A Dramatic Turnabout

Barnett Newman Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue 1966

“I began this, my first painting in the series ‘Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue,’ as a ‘first’ paintings, unpremeditated. I did have the desire that the painting be asymmetrical and that it create a space different from any I had ever done, sort of – off balance. It was only after I had built up the main body of red that the problem of color became crucial, when the only colors that would work were yellow and blue.
It was at this moment that I realized that I was now confronting the dogma that color must be reduced to the primaries, red, yellow and blue. Just as I had confronted other dogmatic positions of the purists, neo-plasticists and other formalists, I was now in confrontation with their dogma, which had reduced red, yellow and blue into an idea-didact, or a best had made them picturesque.
Why give in to these purists and formalists who have put a mortgage on red, yellow and blue, transforming these colors into an idea that destroys them as colors?
I had, therefore, the double incentive of using these colors to express what I wanted to do – of making these colors expressive rather than didactic and of freeing them from the mortgage.
Why should anybody be afraid of red, yellow and blue?”
[Barnett New York March 1969]

Barnett Newman Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow & Blue 1969-70 IV

In a dramatic turnabout, a number of Newman’s works of the 1960s have bold combinations of primaries, flatly painted, some in oil, some in acrylic. Even more than the oddly muted [color] combinations seen in Covenant, The Word II or Uriel, Newman’s bright chromatic hues and primaries of the 1960s remove from color the subtly comparative spatial play that a viewer expects to perceive (one color seeming to advance while another receded in relation to it). Chartres approximates the primaries, but without evoking the rhetoric of purism or any kind of color theory. Because two blues, rather than only one, appear within this red, yellow and blue painting, neither blue impresses the viewer as primary. As with other color combinations selected by Newman, these blues establish no hierarchy. Neither ingratiating nor shocking, his color lacks a category, which is the situation of openness he sought – color in its fullness, unrestrained, whether physically or conceptually. Each color can be seen as unique, without schematic order, without analogy, precisely as it is. [Richard Schiff on Barnett Newman]

Barnett Newman Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow & Blue II 1967

“The Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue  pictures, as their title indicates, are and were very much about fear, even if Newman attempted to qualify that fear with a question mark. In this respect they are not so different from Newman’s previous efforts—“fear,” after all, was one of the defining emotions of his generation. As an abstract expressionist, Newman matured as an artist during the most horrifying events of World War II. To acknowledge the capacity of human beings to destroy themselves and their world, he produced paintings that were meant, in part, to overcome viewers with sublimity—to make viewers acknowledge the existential drama of their humanity. “Modern man is his own terror,” Newman famously wrote in 1946.” [Sarah Rich on Barnett Newman]

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