Barnett Newman: The Late Work

Mar 27 – Aug 2, 2015
Main Building

The work of artist Barnett Newman (1905–1970) has come to define the spiritual aspirations and material innovations of American painting of the mid-20th century. This is the first exhibition to focus on Newman’s production in the last five years of his life. It presents a focused selection of his paintings from 1965 to 1970 alongside major paintings by Newman from throughout his career that are now in the Menil Collection or on loan from collections in the United States and Europe. Significant loans include Day Before One, 1951, and White Fire IV, 1968, from the Kunstmuseum Basel.

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 1948 essay, “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 produced a relatively small body of work. In 1970, when he died 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 some of the remarkable material and technical innovations and transformations, including his shift from oil to acrylic paint, in his work from 1965 to 1970. In dialogue with his early work from the late 1940s and early 50s, they also provide a way of understanding the formal evolution of his painting process throughout his oeuvre.

Barnett Newman: The Late Work is curated by Curator Michelle White and Chief Conservator Brad Epley. The makeup 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. This exhibition is the only time these three unfinished canvases have been displayed publicly.

The award-winning book published for the exhibition reproduces in large format all of Newman’s single canvases from the years 1965–70, providing a complete visual context for the paintings in the exhibition.

This exhibition is generously supported by The John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; Nancy and Mark Abendshein; Susanne and Bill Pritchard; Leslie and Shannon Sasser; Taub Foundation: Marcy Taub Wessel and Henry J.N. Taub II; Frost Bank; Suzanne Deal Booth; Janet and Paul Hobby; Gensler; Russell Reynolds Associates; and the City of Houston.

Photos: Paul Hester