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The Painting Techniques of Barnett Newman

Barnet Newman's art, especially his piece Vir Heroicus Sublimis, uses vertical lines called 'zips' to create depth and interaction. Each zip is unique in color, size, and placement, making the painting complex. Newman's technique of using masking tape to create zips adds to the painting's dynamic nature. Created by The Museum of Modern Art.

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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)