Born in 1905 in New York, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Newman grew up in the Bronx, and in his early career was known as a critic rather than a painter. Politically committed, he counted himself an anarchist, and in 1933 offered himself as a candidate for mayor of New York City with a manifesto calling for action by men of culture. He came of age as an artist after the Second World War, when, together with contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb and Clyfford Still, he developed a new style of painting, Abstract Expressionism.
The intervening years have seen Newman variously described as an exemplar of high modernism, a practitioner of the art of the sublime, a precursor of Minimalism, an existentialist, and a spiritual artist fascinated by Jewish mysticism. For his own part, he declared in 1947, just as he arrived at his mature style, that any art worthy of its name should address life, man, nature, death and tragedy. Subsequently, such pronouncements became infrequent, and he preferred to leave the paintings to speak for themselves.