Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman (U.S.A. 1905 - 1970)


Adam 1951-2
Tate Modern, London (purchased 1968)
Oil on canvas 242 x 202 cm

Achilles, 1952
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Oil on canvas 242 x 201 cm


From the mid-1940s, Newman had been preoccupied with the Jewish myths of Creation.
The vertical strips in his paintings may relate to certain traditions
that present God and man as a single beam of light.
The name Adam, which in the Old Testament was given to the fist man,
derives from the Hebrew word adamah (earth), but is also close to adom (red) and dam (blood).
The relationship between brown and red in this painting may therefore
symbolise man's intimacy with the earth.
Vir Heroicus Sublimis

Vir Heroicus Sublimis

Newman is one of the principal artists to be associated with the movement
that came to be known as Abstract Expressionism.
Based in New York his work came to prominence during the late 1940s and 1950s.
Newman's painting is typically made on a large scale; it is emphatically abstract, and deceptively simple.
The majority of these works contain one or more vertical or near vertical lines inscribed within a broad, flatly painted field of saturated oil or acrylic colour.
The linear elements, or 'zips' are often made by masking off areas of the canvas with tape, which is then removed at some point during the painting process.
Thus the zips can appear either to rest on the surface of the colour plane or lie somewhere behind it.
The work has been interpreted in a variety of ways.
For some commentators, Newman is a self-referential abstract practice in which the lines and planes are seen principally to emphasise the shape and structure of the rectangular canvas.
However Newman himself aimed to make work in the tradition of a 'tragic' or 'sublime' art.
The work would have the ambition of the epic schemes of, say, Michelangelo, but would be made in entirely modern, that is to say, abstract terms.

The title often provides a clue to Newman's thinking.
Adam is clearly not meant as a likeness in a conventional sense.
The work is perhaps more concerned with abstract concepts such a beginnings, origins and Creation.
Other works of the time have titles such as One and In the Beginning.
For Newman the artist could not adequately illustrate such fundamental ideas through conventional imagery.
Rather his aim was to produce an abstract equivalent for the experience of oneness or beginning.

© The Trustees of The Tate Gallery 2000