In 1960, Barnett Newman embarked on a series of works on paper with an energy and sense of artistic verve the likes of which he had not experienced for a number of years. During this period of intense productivity, he produced a series of fifteen drawings which scholars have identified as playing an important role in the development of one of his most famous and iconic series of paintings, the cycle that became known as The Stations of the Cross (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). With its arrangement of alternating black and white bands, Untitled forms part of this remarkable group of works on paper; as one of the first examples in the series, it evidences the exploratory energy that Newman harnessed to produce his iconic series of paintings.
Measuring 14 by 10 inches, the sheet that Newman used for Untitled is the largest of the two sizes he used for this series. Along the extreme left edge of the sheet, the artist lays down a dense band of black ink. The concentration of the pigment in this band shifts from passages of impenetrable darkness to more veiled areas where the underlying sheets remains visible. Adjacent to this is a wide void, a band of space that Newman has intentionally left free from any mark as part of his composition. Next comes another wide band, this time of loosely applied ink resulting in a diaphanous lateral passage that mixes together pools of ink, with trails of pigment left by the brush as it travels over the surface of the sheet, finally an unfilled band completes the quartet. The result is a complex arrangement of positive and negative space, “a…shift in the way the white works—from clearly reserved (back)ground to the illusion of applied form” (B. Richardson (ed.), Barnett Newman: The Complete Drawings 1944-1969, exh. cat., Baltimore Museum of Art, 1979, p. 159).
While the dates of this series and their related paintings overlap (the first paintings are dated 1958, while works on paper don’t begin until 1960), it is widely acknowledged by Newman scholars that these ink on paper drawings play an important role in the development of the Stations canvases. Although not considered to be studies in the conventional sense, these works on paper are regarded as being a necessary forum in which Newman clarifies his thoughts before committing these ideas to canvas. Thus some writers have declared them “variations on a theme,” (J. Dillenberger and J. Dillenberger, quoted by B. Richardson (ed.), ibid., p. 158), while others have pointed out that they are consistent with the artist’s preferred method of working. In such, “The drawings are a kind of incubation for the Stations, not in the sense of preparatory studies but as the preliminary exploration necessary for Newman to confirm his visual instincts, to achieve a sense of conviction (both metaphorically and formally) about the direction he found the work taking in 1958-60” (Ibid.). Whilst the works on paper do not relate to specific paintings as such, Untitled has been identified as being formally close to Seventh Station and Eight Station, both painted in 1964 (Ibid.). The lateral thin and thick bands of black ink of the present work and their placement in relation to the edges are mirrored in the canvases, with subsequent works on paper advancing this proposition by manipulating the number and width of the markings.
Newman was clear in his desire that his art should be regarded as painting, not a picture. His almost spiritual assertion of the emotional power of the painted surface is embodied in works such as this and his ‘zip’ paintings, all containing a simple column of differentiated pigment that could contain such powerful and provocative associations. In this regard, Newman stood apart from the other abstract artists of his generation. In works such as the present example, he perceived a unique metaphysical understanding, that “a shape was a living thing, a vehicle for an abstract thought-complex, a carrier of the awesome feelings” (B. Newman quoted in R. Shiff, Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonné, 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 works such as this, Newman himself became deeply moved by the stunning velocity of his ‘zip’ flowing across the surface 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.
Like many of his American contemporaries, and those in Europe such as Lucio Fontana, Newman’s practice was influenced by the profound existential anxiety that swept around the world in the aftermath of the Second World War. He felt obliged to respond to the political and social situation of his generation through an elemental art based on essential human truths and feeling. He ventured into “the chaos of individual action” and discovered his personal sign—the bisecting stripe—after years of struggle (B. Newman, ‘The New Sense of Fate’ 1948, reproduced in John P. O’Neill (ed.), Barnett Newman: Selected Writing and Interviews, Los Angeles, 1992, p. 168). He often pointed out that the artist must start out like God, with the chaos of formlessness and with the void of the blank canvas. From this emptiness, he had to form something from nothing, reenacting God’s primal gesture—the division of light from dark—so that his abstract forms and symbols would have “the living quality of creation” (B. Newman, ibid.). Untitled is a testament, therefore, not just to Newman’s technical skill and refined visual sensibility, it is also a powerful realization of his heroic creative will and deeply spiritual intelligence.