NEW YORK — Paintings don’t always have to tell a story; they can just exist and don’t need to be interpreted. Through the artist’s command of color and brushstrokes, they can impart a kind of spiritual or transportive experience. Barnett Newman (American, 1905-1970) was a master of Color Field paintings, creating striking color-saturated works with color bands he dubbed “zips,” which spoke volumes in their simplicity and rich hues.
As an artist, Newman was something of a late bloomer. He began painting in his thirties after working in his father’s menswear store as well as teaching and writing. According to the Museum of Modern Art, it took the artist about 10 years to become confident in his art, and he destroyed much of his early work. “In 1948, with the completion of a painting titled Onement, I, Newman found his voice,” the museum states on its website. It was with this work that Newman created the style that would distinguish him from then on. He used his zips, vertical bands of color, to connect the parts of his paintings.
This artistic practice led Newman to be lumped in with Color Field and minimalist painters, but he resisted such categorization and saw his works as his own brand of abstraction. He said he strove to paint works never painted before as extensions of his thoughts. “Newman insisted that he was a painter but not a picture-maker, and that his work depicted neither objects nor non-objects,” according to the website of The Barnett Newman Foundation, which was founded by his wife nine years after his death in 1970.
He excelled at creating sumptuous tones through varying densities, usually in a single color, such as in a 1966 screenprint in colors on Plexiglas, The Moment, from his series Four on Plexiglas. The painting, mounted onto wood, sold for $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2016 at Clarke Auction Gallery.
His use of colors is both bold and subtle in an oil on canvas that features a wide field of orange. He explores the range of the warm hue, from a light shade imparted to the upper corners to a deeper orange in the bottom half. Two zips of blue run though the center, vertically, giving the painting a physicality. The unnamed work realized $1,025 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2018 at International Art Auction Gallery.
While many of Newman’s paintings featured bright colors, he also was known for his monochromatic paintings such as a gouache on paper that earned $4,600 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2018 at Auction Kings Gallery. The tones of black, grey and white work well together and ably prove that figures aren’t required for a painting to have a sense of scale or presence. The colors used and Newman’s arrangement of his zips remind the viewer that the finished painting represents the sum total of an artist’s choices.
Another fine example of his monochromatic works is an oil on canvas with mustard yellow zips against a creamy background, which sold for $3,350 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2018 at Auction Kings Gallery. The artist always varied the placement of his zips; sometimes they were symmetrical, and other times they were smack in the middle of the composition, or near the borders. This painting has one zip on either side and a skinny dark one precisely in its center. In all cases, however, Newman’s intention was not to break up the background color field but to unite the parts of the painting.
The majority of Newman’s paintings featured vertical zips but in a few works, he played with horizontal bands. An oil on paper styled with a monochromatic scheme and bold wavy lines running horizontally brought $2,900 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2018 at Antique Auctions Plus.
Newman was not given his full due during his lifetime, but his presence in the annals of art history is firm and unquestioned today. While very abstract, his paintings are lyrical and in keeping with the artist’s interest in spirituality. They invite the viewer to engage with them mindfully, and look to them as vessels that can connect them with emotions, sensations and realms beyond.