Sometime between 1939 and 1940, the American artist Barnett Newman (1905–1970) stopped painting and destroyed all his work. He did not start painting again until 1944, by which time he was grappling with an existential question: ‘When Hitler was ravaging Europe, could we express ourselves by having a beautiful girl lying naked on a divan? I felt the issue in those years was — what can a painter do?’
The answer came four years later, in 1948, with a pared-down canvas of flat colour interrupted by a thin vertical stripe. This, the artist explained, was not a representation of something, but an entity in itself. He called it Onement I, suggesting wholeness, and said that the painting was ‘the beginning of my present life’.
Today, the six works which make up the ‘Onement’ series are considered to be the artist’s breakthrough paintings. Not only do they embody Newman’s obsession with a sense of presence — he often talked about how his paintings should be encountered in the same way one encounters another living being — but they are also the first works in which he uses his trademark ‘zip’, a vertical line running through the centre of the canvas.
In describing their importance, he said, ‘I realised that I had been emptying space instead of filling it, and that now my line made the whole area come to life.’
Born in New York City in 1905, Newman was the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants. He studied painting with Adolph Gottlieb (1903–1974) at the Art Students League, before working for his father’s menswear company until it collapsed during the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Politically active, he was an anarchist for a time, later pursuing several disparate careers: he ran as a candidate for mayor of New York, before becoming an artist in his 30s. He secured his first solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1950, when he was 45.
Newman belonged to a generation of painters, among them Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Gottlieb and Clyfford Still, who had witnessed the very darkest moments of the 20th century and hoped to create a new art that would transcend the wreckage. Free from the weight of European culture, Newman fervently believed that American artists could start from scratch, and paint as if painting had never existed before. He promoted this idea in his 1948 essay The Sublime Is Now!
‘I realised that I had been emptying space instead of filling it, and that now my line made the whole area come to life’ — Barnett Newman
Onement V, which is being offered in the ONE sale on 10 July at Christie’s in New York, embodied this new hope. By 1952, the year of its creation, Newman had moved into a spacious studio on Front Street, where he could expand his theory on a larger scale. The present canvas is one of only two works from the landmark series still in private hands: the other four are held in museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
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In the same year that Onement V was painted, the critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) wrote in the Partisan Review that Newman was ‘a very important and original artist’. Soon after, the painting was exhibited in Tokyo together with works by Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko and Mark Tobey.
Greenberg understood that in the Onement series Newman was facing up to history and asking big questions about the role of art. In the subtle variations of paint and the impressive scale, these paintings revealed the power and drama of creation.