Painted in an ethereal, ink blue palette, dramatically interrupted by a solitary 'zip' of aquamarine, Onement V is a sublime masterpiece that perfectly captures Barnett Newman's abstract aesthetic. Created just four years after his breakthrough painting, Onement I (1948), it represents one of only two paintings from this early, landmark series to remain in a private collection. The other four are currently housed in major American museum collections including: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford and the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin. Previously part of the artist's own personal collection, and later acquired by the artist's wife Annalee Newman, it has formed part of the Pincus collection since 1988. It dates from a pivotal moment in the artist's career when he was first exhibiting at the Betty Parsons Gallery, gaining traction with the public and recognition amongst his peers for his radical approach to painting. At first glance, works such as Onement V appear to be centered on color and form, but for Newman these concerns were only secondary. Instead he sought to instill in his compositions a fundamental spiritual and transcendental power. As he claimed, 'if we are living in a time without a legend or mythos that can be called sublime... how can we be creating a sublime art?... instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or 'life', we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings' (B. Newman quoted in A. Temkin (ed.), Barnett Newman, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia 2002, p. 47). Newman belonged to a generation of American painters including Mark Rothko, Alfred Gottlieb, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and others who had witnessed the very darkest moments of the twentieth century, amongst them the Great Depression, the atom bomb and the Holocaust. Rather than recoil however, they sought a new, emancipating vernacular and the title of the present work embodies this artistic ambition. As Newman once explained, 'I tried to make the title a metaphor that describes my feelings when I did the painting [It] is a celebration of harmony, wholeness; the archaic sense of atonement that was 'at onement' (B. Newman quoted in T. Hess, Barnett Newman, New York, 1969, p. 54).
Onement V is an almost hypnotic work that captivates not only with its elegant composition and noble palette, but also with its rich, painterly surface. As the viewer casts his or her eye across the painting, the midnight blue of the canvas transforms with the incidence of light to reveal different textures: dense pools of pigment complemented by shallow veils of color. Along the central 'zip', the artist's washes of verdant color take on a special translucency, the white priming layer shining up from the base of the painting. Newman intentionally engendered this effect, applying various mixtures of blue to the canvas and concluding the final layer with the use of a spray gun. He considered the differences in density and shade as fundamental to the finished work, creating important distinctions between each of the compositional elements. As Ann Temkin has noted, 'thickly built-up paint layers on each side buttress a central band so thinly painted that it reveals the texture of the canvas beneath it. The relationship between the band and the field shifts according to the angle of the light or the viewer's perspective: the band can appear glossy within a matte field or vice versa' (A. Temkin, Barnett Newman, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia 2002, p. 202). A similar effect is evident in the artist's monumental Cathedra executed in 1951, which is currently housed in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Soon after these works were completed, Newman ceased to use this technique; the logistics of handling a spray gun proving much more challenging than with a brush (T. Hess interview with B. Newman, A. Temkin, Barnett Newman, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia 2002, p. 202).
In January 1948, Newman created his Onement I, rendering his blank canvas in pure Indian red oil paint. Along the central axis of the painting, the artist affixed a long slice of masking tape, slathering it in a thick layer of burnt orange oil paint to neatly bisect the composition. Elegant and vertiginous, it has been suggested that the resulting 'zip' or stripe of color in paintings such as Onement I and Onement V, recall Alberto Giacometti's beautifully modulated yet haunting human sculptures. Instead of removing the masking tape from the canvas in Onement I, Newman decided to leave the traces of his method visible in an explicit rebuke or deconstruction of Mondrian's almost scientific geometry. In the majority of Newman's works including Onement V, he removed the tape allowing the 'zip' itself to bear witness to his working method. As Ann Temkin has noted: 'the assertive absence of the tape is not so different from its presence and similarly calls attention to the made-ness of each and every painting' (A. Temkin, Barnett Newman, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia 2002, p. 48). In contrast to Minimalist art produced later with almost industrial precision, Newman believed that a work should reveal its facture or in Robert Goldwater's words, allow 'the process [to] shine through the result' (R. Goldwater quoted in A. Temkin, 'In the Studio', A. Temkin (ed.), Barnett Newman, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia 2002, p. 47).
Newman had been a consistent pioneer of new approaches in art since the mid 1940s, emerging as one of the most fervent advocates of American art. Together with his colleagues he hoped to establish a new aesthetic of the sublime that would revive the fortunes of painting. In his landmark essay, 'The Sublime is Now', Newman argued that the United States could now determine a radically new direction in art, distinct from past European aesthetics: 'I believe that here in America' he explained, 'some of us free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it' (B. Newman quoted in A. Temkin (ed.), Barnett Newman, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia 2002, p. 47). For Newman it was about provoking a shift in contemporary practice, releasing art from its preoccupation with beauty and centering it upon the search for truth. As Thomas Hess, one of Newman's first great advocates explained, 'the painting should correspond to the artist's interior sensation, to his most subjective judgment, and not to an idea about beauty preserved in other paintings' (T. Hess, Barnett Newman, New York, 1969, p. 31). As such, Newman and his cohorts were hoping to establish a tabula rasa, freeing future generations from the legacy of European tradition.
Much of Newman's disaffection with contemporary art can be understood in the context of the Second World War and what he perceived as the inability of surrealism and geometric abstraction to respond to its devastating reality. He concluded that the art created during this period offered little more than decorative distraction and as such, needed to be urgently superseded. His ambitious claims for American painting become clear in the conversations Newman shared with his friend and neighbor Willem de Kooning in the mid-1940s: 'Bill said, 'Art history is a bowl of alphabet soup; the artist reaches in and spoons out what letters he wants; which letters do you want Barney? And I didn't know what to answer; I mean it wouldn't have been polite to say that I've nothing to do with a bowl of soup' (B. Newman quoted in A. Temkin (ed.), Barnett Newman, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia 2002, p. 32).
During the 1930s and 1940s, New York was the foremost location for European contemporary art, holding major retrospectives for figures such as Picasso, Joan Miró, Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian. Newman was particularly interested in the contributions of Miró and Mondrian, describing them in a 1947 letter to Clement Greenberg as 'the most original of the abstract European painters' (B. Newman quoted in A. Temkin (ed.), Barnett Newman, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia 2002, p. 32). Certainly Newman had them both in mind when he nominated abstraction as the fertile route for his new American art. Notwithstanding, he criticized his forebears for their reliance on nature and reality as a source of inspiration for their work. Newman was particularly scathing about Mondrian's method, which he considered to be directly derived from 'the seen landscape, the vertical trees on a horizon', his perpendicular angles constituting 'known natural images' (B. Newman quoted in R. Shiff, Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonnée, R. Shiff et al. (eds.), New York, 2004, p. 25). In 1945 the artist wrote his text 'The Plasmic Image', in which he went even further to criticize Mondrian, the subversive title offering a play on words and mocking the Dutchman's signature 'plastic' art. In the conclusion to his text, Newman noted venomously that Mondrian's art had been 'founded on bad philosophy and on faulty logic' (B. Newman quoted in A. Temkin (ed.), Barnett Newman, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia 2002, p. 32).
Distinctly against Mondrian's Euclidian geometry, Newman became captivated by the primitive abstraction he had encountered in Kwaikiutl (Northwest Coast Indian art). In these works, he perceived a unique metaphysical understanding: 'to [the Kwaikiutl] a shape was a living thing, a vehicle for an abstract thought-complex, a carrier of the awesome feelings he felt before the terror of the unknowable' (B. Newman quoted in R. Shiff, Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonnée, R. Shiff et al. (eds.), New York, 2004, p. 29). It was this sublime, transcendental possibility that Newman hoped to translate into his own body of work. In paintings such as Onement V, Newman himself became deeply moved by the stunning velocity of his 'zip' careering through the center of the canvas. As the artist later proclaimed: 'suddenly I realized that I had been emptying space instead of filling it, and that now my line made the whole area come to life' (B. Newman quoted in T. Hess, New York, 1969, p. 31. As Hess later recalled, the Onement series proved to be 'a revelation' for both artist and viewer. 'In Onement I' he noted, 'the orange element cut the red-brown into two equal sections, which were independent, but part of the whole. The orange itself was neither a shape nor a division, but a two-edged drawing that held the red-browns together and pushed them apart. And the background was cancelled' (T. Hess, Barnett Newman, New York, 1969, p. 31). It is this sense of wholeness, of the unity of the work that is fundamental to Newman's painting, each element being simultaneously part of the whole. As he explained: 'my paintings are not a construction the wholeness has no parts' (B. Newman quoted in R. Shiff, Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonnée, R. Shiff et al. (eds.), New York, 2004, p. 49).