In the summer of 1959, Newman visited Canada; he hosted a summer workshop at Lake Emma, Saskatchewan, where he was greatly impressed by a number of Canadian artists.
In his work, Newman was very attentive to the precision of his paintings’ physical qualities. He began to work with a new acrylic paint called magma, combining the synthetic pigment with oil or distemper to achieve chromatic contrasts of opacity and depth.
He expressed the idea of place by dividing his paintings with a vertical band of colour, which he called a “zip,” to evoke his power to activate the surface of the painting. He explored the use of a very large “zip” (symmetrical bands of colour) in The Way I.
In 1967, Newman painted Voice of Fire for the U.S. pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. At the time, Americans were facing moral dilemmas raised by the Vietnam war. According to the artist’s widow, this conflict was of enormous concern to him. The painting does not evoke the war directly, but, by making each viewer aware of the place where he or she is standing, Newman establishes a moral and spiritual dimension that is profoundly expressive of his place and times. In Voice of Fire, the “zip” is the red band situated exactly in the middle of the blue background.
In 1968, in the bedroom/studio in his apartment, Newman painted Yellow Edge. Considered his last work, it consists of a single narrow band of yellow on a black background. Newman died of cardiac arrest on 4 July 1970.