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American, 1905 - 1970
One of the great figures of the abstract expressionist movement, Barnett Newman was an intellectual, developing his ideas in his painting, sculpture, and writing. Born and raised in New York, Newman took classes at the Art Students League while in high school and college. At New York's City College he majored in philosophy, graduating in 1927. In the course of the next fifteen years he operated his family's clothing manufacturing business, was a substitute art teacher in New York high schools, and ran as a candidate for mayor in 1933. His platform advocated civic programs for the arts as well as anti-pollution measures. He also studied the writings of Henry David Thoreau and the anarchist Peter Kropotkin and became interested in botany, geology, ornithology, and tribal art. Believing that all earlier twentieth-century painting styles were obsolete, Newman destroyed most of his paintings from the 1930s and early 1940s.
In the spring of 1945 Newman set down a number of his developing ideas about the proper goals of aspiring abstract painters in various drafts of an unpublished "monologue," The Plasmic Image. There he asserted that between the time of the impressionists and the 1940s, modernist painters had solved the technical problems of the language of painting (color, shape, atmosphere) and should go on to transcend such decorative aspects of art to project concepts.
When he started to paint again in the mid-1940s, Newman sought a new style of mystical abstraction, and it was at this time that he made his first works using his signature vertical elements, or "zips," to punctuate the single-hued fields of his canvases. In 1948 he, along with Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and others, founded the Subjects of the Artist School as a means for exploring and promulgating ideas about the inspiration, subjects, attitudes, and possibilities of abstract expressionism. Although Newman's first solo exhibitions in the early 1950s met with ridicule, by the end of that decade his work was well-accepted and influential.
[This is an excerpt from the interactive companion to the videodisc American Art from the National Gallery of Art.]