After studying philosophy and experimenting with painting in expressionist and surrealist styles, Barnett Newman finally discovered a style to express his innermost desires in the 1950s. Born January 29, 1905, Newman sought to charge images with pure symbolic meaning, completely devoid of recognizable imagery, and succeeded in such works as Vir Heroicus Sublimis (above, from 1950-1951). The Latin title, which means “Man, heroic and sublime,” epitomizes the heroic and sublime aspirations of Newman’s “zip” paintings, which feature broad expanses of color separated by thin bands of color. Newman suffers more than most abstract artists from the “I can do that” syndrome of the uninformed viewer, who believes that Newman’s technique consisted of masking tape and nothing else. Behind that simplicity, however, Newman created rhythms and subtle differences that make his works quite stirring when beheld in person. Reproduction just can’t do justice to the experience of viewing Vir Heroicus Sublimis, which is so large that you feel enveloped by the painting, as if you had stepped into the mind of the artist itself.
Although Newman belongs to the Abstract Expressionist school, he couldn’t possibly be more different in style than Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. Newman’s closest compatriot always was Mark Rothko, who took a similarly philosophical approach to art and longed to create an entire cosmos out of a simple arrangement of colors. Despite this intellectual bent, Newman never lost his sense of perspective or humor, famously saying that "Aesthetics is for artists what ornithology is for birds." Newman’s Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue II (above, from 1967) shows his humorous, more colorful side from his later work. (Frank Bowling later paid homage to this aspect of Newman’s art with his 1968 painting, Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman?) Just judging from photographs, I imagine that Barney Newman had the demeanor of a kindly teacher, full of wisdom and insight wrapped up in jokes and easy laughter.
In 2002, the PMA staged an exhibition of Newman’s work. Up to that point, Newman’s full power eluded me, due mainly to seeing his works almost exclusively in reproduction. I could appreciate him intellectually, but the emotional, visceral component was missing from my understanding of his work. After walking through the galleries featuring much of his major work, I found myself in the room containing his 15-work suite titled The Stations of the Cross, painted from 1958 to 1968. These works, such as Station No. 1 (above, from 1958), abstractly portray the passion of Christ, a sequence I was familiar with since childhood as a Catholic. Every church I had ever been in had some depiction of that sequence on the walls. But here was something completely different and alien. I sat down and tried to wrap my mind around them, only to find myself moved emotionally by the simple arrangements of black and white paint and raw canvas. By removing the figure of Christ himself from the equation, Newman created something somehow “truer” to the message of Christ’s passion that can’t be explained in words and can only be understood by those who have experienced it themselves. With works such as The Stations of the Cross and his “world turned upside down” sculpture Broken Obelisk, Barnett Newman halts the fast-paced world of modernity and modern art for a moment and allows us to breathe, think, and, finally, feel.