On a vertical rectangular canvas Moment 1946 features a strong pale yellow vertical band of paint – which may at first seem to be raw canvas – that appears to divide the work into two equal parts. Created by the use of masking tape to section off a strip of the canvas, the band forms a bold contrast against a background of streaked browns, greens, greys and whites. Recalling the natural grain of a wood panel, the painting’s background was produced by the artist passing a heavily loaded but relatively dry brush across the surface of the canvas. The work is signed and dated in the lower right-hand corner.
A key member of the abstract expressionist movement which developed in the United States in the 1940s, New York-based Barnett Newman was driven by a belief that creating an artwork was an intensely spiritual act. Preoccupied with the Bible, and more specifically the Jewish myths of creation, titles of his works during the 1940s and 1950s (such as Abraham 1949, Eve 1950, Tate T03081, and Adam 1951–2, Tate T01091) reflect his engagement with spiritual and metaphysical ideas. As the title Moment suggests, there existed for Newman, who claimed never to produce preparatory sketches, a singular and unrepeatable instant where all the elements of an artwork come together and render it complete. In a statement published in 1959, he wrote, ‘Painting, like passion, is a living voice, which, when I hear it, I must let it speak, unfettered’ (quoted in O’Neill 1992, p.179).
Moment was created at a vital point in Newman’s career. He destroyed all of his work completed prior to 1944, and – as he explained in a letter to critic Clement Greenberg in August 1955 – ‘I first created my concept and developed my present style in 1944–45’ (quoted in O’Neill 1992, p.204). Prior to Moment Newman had experimented with vertical bands of varying degrees of length and intensity (in The Beginning 1946 and The Word I 1946), but never before had the device been given such prominence. Moment has often been seen as prefiguring Newman’s pivotal work Onement I 1948 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), in which the artist first introduced the ‘zip’ or vibrating band of paint that would become characteristic of his later style. Yet, while Moment and Onement I both feature a prominent vertical band running the length of the canvas, Newman felt that he had yet to fully dissolve the figure-ground distinction in the earlier painting. The ‘zip’, he insisted in 1968, ‘does not cut the format in half or in whatever parts, but it unites the thing. It creates a totality’ (quoted in O’Neill 1992, p.306).
Moment was given by Newman to his wife, Annalee Newman (1909–2000), in December 1948, who presented it to Tate in 1988. The painting was never exhibited during the artist’s lifetime, first appearing – as Untitled – as part of a show which began at the Pasadena Art Museum in California on 31 July 1970, nearly four weeks after Newman’s death. Since then it has always been displayed as Moment, becoming part of the first comprehensive exhibition of Newman’s work, which began at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in October 1971 before touring the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Tate Gallery, London, and the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris. The painting later appeared as part of the major retrospective show titled Barnett Newman held at the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art and Tate Modern in 2002.
John P. O’Neill (ed.), Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, Berkeley 1992.
Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, London 2004, pp.362–7, reproduced p.364.
Richard Shiff, Carol C. Mancusi-Ungaro, and Heidi Colsman-Freyberger, Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, New Haven and London 2004, p.160, reproduced p.161.
Supported by Christie’s.