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The Painting Techniques of Barnett Newman

Learn Barnett Newman's techniques and how he reinvented the traditional figure-ground relationship. To experiment on your own, take our online studio course Materials and Techniques of Postwar Abstract Painting. Created by The Museum of Modern Art.

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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user ∫∫ Greg Boyle  dG dB
    This was a very interesting commentary and gives me greater appreciation for this work and its complexity. However, how far can this artistic reductionism go? Will I one day walk into an empty white room at MOMA and expect to have some existential experience. I guess the crux of my question is how is one who is not trained in art expected to gravitate toward liking these works?
    (33 votes)
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    • mr pink orange style avatar for user Ben Murray
      I think just being aware there is more depth within much of what we see is enough to appreciate this, or any other art, at a much greater level.

      It won't necessarily change your mind about whether you like or dislike various works, but I think being trained in art is not a prerequisite to being able to get a deeper enjoyment and appreciation. Could you picture yourself viewing a work of art in-person, not liking it, but still enjoying the time you take to view it in detail? If so, then the experience for a work of art you really do like should be that much better.
      (14 votes)
  • mr pink red style avatar for user Chris Johnson
    What was the song played near the end of the video?
    (6 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Alex Hallmark
    If I walked into a bar and asked these questions of Franz Kline, I would expect to hear just what is said beginning at . What I would like to hear, is what Michelangelo or Manet would say. I would really like to hear some real criticism in these films and not merely today's Artists Salon of "experts". The Salons of Paris in the 1800's could easily be seen as elitist, trapped in their own narrow definition of art, but aren't today's critics just as elitist and narrow minded?
    (6 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Dayvyd
    Did Newman do any horizontal "zips"?
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user 😊
    I have never been the one to say a young child can do that but when he demonstrated that I felt that a child could. what a child can not do is have that deep meaning and understanding of experiences. How do people feel, is the art about the the actual painting(physical and technical) or is it about the feeling and emotion?
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      There are all levels of "art" involved. At base, there's the concept that exists in the mind of the artist. Then there's the expression of that concept into physical form (painting, sculpture, performance, composition, etc.) Then there's the art involved in the curation and display of that physical form (be it gallery, museum, living room wall or barn door). A further level happens between the object and the viewer. These levels are not heirarchical, just different. Order them as you will. Each is real. Not all have to be there for an artistic moment to have occurred.
      (2 votes)
  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user homeschooler77
    How many paintings did Newman do in his lifetime?
    (1 vote)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Captain Loud Dragon
    im hearing Minecraft music, but really, how do these kinds of paintings make it into museums? they are just lines?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user drszucker
      From the author:The value is found in its synthesis of technique and the emotional content represented. When you read a poem that moves you emotionally, it is not the letters or the precision of the writer's typing that you value, it is the content. Content that is represented abstractly through lines and dots on a page that are crafted to create powerful meanings. Newman is trying to do that with color, line, form, and with mark making (and without the aid of written and spoken language).
      (3 votes)
  • starky seedling style avatar for user Oscar Trejo
    what the song playing in the background
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Bobby Spielman
    The lines in class with the zips. its very visually stimulating.
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

Male: Guy walks into a bar. Sees the painter friend's client sitting down with a beer. Says, "Friends, you know I just came from the new Barnet Newman show." Client says, "Oh yeah, what do you think? I haven't seen it yet." Guy says, "You know, it seemed pretty simple. Just a bunch of paintings with lines." Client says, "Huh. These paintings, they all the same color?" The guys says, "No." "These paintings, they all the same size?" Guy says, "No." "How about those lines? They all the same color? Same size? Same placement?" Guy says, "No." Client says, "Sounds pretty damn complicated to me." (piano music) In old master paintings, figure ground relationships usually referred to the figure, say the Virgin Mary and the ground. Either the gold ground, background of an Italian panel painting, or perhaps the landscape that is behind the Virgin's throne. In Vir Heroicus Sublimis, Newman has gotten rid of the Virgin. He's also gotten rid of the landscape. What he's retained, is the illusionistic relationship between forms in space. Why are these lines vertical? It's because when we relate to each other, we relate to each other, largely as vertical forms. As soon as a mark is made on canvas, visually one thing is in front of another. Newman referred to these things, if you will, as zips. And these zips are vertical lines which connect the upper and lower edges of the painting. And in this example, the far left of the painting, by looking closely we can actually see that the color of the zip was actually painted first, underneath the color of the ground. So that you might say, "Okay, a zip, a line, it's certainly in front of the ground, just like the Virgin is in front of the landscape behind her. However, by looking closely at this zip, you can realize that Newman actually reversed that relationship because you're seeing that that zip is actually physically behind the ground. So, how did Newman do it? Newman almost always used masking tape to construct his zips. Now what you'll notice first, is that I've painted a base coat. A very fleshy pink kind of color. One way that Newman made zips was to use masking tape over a base coat. Now removing the tape you'll see that the color of the entire painting has changed, except for that area of the zip. Shifting gears and looking at this very dark zip, towards the right side of the painting. This zip because it's so dark on such a bright painting, almost looks like it has a depth, like it's behind the red ground, as if you could look into that space. However, approaching the painting and getting close, you realize that Newman has constructed this zip in a different way. So that where that tape bleeds under the masking tape, it's actually going out from the zip and into the red ground, meaning that physically that paint is actually on top of the red ground. What we begin to get a picture of then, is that Newman is making all these subtle adjustments to these zips. (piano music) None of them are the same. And none of them have the same relationship, to the red ground of this painting. So when you stand from a good viewing distance, away from the painting, you realize that these zips are competing with each other for your optical attention. So that one zip is quite loud and hits you in the eye directly, while other zips may be just flickering barely there, and are very, very slow to attract your eye to them. In other words, there's a victorial dynanism. There's a dynamic interaction between these zips in space. (piano music) Newman invited the viewer to be eighteen inches away from the painting. And because this painting is so huge, when you do that, your entire field of vision is dominated by the painting itself. (piano music)