Barnett Newman, American, 1905-1970
Onement IV, 1949
Oil and casein on canvas
33 x 38 in. (84 x 97 cm)
Fund for Contemporary Art with additional funds from
the National Endowments for the Arts Museum Purchase Plan and an anonymous donor, 1969
A white vertical "zip" (Newman's term) extends from
top to bottom edges of the canvas in the center of an unmodulated black field. The viewer unites the three elements--the zip and the sections of canvas on either side--into a single field. As in the five other paintings of Newman's Onement series, Onement IV compels the viewer to experience his or her physical and perceptual
relationship to the painting in basic, reductive terms.
Throughout his career, Newman referred to his 1948 painting Onement 1 as a moment of origin: "I recall my first painting--that is, where I felt that I had moved into an area for myself that was completely me--and I painted it on my birthday (January 29) in 1948. It's a small red painting, and I put a piece of tape in the middle, and I put my so-called zip."2 For Newman and for subsequent art historians, Onement I (he added the ordinate after 1948) was a momentous enactment of painting as a "tabula rasa," a primal site or instance of "creation" in various senses of the term. In a statement of 1945 Newman had already defined the role of the artist as creator: "[I]t can be said that the artist like a true creator is delving into chaos. It is precisely this that makes him an artist, for the Creator in creating the world began with the same material--for the artist tried to wrest truth from the void."3
Although there were earlier paintings and drawings that consisted of a narrow, centralized zip in a monotone field,4 Onement I was the first zip painting in which all three parts appeared congruently in a single field, rather than as a striped "figure" that divides a receding "ground."
After painting Onement I, Newman stopped making art for eight months. In August 1949, he visited the Indian burial mounds in the southwestern part of Ohio, where he was profoundly moved by the sense of his own presence within the dramatically open spaces. He wrote, "Here is the self-evident nature of the artistic act, its utter simplicity. There are no subjects--nothing that can be shown in a museum or even photographed; [it is] a work of art that cannot even be seen, so it is something that must be experienced there on the spot....Suddenly one realizes that the sensation is not one of space or [of] an object in space. It has nothing to do with space and its manipulations. The sensation is the sensation of time--and all other multiple feelings vanish like the outside landscape."5
By the end of 1949, Newman had produced a number of paintings comprised of one or several zips extending from the top to bottom of the canvas, or, occasionally, from side to side. Among the vertical-zip works are three paintings, that like Onement I present a single, narrow zip in the center of an entirely unmodulated, monotone field; Oberlin's Onement IV is one of these works.6 The placement of one or more zips in a monotone field would characterize therest of Newman's practice as a painter.
Accounts of the implications of Onement I and its progeny for both Newman's work and contemporary painting in general are challenging, divergent, and sometimes conflicting. Thomas Hess provides the most extensive modernist and existential account; Yve-Alain Bois offers a phenomenological reading; and Jeremy Strick relates Onement I to Newman's figurative drawings and paintings of the early 1940s, with their evocations of war, the Holocaust, and nuclear catastrophe.7
Born in New York in 1905, Newman attended classes the Art Students League during high school and college. He received his B.A. in philosophy from the City College of New York in 1927, worked for two years in his father's clothing manufacturing firm, and then as a substitute art teacher in the public school system from 1931 to 1940. In 1939-40, Newman stopped painting, and studied botany and ornithology. He began making art again in 1944-45, after destroying all previous artwork. Works of this period are partly or largely abstract paintings (and especially drawings) of biomorphic forms; their titles, such as Genesis--The Break (1946; New York, DIA Center for the Arts), refer to notions of origin and creation. At this time Newman was particularly close to Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, exhibiting with them and other Abstract Expressionist painters at the Betty Parsons Gallery (see Main Text).
Newman began his mature work in 1948 with Onement I. From then on, his painting would consist of fields of color divided by one or more vertical "zips." Newman also wrote a great deal on modern painting, his own work, natural phenonema, and on what was then called "primitive" art. Many of the later paintings have biblical titles, such as Covenant (1949; Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution), and the extraordinary group of fourteen paintings comprising The Stations of the Cross (1958-56; Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art). Barnett Newman died in New York in 1970.
Hess, Thomas B. Barnett Newman. Exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1971.
Rosenberg, Harold. <U Barnett Newman >. New York, 1978.
Bois, Yve-Alain. "Perceiving Barnett Newman." In Barnett Newman: Paintings. Exh. cat., The Pace Gallery, New York, 1988.
Newman, Barnett. Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews. Edited by John P. O'Neill. New York, 1990.
Strick, Jeremy. The Sublime Is Now: The Early Work of Barnett Newman, Paintings and Drawings 1944-1949. Exh. cat., PaceWildenstein, New York, 1994.
Purchased by the museum in 1969
Miami, Center for the Fine Arts, 1984. In Quest of Excellence: Civic Pride, Patronage, Connoisseurship. 14 January - 22 April. Cat. no. 189.
Columbus, Ohio, The Columbus Museum of Art, 1985. Partners in Purchase: Ohio Museums and the National Endowment for the Arts. 25 - 29 September. Unnumbered cat.
Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1986-87. Individuals: A Selected History of Contemporary Art, 1945-1986. 10 December - 10 January. Cat. no. 107.
Berlin, Zeitgeist-Gesellschaft, Martin Gropius Bau, 1993. American Art in the Twentieth Century. 8 May - 25 July. Unnumbered cat.
New York, The Pace Gallery, 1994. The Sublime Is Now: The Early Work of Barnett Newman. 20 March - 29 May (also shown at The Saint Louis Art Museum and Minneapolis, Walker Art Center). Cat. no. 52.
Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996. Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Lives. 21 June - 20 October. Cat. no. 60.
Hess, Thomas B. Barnett Newman. New York, 1969, p. 63.
Hess, Thomas B. Barnett Newman. New York, 1971, pp. 63-64.
Rosenberg, Harold. "Broken Obelisk and Other Sculptures." Index of Art in the Pacific Northwest, no. 2 (Seattle, 1971), p. 15.
Rosenberg, Harold. Barnett Newman. New York, 1978, p. 78.
van der Marck, Jan. In Quest of Excellence: Civic Pride, Patronage, Connoisseurship. Exh. cat., Center for the Fine Arts, Miami, 1984, pp. 174-75.
Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio. Partners in Purchase: Ohio Museums and the National Endowment for the Arts. Exh. cat., published in Dialogue, An Art Journal, Special Supplement (September-October 1985).
Johnson, Ellen H. Fragments Recalled at Eighty: The Art Memoirs of Ellen H. Johnson. Edited by Athena Tacha. North Vancouver, 1993, p. 41.
Prior to acquisition, the canvas was lined onto a linen fabric. Sometime after acquisition the turnover edges of the canvas were protected with masking tape. The tape was removed in 1985 at the ICA (Intermuseum Laboratory) and replaced with a black canvas strip secured to the edges with adhesive.
The thin paint layer was applied with very little medium. The weave of the canvas and its irregularities are visible, as is a stretcher impression in the painting's lower half. The matte appearance was deliberate and the painting was not varnished. The white ground is thin and fine; its method of application is hidden by the protective edging. The painting was signed and dated in red paint.
The surface is in fair, though stable condition. There are superficial abrasions and minute losses throughout. Ground-paint multilayer crackle runs parallel to the edges of the painting within approximately 1.3 cm of the extreme edge. The work is prone to dust accumulation.
1. Oil on canvas, 1948, 90.3 x 42.5 cm, New York, The Museum of Modern Art; reproduced in Jeremy Strick, The Sublime Is Now: The Early Work of Barnett Newman, Paintings and Drawings 1944-1949 (exh. cat., PaceWildenstein, New York, 1994), pl. 50.
2. Interview with Emile de Antonio, shortly before Newman's death in 1970, in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. John P. O'Neill (New York, 1990), pp. 302-8. While Newman did not remove the tape that placed the zip in Onement I, he did remove it before swiftly depositing the white pigment of Oberlin's Onement IV. See Thomas Hess (Barnett Newman [New York, 1969], pp. 31, 44) for Newman's various working procedures during the late 1940s and early '50s. It is not clear whether Newman more often removed or retained the tape.
3. "The Plasmic Image," in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. John P. O'Neill (New York, 1990), p. 140. Two crucial essays by Newman that immediately preceded Onement IV are "The Sublime Is Now," op. cit., pp. 170-73; and "Ohio 1949," op. cit., pp. 174-77.
4. See Moment, 1946, London, The Tate Gallery; and Untitled [Onement], 1946, collection of Annalee Newman.
5. Quoted from Barnett Newman, "Ohio 1949," in Barnette Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. John P. O'Neill (New York, 1990), pp. 174-75. These notes were written shortly after the trip and originally titled "Prologue for a New Aesthetic."
6. The other two from this period were Onement II (1948, oil on canvas, 152.4 x 91.4 cm, Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum), and Onement III (1949, oil on canvas, 182.9 x 86.4 cm, New York, The Museum of Modern Art). Later Onements include Onement V (1952, oil on canvas, 152.4 x 96.5 cm, collection of Mr. and Mrs. David Pincus); and Onement VI (1953, oil on canvas, 259.1 x 304.8 cm, private collection).
7. Thomas Hess, Barnett Newman (New York, 1969), pp. 31ff; Yve-Alain Bois, "Perceiving Newman," in Barnett Newman: Paintings (exh. cat., The Pace Gallery, New York, 1988), pp. I-XIII; and Jeremy Strick, "Enacting Origins," in The Sublime is Now: The Early Work of Barnett Newman, Paintings and Drawings 1944-1949 (exh. cat., PaceWildenstein, New York, 1994), pp. 7-31.