"Drawing is central to my whole concept"
Newman declared this in 1962 (B. Newman, quoted in Barnett Newman: The Complete Drawings, 1944-1969, Baltimore, 1979, p. 18). At each major turning point of his career, drawing allowed Newman to freely invent and investigate his techniques. Indeed, Newman's drawings explore energetically. The present collection, a remarkable group of works on paper, that represent decisive moments in Newman's aesthetic development, from his early Surrealist-inflected style to the climax of his purest black and white abstractions.
For Newman, drawing was not simply preparing to develop a painting, but mattered creatively in its own right. While his experiments on paper inspired him, he did not create specific studies on paper for his paintings. Rather, his drawings on paper stand as independent works. The primal creative act of making a mark on a blank sheet of paper, and thus symbolically possessing this space, formed the conceptual model for Newman's conception of painting. Newman developed his signature method of composing directly on canvas instead of working out a painting's structure beforehand, essentially interpreting painting as a form of drawing. Commenting on his achievements, Newman asserted that, "I hope that I have contributed a new way of seeing through drawing. Instead of using outlines, instead of making shapes or setting of spaces, my drawing declares the space" (Ibid.).
In his early career, Surrealism influenced Newman. Automatic drawing was a core principle of the heterogeneous Surrealist movement, as it claimed to represent a direct and spontaneous link between the subconscious and the hand, without the interference of the rational mind. In addition, like many of his contemporaries, Newman was profoundly affected by the human devastation wrought by World War II, and responded to the crisis by both turning inward and by looking for inspiration in primordial shared myths. As with much of the early work of the Abstract Expressionists, Newman drew on forms that evoked the subconscious as well as the primitive. In his drawing Untitled of 1944, Newman created a lively composition in muted earth tones, with an enigmatic birdlike central form surrounded by abstract shapes that suggest the wandering unconscious. In a m/aelange of crayon and pastel, Newman experimented with rubbing pigment into the paper, then scraping it down, while applying a looped line with firm pressure. One of his signatures at the time, this looped line hints at instinctual mark-making, as well as an intensity that Newman would later transform into his famous "zips."
The untitled drawing of 1945-46 in the present collection represents a critical shift in Newman's career, and importantly bridges his early Surrealist-inflected work and his mature oeuvre. The war impelled Newman to search for new form, for symbolic new beginnings. Newman began to work with drastically reduced forms, simplifying his compositions more than ever before. Working only with the most elementary means, white paper and black ink, he utilized an expressive, wavering line, but also made more strident vertical marks that gain visual power through the striations left in the brush's wake as it moves across the paper. Working across a large sheet, he used broad sweeping strokes that exude a monumental force. The dynamic diagonal forms seem to be possessed of their own unseen force, as they grow and expand upward across the paper, defying the pull of gravity. Newman's expert handling of ink and brush result in a rich array of tones and painterly effects in this spare composition of black ink on white ground. Significantly, this drawing represents Newman's earliest known use of the vertical mark, and therefore represents a nascent form of his signature "zip" motif.
The palette of black and white was, for Newman, a powerful tool of discovery and renewal. "When an artist wants to change, when he wants to invent, Newman once said (discussing the 1948 and 1950 pictures of de Kooning and Kline), he goes to black; it is a way of clearing the table -- of getting to new ideas" (Ibid., pp. 13-14). In the untitled drawing of 1946 in the present collection, Newman created potent effects by playing with positive and negative space. Taping off two vertical passages, he painted over them with ink so that when he removed the tape the paper's white reserve was revealed, suggesting both a positive compositional element as well as negative space. Pulling a dry brush across the paper's coarse grain, he created a dramatic tension between hard vertical edges and rough passages of ink. Figure and space interact with rich ambiguity. In this drawing Newman also embraced unexpected effects, as in the lower left where removing the tape left a mottled mark. This work is a rare example in Newman's oeuvre of a drawing that is very closely related to a specific painting, which also executed in 1946 and tellingly titled The Beginning (Art Institute of Chicago).
Newman spent the 1950s devoted almost exclusively to painting. As his output dwindled toward the decade's end, he turned again to drawing to provide renewed artistic sustenance. In 1960, Newman had a burst of creativity, creating a group of twenty-two works on paper, two examples of which are in the present collection. Each of these drawings masterfully explores his pared-down materials and signature "zip," Newman's famed vertical motif that evokes human presence and consciousness.
Each of the untitled drawings of 1960 in the present collection are independent works, yet also importantly germinate Newman's renowned series of paintings The Stations of the Cross (National Gallery of Art in Washington). These drawings find Newman experimenting, leading up to his final conception of the Stations. They are also fully conceived works in which Newman tested his visual instincts and expressive powers. In the Stations, Newman played with black paint upon the raw surface of unprimed canvas, creating a range of contrasting textures that generate spatial complexity, echoing his use of ink on the textured surface of the high-quality watercolor paper in the present drawings.
Of all his drawings of the 1960s, the example that features a single white zip is among the most luminous. Here, Newman used the draw brush technique expansively across the paper to create a shimmering surface of subtly modulated tones. The single white zip that cuts through the dark black passage has particularly monumental presence. Bordered by intense black ink, this white zip becomes even more radiant by contrast, cutting through the darkness with an almost elemental power. Compared with the wavering lines embedded in the black ink, the white zip has a steadfastly vertical quality that seems heroic. This drawing is very close to the composition for Fourth Station in the Station of the Cross series, which Newman painted during the same year.
Newman achieved new artistic heights in his dramatically minimalist composition of 1960, in which he leaves an expanse of blank paper exposed between two vertical shafts of black ink. In making this empty expanse his composition's center, Newman challenged one of the most fundamental conventions of Western art. Paradoxically, Newman conveys open space upon the paper's flat surface that is not illusionistic; it almost sculpturally evokes an open expanse. Newman's dramatically pared-down approach to abstraction, as exemplified in this work, would powerfully affect the generation of artists who followed him, particularly the Minimalists. As Donald Judd remarked, "If forms run off the edges to imply a continuum, the painting is a segment of that continuum, which isn't true of Newman's paintings. They are whole and aren't part of another whole. This wholeness is new and important" (D. Judd, Donald Judd: The Complete Writings, 1959-1975, Halifax, 1975, p. 202). Judd's comments equally apply to Newman's works on paper, as the present work exemplifies.
In Untitled of 1960, the density of the black stripe on the left, which Newman carefully calculated so that it broadens slightly at the base, is matched in visual force by the broadly mottled stripe on the right. The right-hand stripe has a mysterious texture, which flickers with flame-like energy. Later, Newman would return to a similar compositional structure in Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue I of 1966. Newman generates a palpable tension across the blank chasm of the paper, suggesting a magnetic force. Although it is entirely non-representational, the drawing hints at an unfathomable type of space, an association both physical and metaphysical, as is typical of Newman's works. This powerful and inspired composition represents the zenith of Newman's exploration of drawing in ink on paper, and his achievement in creating what he described as "a new way of seeing through drawing."