Art Blog

Barnett Newman posed before Oneness VI, 1953, in a 1961 photograph published in Vogue


Sotheby's led off the spring season's New York contemporary sales with a daunting number of select lots. Working up to the masterpiece of this Spring auction sales, Barnett Newman's Oneness VI, was Yves Klein's sculpture Eponge Bleue Sans Titre, SE 168., which stood on stage throughout the sale - looking ‘perky' and very desireable. It trounced the record of $3,095,356. for an Yves Klein sculpture, selling for $19.5 million to paddle #944.

Barnett Newman's Oneness VI , one of the most important examples of the Abstract Expressionist movement, and one of the most significant masterpieces to come to auction, sailed over the previous top auction price ($22,482,500) for a work by the artist. Ultimately, this jewel sold to a telephone bidder at $43 million beating pre-sale estimate of $30-$40 million, and two floor bidders, who rode the price up bravely from its $24 million opening bid.

In Onement VI, the field of blue is intersected by the artist's revolutionary vertical ‘zip.' This ‘zip' painting is considered to be a defining turning point in the artist's work. 
The ‘zip' in Onement VI is distinguished both by the sharp edges that retain the memory of the tape and the gentle laps of darker paint seeping into the cool light blue. In that same year, 1953, Franz Kline achieved the effect of sharp and feathered line freehand in his monochromatic, stark, highly active, expressionist black and white canvases.
The vast 10 foot Barnett Newman canvas, Onement VI achieved that mix of hard and feathered line, inside and outside space, with tape, opening a new era - a brave new world for the American artist. His paintings also went on to influence the next generation of artists such as Frank Stella, while Newman played a critical role in the careers of contemporary artists and friends such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Clyfford Still among others.
Newman, speaking on the search for what to paint, expressed the moral concern of artists working immediately post WWII: "Years ago...we felt the moral crisis of a world in shambles, a world devastated by a great depression and a fierce World War, and it was impossible at that time to paint the kind of painting that we were doing...[at this point, he lists various representative subjects]...At the same time we could not move into the situation of a pure world of unorganized shapes, forms...color...a world of sensation....this was our moral crisis in relation to what to paint. So that we actually began, so to speak, from scratch, as if painting were not only dead but never existed."
In the battle of the ‘bergs' (Harold Rosenberg v. Clement Greenberg) the emotional Abstract Expressionism vied with the more ‘cerebral' Abstraction, that led to color field.
Newman was deeply admired by his fellow abstract expressionists and, as an exhibitions organizer for the newly opened Betty Parsons Gallery in 1946, played a critical role in the careers of friends such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Clyfford Still among others. Newman's paintings also went on to influence the next generation of artists such as Frank Stella. In addition Onement VI was singled out for praise by the acclaimed critic and proponent of Jackson Pollock, Clement Greenberg.
The sale followed with another of Greenberg's ‘boys', Jackson Pollock.

Jackson Pollock's The Blue Unconscious, an explosion of annotations, complete with charismatic coils and scribbles, as well as straight, arrow like vector lines which reflect a telling mutation of subtle colour zones, was another of Sotheby's major lots. It sold for $20.7 million.
The sales of these ‘newer' works, post WWII works, exceeded those of the once-dominant Impressionist and modern field held in New York City earlier this month by anywhere from 50 to 100 percent, something to note when one looks to buy ‘undervalued' in the field of art. Sale total was $293,587,000, and was 82.8% sold-by-lot.
Contemporary auction sales follow at Sotheby's during the day on Tuesday and at Christies Tuesday night - followed by evening and day sales this Thursday and Friday by Phillips.

Janet Lehr: Art correspondent



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