Barnett Newman’s “Stations of the Cross” is Focus of National Gallery of Art’s Fifth “In the Tower” Exhibition, to Open June 8

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Washington, DC—A new exhibition featuring 26 works by Barnett Newman (1905–1970), one of the great figures of the abstract expressionist movement, will be on view June 10, 2012, through February 24, 2013, in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art. In the Tower: Barnett Newman is the fifth show in a series installed in the Tower Gallery that focuses on developments in art since midcentury. The centerpiece of the exhibition, Newman’s famed Stations of the Cross (1958–1966), is brought to new light in the vaulting, self-contained space of the I.M. Pei-designed tower.

The Stations of the Cross is considered by many to be Newman’s greatest achievement. It was his most ambitious attempt to address what he called a “moral crisis” facing artists after World War II and the Holocaust: “What are we going to paint?”

“Drawn largely from the Gallery’s holdings—one of the world’s most important collections of Newman’s work—this exhibition focuses attention on Newman’s breakthrough in the mid-1940s and on the most ambitious work of his maturity, The Stations of the Cross, which was the generous gift of Robert and Jane Meyerhoff,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “We are also grateful to several private collectors who have lent important drawings that will help us tell the story of Newman’s development.”

Organization and Support

The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Art.

This exhibition was made possible by The Exhibition Circle and The Tower Project of the National Gallery of Art.

Barnett Newman

Born in New York in 1905, Newman took classes at the Art Students League while in high school and college. At New York’s City College he majored in philosophy, graduating in 1927. Believing that all earlier 20th-century painting styles were obsolete, Newman destroyed most of his paintings from the 1930s and early 1940s.

In the mid-1940s, Newman sought a new, more abstract mode, and it was at this time that he made his first works using his signature vertical elements, or “zips,” to punctuate the single-hued fields of his canvases. In 1948 he, along with Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and others, founded the Subjects of the Artist school as a means for exploring ideas about the inspiration, attitudes, and possibilities of abstract expressionism. Although Newman’s first solo exhibitions in the early 1950s met with ridicule, by the end of that decade his work was hailed by artists and critics though it was not widely known.

The Exhibition

In 1958 the 53-year-old artist—recovering from a heart attack—prepared two canvases of the same size, 6 ½ x 5 feet. “From the very beginning I felt that I would do a series,” he recalled. Two years later, while painting the fourth work of the series, he “began to think of them as the Stations of the Cross.” Six years later, in 1966, he completed the full cycle of 14 canvases, along with a coda, Be II, which are all installed in the large Tower Gallery.

These paintings were first shown at the Guggenheim Museum in the spring of 1966. Organized by Lawrence Alloway, it was Newman’s first solo museum exhibition. His subject was not any particular religious narrative but rather a question, Jesus’ cry from the cross, which Newman took for the exhibition’s subtitle (using the Aramaic), Lema Sabachthani: “Why have you forsaken me?” He wrote, “This is the Passion. This outcry of Jesus. Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no answer.” Not any particular narrative, Newman explained, but an expression “of each man’s agony.”

Newman died in 1970; The Stations of the Cross and Be II were purchased from Newman’s widow Annalee Newman by Robert and Jane Meyerhoff and donated to the Gallery in 1986. The smaller gallery puts these works in context with rare earlier drawings made in the mid-1940s as he explored surrealism. By the late 1940s, he had eliminated much of the brushy atmosphere and expressive gesture from his art, leaving the ever-changing zip to take center stage in such declarative, symmetrical compositions as Yellow Painting (1949), which is also displayed. As Newman noted, “I feel that my zip does not divide my paintings. I feel it does the exact opposite.”

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