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Barnett Newman (1905-1970)
Barnett Newman (1905-1970)
Barnett Newman (1905-1970)
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Barnett Newman (1905-1970)

Onement V

Details
Barnett Newman (1905-1970)
Onement V
signed and dated ‘Barnett Newman 1952’ (on the reverse); signed again and inscribed illegibly (on the overlap)
oil on canvas
59 5/8 x 37 ¾ in. (151.4 x 95.9 cm.)
Painted in 1952.
Provenance
Mr. and Mrs. Stephen D. Paine, Boston, acquired directly from the artist, 1962
Harold and Hester Diamond, New York
Annalee Newman, New York
David Pincus, Wynnewood, 1988
His sale; Christie's, New York, 8 May 2012, lot 24
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Literature
T. Hess, "The Force of Barnett Newman," Intellectual Digest, June 1972, p. 45.
R. Rosenblum, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Freidrich to Rothko, London, 1975, pp. 210-211.
H. Rosenberg, Barnett Newman, New York, 1978, pp. 67 and 78, no. 79 (illustrated in color).
H. Rosenberg, "La Sculpture de Barnett Newman," Art Press, no. 35, March 1980, p. 12.
F. Meyer, "Zur Gültigkeit des Christusbildes in der ugegenständlichen Kunst: Die Kreuzwegstationen Barnett Newmans," Kirche und Kunst, no. 2, June 1982, p. 64.
P. Negri, "Signs of Being: A Study of the Religious Significance of the Art of Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko," Th.D. Thesis, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, 1990, p. 158.
Y.A. Bois, Painting as Model, Cambridge, 1993, p. 198.
R. Francis, "Barnett Newman," Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Lives, exh. cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996, pp. 140 and 147 (illustrated in color).
M. McNickle, "The Mink and Art of Barnett Newman," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1996, p. 237.
R. Rubinstein, "Versions of Rapture," Art in America, 84, no. 9, September 1996, pp. 70-72 (illustrated in color).
Y.A. Bois, "Here to There and Back," Artforum, March 2002, p. 105.
N. Denny, "Nothing to It," New Statesman, 7 October 2002, p. 41 (illustrated in color).
M. Godfrey, "At Onement: Jewish Approaches to the Art of Barnett Newman," The Jewish Quarterly, Winter 2002, p. 19 (illustrated).
R. Shiff, C. Mancusi-Ungaro and H. Colsman-Freyberger, Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, 2004, pp. 248-249, no. 58 (illustrated in color).
Exhibited
Tokyo, Kimura Gallery, Six American Abstract Painters: Motherwell, Newman, Okada, Rothko, Tobey and Youngerman, April 1959.
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Barnett Newman, October 1971-January 1972, p. 80, no. 38.
Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Creation: Modern Art and Nature, August-October 1984, p. 25, no. 2 (illustrated in color).
Cologne, Kölischer Kunstverein, Raum, Zeit, Stille, March-June 1985, p. 53 (illustrated in color).
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, November 1986-March 1987.
Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Lives, June-October 1996, pp. 147 and 194, no. 63 (illustrated in color).
Philadelphia Museum of Art and London, Tate Modern, Barnett Newman, March 2002-January 2003, p. 160 and 202-203, pl. 54 (illustrated in color).
Philadelphia Museum of Art (on extended loan).

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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

Barnett Newman’s Onement V belongs to an internationally important group of six paintings that helped to define the course of twentieth century painting. Beginning in 1948, Newman debuted his ‘zips’ (as he termed them), canvases with a vertical line of contrasting color that interrupted the saturated hues of the painted ground, resulting in a palpable sense of painterly energy. The critic Robert Rosenblum described the result as “the romantic sublime” (R. Rosenblum, quoted by S. Hunter, J. Jacobus, D. Wheeler et al., Modern Art: Paintings, Sculpture, Architecture and Photography, New York, 2004, p. 276), and along with Mark Rothko’s floating planes of color and Jackson Pollock’s drips, Newman’s Onement paintings did much to shift the course of painting from the emotional to the philosophical.

The present example is one of only two in the series that remain in private hands, the remaining canvases are in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York (Onement I, 1948 & Onement III, 1949), Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford (Onement II, 1948) and the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin (Onement IV, 1949). Previously part of the artist’s own personal collection, and later acquired by the artist’s wife Annalee Newman, Onement V was part of the legendary collection of David Pincus from 1988 until 2012. 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.

Against a field of deep, rich dark blue, Newman inserts a solitary ‘zip’ of ethereal acquamarine. This simple constraint belies the complex aesthetic and philosophical concerns of Newman’s legendary series. Onement V is almost hypnotic, in that it mesmerizes the eye, not only with its simple composition and noble palette, but also with its rich, painterly surface. As the viewer examines the painting, the monochromatic field of dark blue 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 layer of verdant color take on a special translucency, the bright 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.

In contrast to the wild gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline, Newman (along with Rothko and Clifford Still) gained his potent pictorial force by producing large, expansive fields of pure pigment. These large-scale canvases were intended to subdue the spectator’s ego and create a tranquil sense of awe. Yet Newman wanted to add a further dimension to his paintings by adding a single zip (or several, in the case of works such as Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950-51, Museum of Modern Art, New York), a vertical line of contrasting color that interrupting the purity of the painted surface. Intensely visible, yet in danger of being subsumed by the surrounding color, these thin passages sought to produce a retinal reaction in which the color reverberates back an forth with a quiet energy. “For Newman, the zips serve to ‘cut’ the greater plane of saturated hues and shock it into waves of visual energy that roll back and forth between bands and edges, thereby making dynamic what otherwise might seem a totally static image” (S. Hunter, et al., ibid).

In January 1948, Newman created 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.

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” (Ibid).

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, op. cit., 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” (ibid.). 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 Raisonné, 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 (ibid.).

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, op. cit., 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, op. cit., p. 31).

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