Illustrated companion

Barnett Newman was one of the most intellectual of the Abstract Expressionists, and in his art he is certainly the most arcane and numinous of them all. In a long unpublished essay, or 'monologue', written about 1943-5 and titled The Plasmic Image Newman set out his ideas, making it clear that the subject matter of his art was, in the broadest sense, the mystery of creation and the meaning of human existence. Among much else, he wrote '... in his desire, in his will to set down the ordered truth, that is the expression of his attitude towards the mystery of life and death, it can be said that the artist like a true creator is delving into chaos. It is precisely this that makes him an artist for the Creator in creating the world began with the same materials, for the artist tries to wrest truth from the void.' On the question of how this was to be done, Newman further wrote '... abstract art is a language to be used to project important visual ideas ... The effect of these new pictures is that the shapes and colours act as symbols to [elicit] sympathetic participation on the part of the beholder with the artist's thought.' The critic Thomas B. Hess has described how in the mid-1940s Newman became particularly preoccupied with the Jewish myths of Creation, not only in the book of Genesis, but in the Kabbala, the whole tradition of Jewish mystical thought. About 1946 Newman began to evolve a pictorial image, a band of light running vertically from edge to edge of the canvas, which echoed the consistent literary metaphor in Genesis, and in the Kabbala, of light as the symbol of creation. More specifically, Newman may have drawn on certain traditions which evoke both God and man as a single beam of light - creator and created in one. The vertical band first appears in a group of paintings of which 'Moment' in the Tate Gallery collection is one [T05501]. But Newman was dissatisfied with the effect of the band against a soft background, and in 1948 finally found the solution he sought in a painting which he called 'Onement I', consisting of a narrow band of light cadmium red running straight down the centre of a canvas painted in a uniform dark cadmium red. Of 'Onement I' Hess has written: 'Newman's first move is an act of division, straight down, creating an image. The image not only re-enacts God's primal gesture, it also presents the gesture itself, the zip [Newman's term for the band of light], as an independent shape - man - the only animal who walks upright. Adam, virile, erect'.

'Adam' is one of a number of developments and variations of this concept made by Newman over the next few years and in its colour scheme and title in particular, seems to hark back quite directly to 'Onement I'. As Hess pointed out, as well as the 'zip' representing the idea of man, 'The red-orange stripe on its red-brown field could have suggested another metaphor from the Kabbalists' interpretation of Genesis'. This concerns the relationship between the Hebrew word adamah meaning Earth, the name Adam, which directly derives from it, since God made man from the earth, and the Hebrew word adom which means red. The suggestion is that Newman may have been associating the colours he used with both earth and Adam in this image of creation. 'Adam' has a companion, 'Eve', painted at the same time [Tate Gallery T03081]. In a letter to the Tate Gallery of 1983 Analee Newman, his widow, wrote 'I think he thought of them as a pair because he worked on the first painting and then on the second continuously until they were finished and then named them "Adam" and "Eve".'

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.215