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Current time:0:00Total duration:4:53

Video transcript

Voiceover: So here we are on the fourth floor of the Museum of Modern Art and we're looking at a painting called Onement I by Barnett Newman. Voiceover: I love Barnett Newman. Voiceover: And it's from 1948. Voiceover: And I love this painting. Voiceover: I know when we walked by you said, "I love this painting." Voiceover: It's a tiny little painting. You know most people walk into this gallery and they look across the gallery on the other side and they see Vir Heroicus Sublimis, this huge red canvas. Voiceover: By Newman. Voiceover: And they completely ignore this tiny little canvas with this simple little line that Newman called the zip. But I think if Newman were still alive and he were in the gallery with us, you know I think he would be very proud of Vir Heroicus but I think he would want us to pay attention to Onement I. It was a real breakthrough for him in an important way and he actually he talked about it in an interview with Thomas Hess, if I remember correctly. He says that he did it on his birthday and he said that he was preparing... I'll give you a little short back-story about it. He was preparing the canvas as he often did, if you look at the canvas its got this broad sort of slightly uneven cadmium gray dark background but before he had laid that down, if you look closely, you'll see that there's a piece of masking tape, just simple three quarter inch masking tape that goes down the center. And what he would often do is he would paint up the background a bit and then he would remove the tape and then he would have this stark white zip that would be going down the center of it. But this time he decided, he said, to just impulsively take some cadmium red light and paint it down, paint a line right down on top of that masking tape. Voiceover: So is that masking tape still there, underneath there? Voiceover: It's still there, can you see the ridge? Voiceover: So in this case he never removed the masking tape. Voiceover: That's right and then what he says is great, I love this. He took a chair, he sat down in front of it, he stopped painting and he decided he had done something really important and he sat back to think about what it was. (laughs) Voiceover: Now Newman you have to understand was a really interesting guy. He'd gone to city college, he had been a philosophy major, he had actually run for mayor of New York on the artist ticket. Obviously he didn't win. He was an ornithologist. He really was a very cerebral guy. Voiceover: So what is it that you think that he thought he did? Voiceover: Well art historians have been arguing about that for a long time. Some art historians see this as really a kind of biblical image. There is a long line of art history that sees his childhood in an orthodox Jewish environment as being expressed in this notion of a kind of biblical origin. Sort of the primary division. If you think about the first pages of the bible, of the book of Genesis. Voiceover: The dividing of light from darkness. Voiceover: Of male from female, of good from evil. Yes, exactly right. Voiceover: The land and the sea. Voiceover: That's right. But other art historians, who I tend to prefer actually, disagree with that to a large extent and see this as a much more normal and much more I think intellectually sort of rooted set of ideas. Let me step back from that though and just say that I think what Newman saw was a registration of impulse. That his impulse to paint that cadmium red light down the center which had not been preconceived, was itself the thing that he was valuing here. It was a kind of unexpected turn and that impulsiveness, that sort of moment of creative energy, was signified here, that's what he was interested in. Voiceover: But artists do that all the time, they start painting and then they go somewhere else. They have an impulse and their brush takes them somewhere else. Voiceover: It's true but this is such a purified expression of it. It's so elemental. That line, let's look at it for a second. It's not a horizontal line, although he did occasionally do that. It's vertical and as you stand in front of it, you're not standing in front of this painting to the side, you're standing almost directly in front of it and that's what people do. People align themselves to his zips. They are vertical, they're the human figure and in fact there have been some efforts to sort of parallel the line of Newman's zip with say Giacometti's very tall thin figures. Voiceover: Yeah it reminded me of that. Voiceover: Yeah and I think there may be something to that. Because in some ways I think that that zip is a mirror, it's a very abstracted mirror of the human in space, of the figure looking at themselves in a kind of isolation. Voiceover: So you think that by painting the tape as a sort of declaration of human presence. Voiceover: And individuality, yeah. I think there's something sort of inherently- Voiceover: I'm here kind of thing. Voiceover: Yeah and it's really existentialist and if you think about when this was painted, in the late '40's, existentialism was very powerful. This was the years immediately after the Second World War and if you think about Newman's concern for the concentration camps which had just really became wildly understood in the U.S., this idea of people pushed together, right? Here we have in a sense this assertion of the American individual of this figure in isolation. Voiceover: An idea of individuality but also kind of personal freedom. (piano playing)