Barnett Newman

Untitled Etching #1

1969

On display at Tate Liverpool

Artist
Barnett Newman 1905–1970
Medium
Etching and aquatint on paper
Dimensions
Image: 372 x 594 mm
frame: 730 x 959 x 40 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1995
Reference
P77732

Summary

Untitled Etching #1 1969 is a large, landscape-oriented monochrome print by the American artist Barnett Newman that consists of three vertical lines printed in black ink onto white. The sharp edges of the narrow line on the left and the wider, central line are starkly delineated against the white of the paper, while the one on the right is formed of four lines, precisely ruled so that they sit very close together. Between each of the right and left-hand lines and the middle line is a large expanse of white space. This discrepancy in the solidity of the lines on either side of the thick central one denies the composition the strict symmetry that the even spacing would otherwise provide.

Newman first practised etching in the series of small works entitled Notes 1968, and Untitled Etching #1 1969 is one of only two large-scale works in the medium executed by Newman, the other being Untitled Etching #2 1969 (Museum of Modern Art, New York). Both were printed in editions of twenty-seven and are often seen as the culmination of his experiments working with copper plates. While the works that make up Notes were often incised freehand, Newman judged that this technique could not create the density of pigment he required in the printing. The use of the aquatint process in the larger works allowed large areas to be filled by using a fine resin to hold the ink, and therefore produce on the paper the solidity of the left and centre lines seen in Untitled Etching #1.

Newman borrowed the composition for this work from a painting he had produced eight years previously, Shining Forth (To George) 1961 (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris). While in the original the right-hand line is formed of feathery strokes made by painting over masking tape that was later removed, in its reincarnation as an etching Newman translated those strokes into close parallel lines due to the limits of the medium. The contrast of the solidly defined, black aquatint against pristine paper later became a model for the clarity sought by minimalist artists such as Robert Mangold, Brice Marden and Robert Ryman at Crown Point Press in California in the 1970s (Davies 1983, p.28).

Although he spent his days in his studio on White Street, Lower Manhattan, working on large, brightly coloured acrylics like the twenty-foot long Anna’s Light 1968 (private collection), Newman’s work with etching would take place at home. According to his friend and biographer Thomas Hess, the smaller-scale, monochrome works he created there became a sort of ‘antidote’, preventing him from becoming ‘intoxicated with scale’ (Thomas Hess, Barnett Newman, New York 1971, p.71). Untitled Etching #1 was printed at the Universal Limited Art Editions Print and Etching Workshop in West Islip owned by Tatyana Grosman, who had originally encouraged Newman’s experimentation in printing, even supplying him with copper plates. However, he never managed to visit the workshop and his lack of first-hand knowledge of the processes needed to achieve his desired effects led to misunderstandings, wasted printings and lengthy delays (Davies 1983, p.28).

Newman had originally produced Untitled Etching #1 for a commemorative sheet in a portfolio dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr, but later withdrew from the project when the plan for the portfolio was changed to a collection of poster reproductions. The composition was therefore evidently one that Newman associated with ideas of grief and memorial, since the painting from which it was borrowed (Shining Forth (To George)) was painted in memory of the artist’s brother. It was, in fact, the first painting he produced following George’s death and it put an end to a long and grief-filled hiatus in his work. Hess underlines how integral ideas of grief are to Newman’s work: ‘There is the tragedy of death, and of “being”, living in the face of death’ (Hess 1971, p.107).

Further reading
Hugh Davies (ed.), The Prints of Barnett Newman, exhibition catalogue, Barnett Newman Foundation, New York 1983, pp.20, 28, reproduced p.91.
Gabriele Shor, The Prints of Barnett Newman 1961–1969, exhibition catalogue, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart 1996, pp.25, 33, reproduced p.33.
Barnett Newman: Drawings and Prints, exhibition catalogue, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel 2016, pp.56–7, reproduced p.92.

Arthur Goodwin
April 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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