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Studying for a test? Prepare with these 2 lessons on Abstract Expressionism & the New York School.
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Ann: Barnett Newman's paintings are those which among the abstract expressionists themselves caused the greatest amount of skepticism and doubt. Newman epitomized the common sense of many abstract expressionists painters works that anybody can do that. I think Newman's paintings pushed that to its furthest extreme. Not so much in that they looked like something a child could do, because it's pretty hard to make those straight lines, but something that a house-painter could do and in fact one of the critics of one of his early shows at the Betty Parsons Gallery wrote that when you went into the gallery, you thought you were looking at the wall but then you realized oh no, you were looking at the paintings. So our question is, what really does separate these paintings? Well for one thing, the layers of color on a Newman painting are not the one or two that a house-painter might make but in fact countless layers to achieve the saturation and the subtlety of tone that Newman was looking for in the surface of his painting. Also he's not dealing with a predetermined area, for the feeling of a Newman that's smaller than you as opposed to one that occupies the whole length of a room, communicate very different feelings. So of all the decisions that Newman is making to get the effect that we see today, none of them is actually that simple. Instead what Newman is doing is trying to communicate a mood, a profound feeling, one might call it a spiritual feeling. At that time he would have, today that would be quite unfashionable to use. But there's no doubt in my mind that for Newman, what he was expressing in a rather secular medium, painting, was the kind of thing that in previous times would have been called religious. The idea behind a Newman painting is not that you look at it and understand it or get it. I think that's one of the things that has bothered people about Newman ever since these paintings first were shown 60 years ago. With a Newman you have to set aside all expectations of that and surrender yourself to the physical experience and the psychic experience of being in the space of this picture. In fact if you look through New Yorker magazines of the 1950's and 1960's, you'll find many many cartoons filling its pages of perplexed viewers standing in front of abstract expressionist paintings, probably right here at the Museum of Modern Art. But instead really what they're trying to convey is that it wasn't easy for them as painters to make the art that they were making, nor should it be easy for the viewers to experience what they made. For all of these artists it was essential that they form a signature style and much as Pollock is somebody we associate with his drips, Newman is somebody we associate with what we now call his zips. This was something new in modern art and yet at the same time as they were concerned with making Rothko's or Newman's, with these very clearly identifiable styles, at the same time they maintained that these pictures were not about them, that they were not about their mood or their story they wanted to tell, certainly not about any biographical detail and instead they were about the much larger issues of values and ideals of humankind. This is something that should take you above your daily routine. Out of your ordinary work, out of your ordinary family life. When you're with these paintings you're going somewhere else and you're bringing your soul, you're bringing your brain, you're bringing your physical body into a different realm.