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A New Beginning

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Onement IV 1949. Barnett Newman (American, 1905–1970). Oil and casein on canvas; 84 x 97 cm. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio, Fund for Contemporary Art with additional funds from the National Endowment for the Arts Museum Purchase Plan and an anonymous donor, 1969 AMAM 69.35. © 2015 The Barnett Newman Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (on view through July 24).

 

When first exhibited during the late 1940s, Barnett Newman’s radically stark paintings tended to bewilder his contemporaries, provoking overwhelmingly negative responses ranging from sarcasm to hostility. Only later would they be praised as key works in the history of modern art. Onement IV (1949), on loan from the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, is the fourth in a series of six similarly titled paintings, all featuring Newman’s characteristic format of broad areas of flat color interrupted by thin vertical bands. In each of the Onement paintings, a single band bisects the composition in its center, creating two equal-size fields on either side. According to the artist, these bands—which he later called “zips”—did not so much divide the canvas as unify it.  

Newman’s titles are often solemnly profound, and he intended this painting to have mystical connotations; indeed, “onement”—an archaic term referring to Judaic and Christian concepts of “atonement”—indicates a process of achieving spiritual reconciliation. 

During his first solo exhibition, in 1950, Newman supplied a printed artist’s statement for gallery visitors, describing his works as “embodiments of feeling.” Such notions aligned his art with that of the Abstract Expressionists, who communicated emotional impulses through line, shape, color, and texture, most often without making references to recognizable objects. However, unlike the creations of his Abstract Expressionist compatriots, Newman’s paintings were extraordinarily austere to a point where detractors accused him of pushing abstract painting to an absurdly reductive limit. So harshly dismissive were the reactions to his first two solo shows that the artist, despite being at the crucial outset of his mature career, effectively launched a moratorium against exhibiting his work that lasted seven years.

By the time Newman resumed exhibiting during the late 1950s and into the ’60s, much in the American art world had changed. Artists of a younger generation, chief among them the Minimalists, had begun debuting work acutely indebted to Newman’s precedent. Far from his previous status as an idiosyncratic outlier, Newman was now acknowledged as an essential figure whose impactful art merited reconsideration. It was with a pronounced sense of vindication that he reveled in this new appreciation, exclaiming, “They say that I have advanced abstract painting to its extreme, when it is obvious to me that I have made only a new beginning.”  

 

 


Cleveland Art, May/June 2016