Barnett Newman – Pioneer of Abstract Expressionism

Barnett Newman (1905-1970) is one of the most important representatives of Abstract Expressionism and is known for his color-intensive paintings. He had a great influence on the development of Minimalist and Conceptual Art in the 20th century.

Born and raised in New York City as the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Newman first studied philosophy and later art. After graduating, he worked part-time as an art teacher at New York High schools. He did not begin his artistic career until the late 1930s. He was friends with many important artists at this time such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Ad Reinhardt. It was this community of artists that collectively paved the way for the Abstract Expressionist movement, which focused on inner experience and emotion and radically changed the use of color, form, and texture.

At first, Newman tried out different styles before finally finding his own style in the late 1940s – “Onement I” from 1948 is considered one of his key works and marks a turning point in his career. In “Onement I,” Newman uses the motif of the “zip,” a vertical stripe separating two areas of color, for the first time. It symbolizes Newman’s effort to capture the pure essence of painting and to get the viewer to focus on the experience of colors and forms and their spiritual meaning.

He had his first solo exhibitions in New York in 1950 and 1951. Unfortunately, he received very negative reviews at that time, which discouraged him so much that he withdrew for several years and stopped painting. It was not until 1958 that he decided to make another attempt and presented his art at a solo exhibition at Bennington College in Vermont. Thus he showed his works to a larger audience again. In the same year, he was also a participant in the exhibition “The New American Painting” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.1

I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality.

Barnett Newman, John Philip O’Neill (1992). “Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews”, p.21, Univ of California Press

Newman’s career was marked by criticism and doubt. Although he was already enjoying increasing success in the early 1960s, his work was often misunderstood and criticized. Newman himself felt compelled to repeatedly explain his artistic intentions and correct false interpretations. Even years after his death, in 1982, one of his works, “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue”, fell victim to an attack at the Neue Nationalgalerie in West Berlin when a visitor struck it. Another of his artworks, “Cathedra”, was the victim of a knife attack at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1997 and was also severely damaged as a result. It is fascinating how powerful his works are that they trigger such strong reactions in people.

For Barnett Newman, art has always been a way to address universal themes and spiritual questions. By using abstract forms as carriers of metaphysical ideas, he gave his art a dimension that went far beyond its purely aesthetic qualities. Newman painted intuitively and placed great emphasis on expressing his authentic emotions. At the same time, he also wanted to arouse emotions in his audience by giving them space to engage with his paintings on a personal level.

Barnett Newman died of a heart attack in 1970. With his large-scale and timeless paintings, he created an extraordinary oeuvre. His work opened the way for subsequent generations of artists and significantly influenced the development of Minimal Art.

Further Reading


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