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Joan Rothfuss discusses Barnett Newman's The Third (1962)


Joan Rothfuss


September 1999

Institution Walker Art Center
The next work I chose was Barnett Newman's painting The Third, which is a late painting, 1962 -- he died in 1970 -- but very typical of the kind of work that he was developing in the late 1940s as a member of the abstract expressionist group, which was working in the U.S. and working, again, in the wake of World War II trying to redefine what painting had been. Again, coming out of a very strongly figurative tradition of surrealism, they were trying-the abstract expressionists-to empty out the figurative content and simply and distill. They saw abstraction as not a lack of subject matter but more a fullness of subject matter that was collectively-based so that the specifics of, let's say, a Leonardo would tie it directly to its time. They wanted to get rid of that and still retain some of the collective aspects of the subject matter that they felt were shared by everybody who was a human being. That, of course, came out of their interest in Jungian psychology and the collective unconscious and things that everybody understands sort of instinctively that they felt they were trying to reach in their painting.

Newman was working with color and he had talked about wanting to use his painting to create space and to create an architectural feeling of space for the viewer who stands in front of the painting. So, it's a little bit like what Fontana was doing in terms of trying to bring a kind of three-dimensional space to the picture; but, what Newman did that was different was he adjusted the scale of the work. He made the scale of his works very large. Fontana still sort of traditionally domestically scaled smaller size canvases. Barnett Newman's work . . . huge. This one is typical in that way. It's a very large size. And he used color to try and create the sense of spacial fullness. This painting is almost solid orange. He talked about the blaze and the heat of his color. He understood that some people had trouble standing in front of that kind of energy and intensity. He used scale and intense color for the creation of a kind of space and a tragic, as he called it, dimension to the subject matter. These things that he puts on the side, these strips of color, are sort of like the slashes that Fontana did. I think they function to remind you that this is actually a surface that you're looking at and it's not a void and it's not a window into this intense space of orangeness. It lets you know that you're looking at a painting. He called them zips. They appear in many of his works. He said that he wasn't interested in the void at all and he was interested in something that was actually a presence.

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Type: Commentary, curatorial commentary
Source: Joan Rothfuss, Associate Curator of Visual Arts, Walker Art Center, commenting on Barnett Newman's The Third (1962), during the exhibition Art in Our Time: 1950 to the Present, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, September 1999.
Rights: Copyright 1999 Walker Art Center
Added to Site: March 1, 2009