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1905: Abstract Painter Who Failed to Impress Until He Died Is Born

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"Onement 1," Barnett Newman, Museum of Modern Art, New York. A yellow stripe, or "zip," bisects a field of brown.
"Onement 1," Barnett Newman, Museum of Modern Art, New York.Credit: MOMA. New York

January 29, 1905, is the birthdate of Barnett Newman, an abstract painter who thought his work should speak for itself but spent nearly as much time writing about art as creating it, and who responded aggressively to critics. His life was filled with failure and frustration, but Newman continued to take himself seriously and to maintain a strong sense of self-worth. In the end, he left behind a body of work that does, as he said it would, inspire feelings of the sublime and spiritual.

Baruch (Barnett, or Barney for short ) Newman was born on New York’s Lower East Side, the eldest of the four surviving children of Abraham Newman and the former Anna Steinberg, who emigrated together, in 1900, from Lomza, in Russian Poland.

In 1915, Abraham established a menswear manufacturing company. When the business thrived, the family moved north to the Tremont section of the Bronx. The Newmans were not religiously observant, but as an ardent Zionist, Abraham was one of the founders of the National Hebrew School of the Bronx, which Barnett attended.

Newman graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School,  in 1923. As a senior, he studies drawing intensively at the Art Students League, which he continued to do after enrolling at the City College of New York.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, Newman agreed to his father’s proposal that he join the family business in order to create a nest egg.

The company took a big hit in October 1929, when the stock market crashed, and Newman stayed on to help his father rebuild it. Their attempts failed, however, and Newman began working as a substitute art teacher in New York’s public  schools.

In 1934, he met Annalee Greenhouse. Born in Palestine in 1909, as a young girl she immigrated to New York with her Russian-Jewish parents. Barney and Annalee married in 1936. They did not have children.

Not a born teacher

Newman’s impulses and behavior remain somewhat inscrutable today. As an art teacher — a job he never succeeded in making permanent, as he failed the city’s qualifying exams time after time — he became interested in the status of civil-service workers. He and a friend tried to start a cultural magazine for civil servants.

Failing to get funding for the project, the two men decided to run for mayor and comptroller of New York, respectively, in 1933. (Newman was defeated by Fiorello La Guardia.)

Barnett Newman, Broken Obelisk (designed 1963, cast 1967), made of COR-TEN steel. Quadrangle, Suzzallo Library, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington.Credit: Suzzallo Library, University of Washington

Continuing to fail both the written and practical parts of the art-teachers exam, in 1938 Newman launched an assault on the city’s board of examiners, including organizing an exhibition of work rejected by the board, called “Can We Draw? The Board of Examiners says — No!”

Newman gave up painting in 1940. He returned to it in 1944, when he began to study botany and ornithology, while writing art criticism and essays for the exhibition catalogs of other artists.

Today, Newman’s paintings sell for millions of dollars. While he began to experience acceptance during his lifetime, his greatest recognition only followed his death, when he became classified as an abstract expressionist and as a founder of minimalism, a title he himself rejected.

Newman destroyed much of his earlier works. Today he is known mainly for his Color Field paintings, with large Rothko-like fields of colors, generally bisected vertically by a strip of contrasting color that the artist called a “zip.” These were meant to grab the viewer and help the painting to, in Newman’s words, “lift humanity out of its torpor.” He also created sculpture.

Trying to define what Newman had accomplished, at the time of a retrospective of his work in 2002, New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman suggested that the artist “change[d] the nature of what a painting is.  ... A painting now became an object unto itself, a physical entity in a room, of a certain size and with stretches of color that had their own palpable auras.”

Barnett Newman died of a heart attack on July 3, 1970, at age 64. Annalee survived for another 30 years, devoting herself to organizing the foundation that preserves and perpetuates his work and reputation.

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