Along with Jackson Pollock’s drips, and Mark Rothko’s floating fields of color, Barnett Newman’s ‘zips’ are among the most iconic forms in the postwar artistic canon. Making their first appearance as the defining element of his paintings in Onement I, 1948 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), the vertical zip form was regarded by the artist as his personal artistic breakthrough. Featured in some of his most important works, including Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950/51 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Convent, 1949 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.), and The Promise, 1949 (Whitney Museum of American Art), in 1950 Newman distilled this significant form even further into a series of six canvases that emit the extraneous details present in a larger canvas, thus showing this significant motif in its purest form. Three paintings from this series are now in major museum collections, making Untitled 4, 1950 & Untitled 5, 1950 two of only three examples left in private hands.
The two works were acquired by Eileen and I.M. Pei directly from Barnett Newman’s widow after the artist’s death—a sign of a remarkable friendship between the two couples, and a reminder of two of the greatest creative minds of 20th-century.
Untitled 4, 1950 and Untitled 5, 1950 belong to a select group of paintings that Newman painted on tall, thin canvases. Newman deliberately chose these dimensions in order to focus attention on the ‘zip’ form, and on their painted surface, including the precise and deliberate way in which they have executed. The surface of Untitled 4, 1950 is composed of three perpendicular bands of pigment, two darker colored bars that surround a much warmer core. This central area seems to possess an inner glow, emitting a soft, ethereal light, mimicking the dazzling effect of the best Mark Rothko paintings. By contrast to the strict geometry of Untitled 4, 1950, Untitled 5, 1950 offers a much more nuanced surface as an undulating trail of delicate white paint disrupts the otherwise strict geometry of Newman’s ambiguous composition.
The artist was clear in his desire that his canvases should be regarded as paintings, not pictures. His almost spiritual assertion of the emotional power of the painted surface is embodied in the present examples, and these ‘zip’ paintings contain powerful and provocative associations. In this regard, Newman stood apart from the other abstract artists of his generation, as in works such as these 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, and with Untitled 4, 1950 and Untitled 5, 1950, 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).
Alongside the grand gestural abstractions of peers such Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Clyfford Still, Newman’s canvases might appear restrained, yet they are carefully constructed and considered manifestations of their creator’s psyche. As the artist has written; “These paintings are not ‘abstractions,’ nor do they depict some ‘pure’ idea. They are specific and separate embodiments of feeling, to be experienced, each picture for itself” (B. Newman, quoted by A. Temkin, ‘Barnett Newman,’ Barnett Newman, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2002, p. 37). His vertical lines run down the entire length of the canvas, at once dividing—yet at the same time uniting—the painterly surface. This device made its first appearance in 1948, with Onement I (now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York), a canvas not unlike Untitled 4, 1950 in its palette, in which the muted tones supports a thin upright contrasting passage of color. For Newman, this new motif was one which offered a point of focus unencumbered by representation, the viewer could stare into the canvas and experience pure emotion. Critic Harold Rosenberg wrote, “In Onement I, Newman draws back from symbolism into pictorial statement that is absolute in itself, that is to say, it is untranslatable into theoretical or associational references. Onement I, does not ‘mean,’ it confronts. It must be grasped as a whole, must be felt as a presence” (H. Rosenberg, “Barnett Newman, Barnett Newman, New York, 1974, p. 23).
Untitled 4, 1950 (and probably Untitled 5, 1950 as per the catalogue raisonné) were included in the artist’s second solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York in 1951. Parsons had been an early champion of the artist, having met him in 1943. She had given him his first solo exhibition in 1950, to be followed early the next year by another one-man show, in which the present works were included. This exhibition received rave reviews from the critics, including Stuart Preston of The New York Times who wrote, “No matter what else you may feel about Barnett Newman’s canvases at Betty Parsons Gallery, you will not find it hard to agree that he has taken abstraction to its extreme conclusion... Is he proving some new theory of composition, or is he attempting to isolate the pure substance of painting? …These canvases are of interest because they put the challenge of extreme abstraction so clearly” (S. Preston, “Diverse New Shows. Drawings by Modigliani—Newman, Foys, Wells, New York Times, April 29, 1951, p. 6X).
Of the six thin ‘zip’ paintings that Newman painted in 1950, three are now housed in major museum collections. Untitled 2, 1950, a bold combination of one broad red stripe and one thinner black one, is housed in the Menil Collection, Houston; Untitled 3, 1950, an intriguing combination of bright red and gray, is in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago; and The Wild (the only named painting in the series) is one of the cornerstones of the Abstract Expressionist holdings of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. The paintings in this series became some of the artist’s personal favorites, and he continued to take an interest in their fate long after they were painted. In 1953, he took the decision to withdraw them from public view because he felt they might be in danger of being overshadowed by his much larger canvases. Despite their diminutive size, he felt they were some of the purest depictions of his art, writing “I feel so strongly that they are authentic and personal expressions” (B. Newman, quoted by J. P. O’Neill (ed.), Barnett Newman. Selected Writings and Interviews, 1990, New York, p. 198).
Newman’s enthusiasm for these paintings makes the fact that both Untitled 4, 1950 & Untitled 5, 1950 were acquired by Eileeen and I.M. Pei from the artist’s widow in the 1970s all the more significant. Pei and Newman had become friends, and would often attend dinners at each other’s houses. After the artist’s death in 1970, the artist’s widow Annalee became an even more frequent visitor to the Peis household, often attending major holiday celebrations together. The Pei’s daughter, Liane, became particularly close to Annalee Newman saying, “…[she] was like my grandmother – she was very close to me and towards the end of her life I was making food for her and bringing it over to her apartment across the street from where I lived. Pretty much every day we [went to see her]. When Barney died, she gave me some of his yoyos and his bowties to remember him by. I still have them.”
Widely regarded as one of the most profound and influential artists of the 20th-century, Barnett Newman’s ‘zip’ paintings hold a pivotal place within his total body of work. These simple, yet powerful forms, speak to the artist’s profound interest in the powerful and spiritual associations of art. 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, p. 168). These two works are a testament, not just to Newman’s technical skill and refined visual sensibility, but also to the powerful realization of his heroic creative will and deeply spiritual intelligence.