If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

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

Video transcript

so here we are in the fourth floor of the Museum of Modern Art and we're looking at a painting called one mint one by Barnett Newman I love that number and it's from 1948 and I love this painting I know when we walked by you said I love this game 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 their heroic as sibling us is huge red canvas i Newman and they completely ignore this tiny little campus with a simple little line the Newman called the zip but I think if Newman was still alive and here in the gallery with us you know I think it would be very proud of your heroic as' but I think he would want us to pay attention to one mid one it was a real breakthrough for him in an important way and he actually he talked about it in a 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 the I'll give you a little short backstory about it he was preparing the canvas as he often did if you look at the canvas it's 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 this 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 of it and then he would remove the tape and 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 that masking tape so if that masking tape still there it's still there yeah can you see the ring yeah and if he never removed the masking tape that's right and then what he says is greater levels 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 no you really have to understand it 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 so what is it that you think that he thought he did well our historians have been arguing about that for a long time some art historians see this as as really a kind of biblical image there is a long line of our history that sees his childhood in a North attacks 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 dividing a light from darkness Nelson female that's good from evil yes exactly right the land in this that's right but other 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 moment of creative energy was signified here that's what he was interested in but artists do that all the time you may say start painting and then they use a while they go somewhere else they have an impulse but this brush takes them somewhere else it's true but this is such a sort of 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 it with say Giacometti is very tall thin yeah it reminded me of that 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 so you think that by painting the tape I was a sort of declaration of human presence individuality yeah I mean this I think there's something sort of inherent I'm here behind a face that's right it's really existentialist and if you think about when this was painted in the late 40s and substantial ISM was very powerful this was the years immediately after the Second World War and if you think about Newman's concern with concentration camps which it just really became widely understood in the u.s. this idea of people push together right here we have in a sense this assertion of the American individual of this of this figure in isolation an idea of individuality but also a kind of personal freedom