BARNETT NEWMAN (1905-1970)
BARNETT NEWMAN (1905-1970)
BARNETT NEWMAN (1905-1970)
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BARNETT NEWMAN (1905-1970)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more
BARNETT NEWMAN (1905-1970)

18 Cantos

BARNETT NEWMAN (1905-1970)
18 Cantos
the rare complete set of eighteen lithographs in colors, on various wove papers, 1963-1964, each signed, titled, dated in pencil and numbered 2/18, the set also numbered on the justification page, published by Universal Limited Art Editions, West Islip, New York, with their blindstamps, each with full margins, in very good condition, together with the original title and text pages and vellum covered portfolio box designed by Caroline Horton with the artist’s initials embossed on the cover, framed
Overall: 29 x 23 x 2 in. (736 x 584 x 50 mm.)
Barnett Newman Foundation 205-226; Sparks 137-156
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

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Lindsay Griffith
Lindsay Griffith Head of Department

Lot Essay

Between the summer of 1963 and April of 1964, Barnett Newman created the resplendent and luminous series of prints known as the 18 Cantos. This important body of work announces the return of color to Newman’s oeuvre during a period of self-imposed restraint, as he focused intensely on the black-and-white Stations of the Cross paintings (1958-66; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). Rich, high-keyed colors are met with the heraldic gesture of Newman’s signature “zip” motif in the 18 Cantos, which ranges from flickering shafts of light in Cantos I-VI, to wide bands of radiant color in Cantos VII through XVIII.

The present portfolio is exceedingly rare, with at least twelve from the small edition of eighteen now tucked away into major museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris; and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. An example has not appeared at auction in nearly fifteen years.

The Zen-like simplicity of this complete portfolio, with its brilliant palette of primary colors and classical proportions, embodies the spirituality and grandeur that define all of Newman's greatest works. It is evident that Newman considered his prints on par with his paintings, and in the 18 Cantos, he experimented with the form itself, varying the density of the inks to lend radiance and depth to each jewel-toned hue. He also incorporated the paper’s margin to add breath and gravitas to each form. Newman’s chosen title acts as a metaphor for the spiritual meaning that imbues so much of his oeuvre. The number eighteen is a sacred number in Jewish tradition, and it is also closely associated with the Hebrew word chai, meaning “alive.”

One of Abstract Expressionism’s most vocal and passionate adherents, Barnett Newman believed in the primacy of the artist’s gesture, and sought to rid his work of extraneous details that might deflect from the importance of his singular, painterly act. He eschewed all traces of narrative, forgoing even the most abstract shapes, and ridding himself of modulated color, to arrive at a pure, new, art form. His artistic breakthrough came in 1948 with Onement I – a mystical painting in which the zip makes its first appearance via a thin, vertical line with wavering edges that seemingly cleaves the painting into two halves. Newman’s Onement I, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, has been called “a talisman for where his art would lead him for the rest of his career” (B. Gopnik, “Barnett Newman: Laying it All on the Line, Washington Post, April 28, 2002, p. G1).

By the time he embarked upon the epic suite of lithographs that comprise the present work, Newman had both refined and pared down his enterprise even more, deciding, in 1958 – in the wake of his first heart attack - to limit his palette to only black and white. Thus, from 1958 to 1966, Newman made only black-and-white paintings, as he was obsessively focused on the Stations of the Cross series (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). Also at this time, Newman began to consider that each painting could then relate to a larger whole, thinking in terms of cycles where each painting would exist in dialogue with others. This opened up exciting new possibilities for the artist. When, in 1963, he was invited by MoMA curator William S. Lieberman to embark upon a series of lithographs at U.L.A.E., he naturally gravitated toward a multifaceted and rich “cycle” of work.

Spirited on and nurtured by Tatyana Grosman, the founder of U.L.A.E., Newman delighted in the liberties afforded to him by this new medium. He experimented with the density of the inks, often pairing two similar, but slightly different, colors together on the same sheet. In many instances, he allowed the tusche to seep outside the boundary of its prescribed format. This creates a kind of flickering edge, lending a sense of “aliveness” to works in the cycle despite the austerity of their formal constraints. From Canto I to XVIII, the width of each vertical line progresses and changes. What initially begins as a thin white line in Cantos I through IV, then dances and flickers, gradually widening out and becoming emphatic and declarative in the final five Cantos.

Throughout the cycle, there exists a dialogue between each individual work, and it is perhaps not surprising that Newman considered each Canto as individual parts of a larger orchestra. He explained, “These eighteen cantos are then single, individual expressions, each with its unique difference. Yet since they grew one out of the other, they also form an organic whole…each canto adds its song to the full chorus” (B. Newman, preface to 18 Cantos; reprinted in R. Shiff, ed., Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, 2004, p. 455).

Throughout his career, Barnett Newman searched for a profound and universal art with which to express the absolute, to convey an abstract sublime that evoked all the emotion and gravitas that all great works of art, from music and dance to even the splendor of the seasons, could evoke in us. As the curator Esther Sparks explained, this search required an open-mindedness and a willingness to change despite skepticism by his critics. “Change was not only a matter of making something new but the obligation to reassess the acts of making and looking at art,” she declared. (E. Sparks, Universal Limited Art Editions, A History and Catalogue: The First Twenty-Five Years, New York, 1989, p. 206). In this way, the stylistic developments that Newman explored in the 18 Cantos might have ultimately paved the way for the glorious return of color in his work, in the four large-scale paintings of 1966-70 titled Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue.

It is a powerful experience to encounter all eighteen Cantos at once and to witness the fullness of Newman's vision. For, despite their seemingly austere visual constraints, each sheet is tinged with a feeling of profound human emotion. The art critic Blake Gopnik summarized this feeling, when reviewing Newman’s retrospective in 2002, in describing his work: “Written analysis can turn these pictures into dry, intellectual exercises in how a painting can be put together. But that isn't what they are. They are deeply human explorations of how it feels, and what it means, to look, when human looking has been condensed to its most basic building blocks.” (B. Gopnik, op. cit, p. G1).

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