Barnett Newman (1905-1970)
Christie's interest in property consigned for sale… Read more In the early 1980s, the vision for the creation of the Israel Phoenix Assurance Company's collection was conceived by Mr. Joseph Hackmey, who was the Company's managing director. In an interview to the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot in 1997 Mr. Hackmey said: "Someone who has succeeded thanks to the public among whom he lives should return something to this public" (M. Omer, ed., 90 Years of Israeli Art, a Selection from the Joseph Hackmey Israel Phoenix Collection, Tel Aviv, 1998, p. XXXIV). Mr. David Hackmey, then the Company's chairman and Joseph Hackmey's father, agreed to the formation of the collection. The Israel Phoenix Assurance Company was founded by Mr. David Hackmey in 1949. The company deals with all aspects of the insurance business and has holdings in diverse fields. The collection comprises of the world's most comprehensive grouping of Israeli art. The Phoenix's Israeli art collection includes works by topographical painters of the Holy Land who visited Israel in the 19th century, works by Israeli masters from the pre-state days, as well as Modernist and Contemporary art. This November, seminal works by the forerunners of American Contemporary art from the Phoenix collection will feature in this evening sale. Leading the group is Jasper John's iconic 0 Through 9 from 1961. This is one of a series of five paintings with this title, executed in 1961; each is composed of the numerals 0 through 9 superimposed one on top of the other. Mark Rothko's No. 18 is a beautiful, predominantly red-hued "Multiform" from 1948. White Fire I, a luminous painting by Barnett Newman from 1954. This extremely rare painting by Newman is characteristic of his pure style and mystical content. Robert Rauchenberg is represented by a combine painting of 1960, Nettle. Other works to be offered from this collection are Eva Hesse's 1967 Sculp-metal piece Untitled, Agnes Martin's Untitled #14 and two early works by Robert Ryman, as well as an impressive Abstraktes Bild by Gerhard Richter, which comes straight from the retrospective. ' Mr. Joseph Hackmey, a perfectionist and art connoisseur with a discerning eye, was the driving force behind this collection. In a 1998 interview with Professor Mordecai Omer, Director and Chief Curator of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Mr. Hackmey described how he began to collect: "I started collecting art only in the early seventies I thought that to buy paintings was a very expensive matter circa 1975 I was in London, at an auction at Christie's, and I discovered that paintings don't necessarily cost great sums. In 1975-76 you could buy international art for some tens of thousands pounds sterling. I had a small collection of international art until the eighties, and then the Japanese got into the market and the prices went up a lot. I started collecting Israeli art--its reasonable prices and its availability encouraged vigorous activity. When the prices went down during the great distress of the international market in the years 1990-1992, we built a modern American collection, which continues the classical collection. Lately we've started collecting Contemporary art by young international artists" (Ibid, p. XIX). There are few corporate art collections in Israel. The Israel Phoenix Assurance Company's collection is a role model among them. The Phoenix was well known for its support of Israeli artists, Israeli institutions and art publications. Most importantly, the art was used to enhance the welfare and well being of the Company's employees. Whenever you strolled through the maze of offices of the old Phoenix building, you caught a glimpse of important Israeli and international art from every office. Often large works were crammed into small spaces as the employees were allowed to chose what they wanted to hang in their domain. Miri Ben Moshe, the Phoenix's curator, could be seen at any given time leading distinguished guests from room to room, often interrupting meetings while opening the door and asking: "Could we please have a look at the art?" In an article about the collection published in 1998, Miri Ben Moshe listed three goals for the collection's contribution to the Company: (a) a congenial atmosphere for employees and visitors (b) a public relations and image asset for the company and (C) an astute investment. (Ibid, p.XXXVI-XXXVII). In 2002 The Israel Phoenix Assurance Company came under new ownership. The new management's investment strategy and focus for the firm changed. One of the decisions taken was to sell their eight important works which make up this exceptional grouping of Post-War works. by Roni Gilat-Baharoff Property from the Collection of the Israel Phoenix Assurance Company
Barnett Newman (1905-1970)

White Fire I

Barnett Newman (1905-1970)
White Fire I
signed and dated 'Barnett Newman 1954' (lower right)
oil on canvas
47 7/8 x 59¾ in. (121.6 x 151.8 cm.)
Painted in 1954.
David Gibbs, London
E. J. Power, London
Waddington Galleries, London
C&M Arts, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, January 1995
T.B. Hess, Barnett Newman, New York, 1969, p. 55.
N.L. Prak, "Persistent Schemes: The Quest for a Neutral Form," Art International, 14, no. 7, September 1970, p. 78.
T.B. Hess, Barnett Newman, New York, 1971, pp. 82 and 93.
C. Geelhaar, "Museen und Galerien, The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Ausstellung Barnett Newman--Complete Drawings 1944-1969," Pantheon, 38, no. 3, July/September 1980, p. 238.
S. Polcari, "Barnett Newman: New Beginnings," Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, Cambridge and New York, 1991 p. 206.
H. Rosenberg, Barnett Newman, New York, 1994, p. 115, no. 83 (illustrated in color).
P. Schneider, "Déclarer l'espace: Barnett Newman," Petite Histoire de l'Infini en Peinture, Paris, 2001, pp. 310-311.
London, Tate Gallery, Barnett Newman, June-August 1972, p. 59 (illustrated).
London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, In Tandem: The Painter-Sculptor in the Twentieth century, March-May 1986 (illustrated, n.p.).
New York, C&M Arts, Newman, Rothko, Still: Search for the Sublime, April-May 1994 (illustrated in color, n.p.).
Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Die Epoche der Modernen Kunst im 20. Jahrhundert/The Age of Modernism: Art in the 20th Century, May-July 1997, no. 158 (illustrated in color).
Philadelphia Museum of Art; and London, Tate Modern, Barnett Newman, March 2002-January 2003, pp. 206-207, no. 56 (illustrated in color).
Special notice

Christie's interest in property consigned for sale. Christie's generally offers property consigned by others for sale at public auction. From time to time, lots are offered which Christie's International Plc or one of it's subsidiary companies owns in whole or in part. Each such lot is offered subject to a reserve. This is such a lot

Lot Essay

White Fire I is the first of four paintings with the title White Fire which Newman painted at different points in his career. Although these four works share the same title this does not presuppose any formal similarity. Each is very different from the other. The title White Fire is a mystical term that relates directly to the Torah. As such it clearly invokes a profound sense of the spiritual that Newman sought to instill in the viewers of his paintings. This is not to say that Newman's was a religious art. Despite his study of and frequent invocation of Jewish mysticism in both his art and aesthetics, Newman remained at heart an atheist whose essential existentialist view of life was permeated with a deeply spiritual sense of the uniqueness of man. For Newman, the role of the artist was the highest to which a man could aspire. As a consequence he sought an art that invoked a sense of the sublime miracle of existence. As he had co-written with fellow artists Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko in a letter to the New York Times in 1943, "There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject-matter is valid which is tragic and timeless."

Through the precise and exact painterly science that Newman mastered in which the flat color of the surface of his paintings is formed in direct proportion to the impressive scale of his works, Newman forged a visual language that aimed to provoke an existential sense of awe and wonderment in the viewer. Because of the exact nature of this science, a Newman painting can never be understood in reproduction. Its scale in relation to the viewer is crucial and the work has to be experienced at first hand. It was Newman's intention, as he famously pointed out in 1970, that "the visual experience of the painting (should be) a single experience as single as the encounter that one has with a person, a living being" (Quoted in Barnett Newman, exh. cat. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2002, p. 78).

Despite their imposing scale Newman wished the viewers of his paintings to view his work from close--to immerse themselves in the field of his color so that their vertical physical presence found an echo in the formal properties of the painting. Towards this end the "zip" - the vertical strip of color that divides and yet at the same time makes sense of the work's field of color, was all-important. The "zip" is a singular vertical form that permeates the void suggested by the color field and asserts a striking dynamic presence that the viewer is unable to ignore. Essentially a line of vitality and energy that seems to assert the mystery of existence and the dynamism of life, its unassailable verticality in the midst of vast field of color often sparks a mystical connection with the verticality of viewer standing in front of the painting. As Thomas Hess has written Newman's "zips" are "an act of division, a gesture of separation, as God separated light from darkness, with a line drawn in the void. The artist, Newman pointed out, must start, like God, with chaos, the void: with blank color, no forms, textures or details. Newman's first move is an act of division, straight down creating an image. The image not only re-enacts God's primal gesture, it also presents the gesture itself, the zip, as and independent shape--man--the only animal who walks upright, Adam, virile, erect" (T. Hess, op cit.,, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, p. 56).

Onement, the title Newman gave to his great breakthrough painting of 1948 where the "zip" finally asserted itself in its true form, refers to this sense of communion, of oneness between, God, the act of creation and existence, as well as to the sense of communion between the viewer and the "zip". "I try in my titles," Newman once said, "to evoke the meaning that the painting had when I was painting it." In White Fire I the title refers to the mystical fire out of which the Torah (the five books of Moses handed down by God) was originally made. In a book on Jewish mysticism by Gershom G. Scholem which Newman owned, Scholem paraphrases the ancient description of the Torah in the Book Bahir (one of the earliest books of the Kaballists) as follows: "the fiery organism of the Torah, which is burned before God in black fire on white fire is as follows: the white fire is the written Torah, in which the form of the letters is not yet explicit, for the form of the consonants and the vowel points was first conferred by the power of the black fire , which is the oral Torah. This black fire is like the ink on the parchment. And so the written Torah can take on the corporal form only through the power of the oral Torah, that is to say without the oral Torah it cannot be understood. Essentially only Moses, master of all the Prophets, penetrated in unbroken contemplation to that mystical written Torah, which in reality is still hidden in the invisible form of white light. The form of the written Torah is that of the colors of white fire, and the form of the oral Torah has colored forms as of black fire." (G. G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, New York, 1954).

Newman employed the both the terms "white fire" and "black fire" as titles of his paintings. White Fire I was painted after a long period of painting dark pictures, chiefly characterised by a series of deep blue paintings between 1951 and 1953. In White Fire I Newman manages to attain a transluscent sense of brightness. The pale field of colour is made bright - almost a radiant white - by the effects of the two "zips" which also, through their contrasting colors suggest a constantly shifting sense of space against the seemingly infinite expanse of brightness. The overall effect, is one of a mystical light, a light that presumably inspired the works distinctly mystical title.

Fig. 1 White Fire III and White Fire I in the home of E.J. and Rene Power, London, 1964
c 2002 Barnett Newman Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Fig. 2 Newman double-exposed with Vir Heroicus Sublimis, Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, 1951
Photograph by Hans Namuth
c 1991 Hans Namuth Estate/Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona

Fig. 3 Hebrew Pentateuch and 'Five Scrolls', Codex manuscript on vellum, France, mid-13th century


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