Arriving at artistic maturity after the tragedies and terrors of the Second World War, Barnett Newman stands with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning as among the most significant artists of his generation. Both for his contemporaries and for younger artists, not least Donald Judd and Dan Flavin (for whose first retrospective Newman gave the opening address), Newman functioned as the fulcrum around which a powerful relay of influences pivoted. In like manner, the present work, Untitled, 1945, reflects a pivotal position in the development of the distinctive visual vocabularies gathered under the single rubric 'Abstract Expressionism'. However stylistically diverse, each artist so labeled approached the canvas with a common intention: to enact the heroic subject of the self in painting. Such a deeply metaphysical and symbolic approach to art making was also pursued by Mark Rothko, a fellow artist at the Betty Parson's Gallery, whose 1946 manifesto-style letter Newman helped to publish in the New York Times. Rothko (and the artist Adolf Gottlieb) expressed a shared postwar zeitgeist when they asserted, "Only that subject-matter is valid which is timeless and tragic." For these artists as for Newman, "the subject" had no corporeal correlation: it comprised, instead, "thought-complexes" and embodied feeling, often of awe and "terror of the knowable" (B. Newman, "Statement," on the occasion of Newman's first one-person show at the Betty Parsons Gallery, January 23 - February 11, 1950). Such intense personal responses to art making around the year 1945, links Newman to the master narrative of post-war art in New York. Untitled affords a glimpse into a foundational moment for Newman, the evidence of "work grow[ing] out of work," for Untitled represents the essential originating moment out of which Newman's subsequent oeuvre evolves.
Having destroyed all works on canvas made before 1945, Newman's Untitled is the first work in his catalogue raisonné and is an extraordinary canvas that presages his works to come. Untitled contains, remarkably, the evidence of two structuring visual elements of the artist's full maturity: the presence of a strong vertical band (Newman's term) bisecting the canvas and the play of contrasts between the painterly, active treatment of the band and the expansive field. Here in the present work, Newman's signature "zip" makes its first appearance in oil on canvas. Born of painterly gestures, the deep rose is highlighted with touches of pale turquoise out of which Newman creates contiguous linear iterations. These colors are then carried into a wide vertical field of tactile brushstrokes in the manner of the Abstract Expressionist's active engagement with materials. The loose brush marks that embed the reclining zip contrasts with the open forms to the right, figured with the translucency of Rothko's symbolic biomorphic shapes (Rothko, The Source, 1945) and color staining at its most ethereal (Rothko, No. 9, 1948).
How interesting that the band itself is both vertical and softly angled, functioning as a cradle for the organic forms escaping in transparent cool-toned wisps of pinks and blues to its right. Swirling bursts of pale color float out and upward in nervous flight within a lightened expanse of primed canvas that in Newman's later work will be blocked out in thin layers of a single pigment in varying saturations or left raw as in the artist's stark series of black bands on canvas, The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani, 1958-66. The strong black vertical in the present wok ruptures at one end into a filigree of transparent angles and curves, while at the other, attenuates into a diaphanous charge of blue landscape. Newman, in effect, separates line from color, rejecting the conventions of representation and composition that defined Western European illusionism from the Renaissance. In Untitled, Newman seems to detach the drawn mark from the color stains. The contour line, which is traditionally used to define shape, now functions rather as a powerful structuring element that seems to divide the picture plane in two. Yet, like the "allover" of Pollock, Newman conceives his works as whole. Deeply stunned by the retrospective exhibition of Piet Mondrian at the Museum of Modern Art in 1945, Newman dismissed the elder master's paintings as built part-by-part, in the manner of "a systematic image." Untitled offers no constructive system by which the two parts can be connected: they are at once discrete and whole, a "wholeness that has no parts" (B. Newman, "To Create Oneself," Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 2004, p. 49, no. 53). As Newman would later describe, "my paintings physically declare the area as a whole from the very beginning," a notion that later Minimalists would take up with a vengeance in their drive toward the simplification of forms. (B. Newman, "Interview with David Sylvester (1965)," ibid., p. 254). By 1948, this goal had been achieved in the form of his major breakthrough work, Onement I (Museum of Modern Art), in which the viewer is confronted by a central band or zip, declaring a unitary field by means of the band's painterly handling and singleness against an open expanse of pigment. The extraordinary, if subtle, play of active versus static in Untitled is echoed in the later work, where it both divides and unites the composition: neither side of the band can stand alone; rather, both works ask to be understood as a unitary gestalt.
Newman was, as historian Richard Schiff has fully established, a "thinker who chose to develop his ideas both in painting and in writing" (R. Schiff, "Introduction," ibid., p. xiii). Active as an art reviewer, catalogue contributor, and essayist, Newman devised the major philosophical statements informing art for this generation. By the mid-forties, he had organized a series of exhibitions, among them "Pre-Columbian Stone Sculptures" and "Northwest Coast Indian Painting," as well as a show of Betty Parsons' stable of artists, "The Ideographic Picture," for which Newman penned the catalogue text. These artists, among them Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Adolph Gottlieb, were deeply committed to the parallel between "primitive" artistic symbols and the current expressiveness in art. The catalogue exhibition text suggests that current serious art was the "modern counterpart of the primitive art impulses," such as also informed the contemporaneous work of Pollock, who would join the Parsons' roster the very next year (Moon-Woman, 1942), and Rothko (The Source, 1945/1946).
While no definite subject matter can be associated with the briskly darting forms to the right of the bands in Untitled, the pictorial source of these shapes may have come from books on plants, such a John Walton's An Introduction to the Study of Fossil Plants (1940) or Douglas Houghton Campbell's The Evolution of the Land Plants (1940), which Newman consulted to supplement his study of botany, biology, and ornithology. Drawings of the period refer to a theme of "plant-and-seed growth" and abstract landscapes, with "hints of Gorky's visceral-vegetable-sexual pastures" (T. Hess, Barnett Newman, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1971, p. 45). Newman's laconic statement, "How it went, that's how it was," accounts in some measure for the influence of Surrealist automatism in the present work: "My idea was that with an automatic move you could create a world" (B. Newman, in R. Schiff, op. cit., p. 51, n. 76, Thomas Hess Papers, Archives of American Art, 1968). Yet, it is the open expanse behind these figurations that generates for the artist the most striking developments of 1945. Untitled is the first large oil to emerge from the psychically charged activity of the preceding years. It reveals the artist in an act that would catalyze the remainder of his production for his lifetime. Newman had scribbled on a loose notepaper in 1944, "The history of modern painting has been a struggle against the catalogue." Untitled begins the "catalogue" anew.