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Barnett Newman

“I would prefer going to Churchill, Canada to walk the tundra than go to Paris.” – Barnett Newman

In his 1948 essay “The Sublime is Now,” Newman called for a new art stripped to its essentials that would deal with “absolute emotions.” He sought to create works the evoked the vastness of the natural world, and explored an individual’s place in it. “The self, terrible and constant, is for me the subject matter of painting,” he said. Newman’s preoccupation with the Sublime and the self exemplifies the great feeling of pride among artists in post-World War II New York. Finally American art had its own strong identity, a faith the redemptive power of art and American optimism. Despite his lofty goals, at his first solo exhibition in 1950, critics and colleagues alike were baffled by his rectangles of colour split by vertical stripes. His work was rejected as impersonal and something a housepainter, rather than an artist, would do. It would be the late 1950s before Newman was ready to paint again, and before the art world was ready to recognize him as a major force in Abstract Expressionism.

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Newman Timeline

  • Born 1905, Lower East Side, Manhattan to Jewish parents who emigrated from Poland five years earlier. Spent lifetime in New York City.
  • Graduated from the City College of New York (CCNY) in Harlem in 1927, majored in philosophy, and concurrently attended drawing classes at the Art Students League, where he meets painter Adoph Gottlieb. Worked in family menswear manufacturing business and then as an art teacher to support himself as an artist.
  • 1930s Through Gottlieb, is inducted into a group of artists who meet regularly to discuss art and sketch. This group includes Marcus Rothkowitz (Mark Rothko). Intermittently shares studio with Gottlieb.
  • 1940s Immersed in art criticism, writing for art catalogues and organizing exhibitions throughout New York.
  • 1948 Paints Onement 1, a major breakthrough for him.
  • 1950 Sells no paintings at his first solo show, it is met with negative reception, which continues throughout most of the decade, causing him to stop making art for a period of time.
  • 1958 included in MoMA travelling show “New American Painting.”
  • “Barnett Newman: First Retrospective Exhibition” at Bennington College, Vermont in 1958, with a catalogue essay by influential art critic Clement Greenberg.
  • Summer 1959, travels to Emma Lake, Saskatchewan to lead a workshop for Canadian artists.
  • Largely overlooked, his first solo museum exhibition, “The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthan,” is a major one, opening at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 1966. It received mixed critical reception but wide recognition.
  • Dies of heart attack in 1970. Seven years later, his widow Annalee founded the Barnett Newman Foundation "to encourage the study and understanding of Barnett Newman's life and works."
  • In 1990, the National Gallery of Canada purchases his massive painting Voice of Fire (1967) for $1.8 million, igniting a country-wide controversy. Twenty years later, prices have soared. In 2008, a small ink-on-paper work by Newman sold for over $5 million (U.S.).

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