Onement, I by Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman

Onement, I, 1948, Oil on canvas and oil on masking tape on canvas, 69.2 x 41.2 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of Annalee Newman, 390.1992, © Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

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Longing for a Just Order

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
William A. Dyrness

In 1948, Barnett Newman painted Onement I, which he claimed was his artistic breakthrough. That same year he specified the purpose of his artistic work:

We are reasserting man’s natural desire for the exalted.… Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or ‘life’ we are making them out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete. (Newman, in Rose 1968: 160)

This work was the first of his famous ‘zip’ paintings where a painted vertical strip both divides and unites the canvas. Though Newman claims this ‘cathedral’ is made out of his own feelings, it may also reflect something of his own Orthodox Jewish heritage, for the strong vertical also suggests a plumb line that sets a standard against which deviation can be measured.

In this central section of Isaiah 28, the prophet exposes the folly of Israel. Though they should be able to relax and trust in YHWH’s providence (v.12), they followed the advice of inebriated priests and made a covenant with death (v.15)—a reference to their attraction to the Canaanite god Mot = death—by aligning themselves with Egypt against Assyria. As John Goldingay writes: ‘Making Egypt their refuge is an act of blasphemy. YHWH is supposed to be their refuge, their shelter’ (Goldingay 2014: 137). To establish this place of security God promises ‘a sure foundation’ (v.16) and a line for justice, a plumb line (v.17) that both separates justice from injustice and unites those who trust in YHWH.

However much Newman claimed to trust his self-made ‘cathedral’, his work references another aim: to find some standard, a line that can be trusted. Even the title of this work, Onement I, recalls the ancient root of the word ‘atonement’: making into one, suggesting a yearning for reconciliation that, in that post-war period of hope in the West, recalls the experience of eighth-century BCE Israel.

 

References

Goldingay, John. 2014. The Theology of the Book of Isaiah (Downers Grove: IVP)

Newman, Barnett. 1968. ‘The Sublime is Now’, in Readings in American Art: A Documentary Survey, ed. by Barbara Rose (New York: Praeger)