In the Abstract

Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman (1905-70) placed his painting in perfect context when he said that it seemed to be "too abstract for the abstract expressionists andtoo expressionist for the abstract purists." Newman's expanses of reds, yellows, and blues were more purely geometrical than the brushy blocks of Mark Rothko; but his intent was far removed from the monochrome works of a painter like Ad Reinhardt, who championed "overall uniformity." Newman's first comprehensive show in 30 years, opening March 24 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, will offer the best chance ever to assess his legacy.

The artist's signature stripes, or "zips," were what made his work expressionistic. Standing in for the human figure, these zips challenged the expanses of color—seen in Ab Ex terms as infinite space, or the void—on their own scale. One unbound spacewas instantly reduced to two or three finite rectangles. Newman'szips lassoed the void. And they reinforced the artist's assertion that his only subject matter was "the self, terrible and constant." In that light, Chartres (from 1969), a ten-foot-tall luminous triangle, while suggestive of the grandeur of the cathedral, can also be taken for a self-portrait—a solitary figure cloaked regally in his own insistent colors and vision.