Philadelphia Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 351 pp., $65.00
Although Barnett Newman, through his writings, did as much as any other single figure to create the climate in which Abstract Expressionism was to be born and subsequently to flourish, he was the least expressionistic of the Abstract Expressionists. Alfred Barr was until the last moment doubtful about including him in the exhibition entitled “The New American Painting” launched by MOMA in 1958, because he didn’t appear to fit into it comfortably. Newman was probably pleased to get the recognition but he would also have been pleased about the doubt; throughout his career he refused to be categorized.
Newman was in many respects the most radical of the Abstract Expressionists and certainly the least productive. The exhibition which opened in Philadelphia last March and was on view at Tate Modern in London until early January included some seventy paintings, just over half his works on canvas, and almost all his graphic work (even more restricted in terms of number). Newman was also the most erudite of the Abstract Expressionists. A man of dignified bearing, he was invariably referred to as Barney, even by those who did not know him. Apart from Andy Warhol, I can think of no other major artist of the twentieth century (and of very few of the more distant past) who was known universally by his nickname. Even today young artists speak of “Barney” and view him as a sort of universal uncle. Andy was to fall somewhat irreverently under Barney’s spell. In an interview given shortly after Newman’s death in 1970 he said, “The only way I knew Barney was I think Barney went to more parties than I did…. Maybe he didn’t have to work a lot if he just painted one line, so he had time for parties.” The reference is to Newman’s visual or painterly signature: his invention of the vertical stripe, or “zip.”
Newman found his vocation during the 1930s, when he was in his twenties; but he was the slowest of developers and during the 1940s he was known primarily as a writer and organizer of exhibitions. It is doubtful whether even his closest associates at the time, men such as Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, took him seriously as a painter, although they welcomed him as a spokesman and herald. In 1943 Newman wrote a foreword to the catalog for the first exhibition of American Modern Artists, held at the Riverside Museum in New York and a protest against the Metropolitan’s exclusion of progressive art from its juried exhibitions. Newman himself was not a member of AMA, but during the 1930s he was politically active and was responsible for the composition of a manifesto, “On the Need for Political Action by Men of Culture.” He was to remain the most politically conscious of all his painter colleagues and clung throughout his life to the independent anarchistic views he had formulated in youth. In 1968, the year that he produced Lace Curtain for …