Primeval … Barnett Newman’s Onement VI on display at Sotheby’s in New York. Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Barnett Newman is well worth .8m. Great art is essentially priceless. The highest price paid by the most well-heeled collector is only a fraction of its true value.
And Newman is a great artist.
If you are going to buy a Newman, this is the kind of Newman you should buy: a powerful example of his ineffable style at its height of confidence and magic.
A single white line divides a flat expanse of blue: it seems to rip open the universe, a crack in space and time. Versions of this vertical line appear again and again in Newman’s paintings, sometimes alone as in his 1946 work Moment in Tate Modern, sometimes in a series of vertical parallels, like mappings of energy pulses or avant garde musical notation – witness his masterpiece Vir Heroicus Sublimis which hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Standing in front of Vir Heroicus Sublimis – “man heroic and sublime” – you feel the excitement and audacity of the boldest of America’s abstract expressionist painters.
After the second world war, as the US became a superpower, a new generation of artists made New York the centre of modern art, with a strange yet authoritative form of abstraction that was free from the influence of the still-living European modern masters. Abstract expressionism uses spacious surfaces, covering wall-scaled canvases with flowing expanses of colour that embrace the spectator. Jackson Pollock broke the ice for this new American painting, but Newman gave it the simplest, starkest formulation.
Meaning and dream collide hypnotically in his art. His vertical line, full of portent (but not “portentous”, as sceptics might claim) speaks of creation, God – and the human urge to draw a line. Yet this primeval mark slices through entrancing colour that draws you in at a deep psychic level, irrationally, like falling into deep water.
Newman’s universe is primitive, yet utterly modern. In Manhattan the grandeur of Vir Heroicus Sublimis mirrors the skyscrapers looming all around. He saw himself as a political artist and one of his most poignant works can be found in front of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. It is a massive sculpture called Broken Obelisk; the line that connects Earth and heaven has been cut.
It stands in Houston as a monument to Martin Luther King. Newman said he hoped it offered “a glimpse of the sublime”. His art embodies the immense ambition of the US, its fault lines and tragedies. Yet it is more than American. It expresses the universal human impulse to find meaning in the void.
Art like that is a bargain at any price.
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