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Newman's Onement I, 1948

Barnett Newman, Onement I, 1948, oil on canvas ,27 1/4 x 16 1/4" (69.2 x 41.2 cm), The Museum of Modern Art Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker, Dr. Beth Harris http://smarthistory.org/barnett-newman.html. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Ari Mendelson
    Was Newman able to paint actual figures or draw actual pictures or was painting lines all he was capable of?
    (9 votes)
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  • mr pink red style avatar for user James Tribe
    Listen to them go:
    "biblical image..."
    "intellectually rooted set of ideas..."
    "registration of impulse..."
    They even connected it to the Holocaust and the 'American Individual'!
    Please, could someone think of an interpretation of this "elemental" (i.e. vague) work that actually isn't defensible?
    (14 votes)
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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Ivan
    The easiest way to help people understand your painting, which may be considered as weird, is to explain it yourself. Why didn't Newman do that?
    (2 votes)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user Jake Suzuki
      There's a great quote by some artist or other: "If I was just going to end up explaining my paintings in words, I would've just become a writer."
      And explaining something yourself is no guarantee that anyone will either understand or even listen to you.
      You could write an essay on your own painting and people would still reject it. To an extent, they should too. A painting is a conversation between the artist and the canvas, and the canvas to the audience. Learning about the artist can inform our relationship with the canvas, however talking to the artist will do the same thing and no more, it will only inform our conversation with the canvas. It won't crack open the doors of heaven and you won't suddenly, omnisciently, understand the canvas.
      Better to try and understand it on your own terms, to learn more about it, to think more about it, and let your relationship with a piece of artwork grow and mature over time.
      (7 votes)
  • marcimus orange style avatar for user Jordan
    What makes this line different from any other line?
    (3 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user chxxlie
      What has struck me about the Newman videos is simply how many different methods of presenting a line on a canvas he could achieve. I think the rather utopian approach to individualising variations of such limited subject matter (a verticle line from the top to the bottom of the canvas) is a lot more interesting than what those different (and yet the same!) lines might represent.
      (4 votes)
  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Brandon van Houten
    Is it important to know the painter/author of this work ?
    Would the same be said if this information was not available ?
    (3 votes)
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  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Sojourn Soulman
    I could agree that this is art but, it seems like anyone could do this. Why is this on display if its seeming insignificant?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Dana Martin
      The artistic "skill" is irrelevant. Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, etc. were experimenting with pure painting: paint on canvas, and what it can do. Of course everyone can paint a line on a canvas, but not everyone did it; he did it. If someone goes to art school now and paints with "zips" like Newman did, they would be called derivative.
      (4 votes)
  • female robot ada style avatar for user Katey Gordon
    Some say this painting has a biblical sense and type of feeling How do you feel about this masterpiece?
    Here is my perspective
    1.I notice the color of this painting almost matches the color of old fashioned antique books the center seems in my view like the color of a old fashioned stained piece of paper.
    2.My emotions through this painting feels like a book opening up and a new chapter beginning since the line is thin I feel this painter has doubts a narrow view another perspective of mine it almost feels like a Transformation process in the world so narrow by thoughts his own particular. personality is trying to show through.
    What is your perspective on this painting?
    (2 votes)
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  • mr pants purple style avatar for user Kels Rowland
    One thing I noticed the art historians skipping over was how it gets darker towards the edges of the painting. Can we interpret anything from that?
    (2 votes)
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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Residuum
    I'm not clear on the discriptions that they talk about in this painting. I'm not an art historain, so I would greatly like to try to understand the links between this work and what they are descibing it as. I'm not understanding it, and would love some insight.
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Stefan Dimov
    actually, there are infinitely many ways to draw a line
    (1 vote)
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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)