Ars Judaica

Barnett Newman: Jewish Place and Moment

Ars Judaica (1970), 15, (1), 71–94.

Abstract

Barnett Newman’s canvases and his rare sculptures are steeped in Jewish learning, which emerges from their provocative titles as well as from their abstract forms. Principal among his concepts is Zim Zum (after the Hebrew ẓimẓum: literally, contraction), the title of one of his final large sculptures (1969), the Kabbalistic idea that divine creation actually results from a process of voluntary contraction and separation, involving both place and moment, separated out of space and time. Using the artist’s chosen titles, this article focuses on separation, especially through the formal means of Newman’s celebrated verticals, or “zips,” which underscore the importance achieved in artistic creation by that division of both space and time. To underscore the importance of place, separated out of undifferentiated space, requires a marker, like a zip, in a larger field, which in turn can produce the Jewish concept of makom (place), very important to Newman and recurring in his quotations. In similar fashion, like the Havdalah separation of the holy Sabbath from ordinary time, or like the Genetic Moment (1947) of Genesis itself, the encompassing vast Newman canvases, meant to be seen close up according to the artist, provide the same separation and intense and immersive experience, hineni (Hebrew: here), as his desired “physical sensation of time.”

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Silver, Larry