Barnett Newman: The Late Work
Barnett Newman, Be I (Second Version), 1970
March 13 - June 28, 2015
The work of artist Barnett Newman (1905-1970) has come to define the spiritual aspirations and material innovations of American painting in the mid-twentieth century. Large and bold vertical planes of color, with thin upright lines that came to be known as “zips,” characterize Newman’s vocabulary of form. In contrast to the horizontal compositions that define the landscape tradition in Western art, Newman’s work reflects the upright posture of the human body. For the artist, this reorientation was deeply political. He felt it could free painting from the past and allow an entirely new awareness for the viewer through the ineffable experience of standing in front of his work. In his essay from 1948, “The Sublime is Now,” Newman wrote, “We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or ‘life’ we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”
Having come to a career as an artist later in life, Newman’s produced a relatively small body of work. In 1970, when he passed at the age of 65, he left a group of work in his studio that included unfinished paintings. In an arrested state of development, the unfinished works offer a rare opportunity to study the late work in relationship to Newman’s broader production. Because the artist did not make preparatory studies, these works, as paintings in process, reveal the remarkable material and technical innovations and transformations, including his shift from oil to acrylic paint, in his work from 1965-1970. In dialogue with his early work from the late 1940s and early 1950s, they also provide a way of understanding the formal evolution of his painting process throughout his oeuvre.
This will be the first exhibition to focus on Newman’s production in the last five years of his life. It will present a focused selection his paintings from 1965-1970, alongside major paintings by Newman that were produced throughout his career from The Menil Collection and on loan from other important museums and private lenders in the United States and Europe. Significant loans include Day Before I, 1951 and White Fire IV, from the Kunstmuseum, Basel.
“Barnett Newman: the Late Work” is organized by Curator Michelle White and Chief Conservator Brad Epley. The unique breadth of the curatorial team reflects the intellectual scope of the exhibition’s material study and theoretical approach to the presentation of Newman’s work. The Menil has one of the most important collections of Newman work, including three unfinished paintings. It has also undertaken significant technical studies of the artist’s paintings over the last ten years.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a scholarly publication that will contextualize the unfinished paintings within the arch of Newman’s work and offer an in-depth technical analysis of the late paintings.
This exhibition is generously supported by the City of Houston.