Is This Painting By Barnett Newman Really Worth $30-40 Million?

A painting by the seminal American Abstract Expressionist painter Barnett Newman goes under the hammer at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 14 May 2013 in New York. The painting is considered one the most important painting produced by Newman ever to appear at auction. Onement VI from 1953 stands as a masterwork not only of Newman’s artistic enterprise, but of the entire Abstract Expressionist movement. The vast 81⁄2 x 10 feet canvas overwhelms the viewer with cascading washes of vibrant blue intersected by the artist’s revolutionary vertical ‘zip.’ Onement VI is the most momentous of the six paintings in the series and one of only two Onement works remaining in private hands.The painting is estimated to fetch $30/40 million.

The painting, if sold will join the ranks of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clifford Still breaking 10 million dollar barrier. Tobias Meyer, Worldwide Head of Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s commented: “Onement VI is one of the most significant pieces of Contemporary Art I have handled in my 20 years at Sotheby’s.”

Barnett Newman is regarded as among the most independent and courageous artists of the 20th century. He was deeply admired by his fellow abstract expressionists and, as an exhibitions organizer for the newly opened Betty Parsons Gallery in 1946, played a critical role in the careers of friends such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Clyfford Still among others. Newman’s paintings also went on to influence the next generation of artists such as Frank Stella. In addition Onement VI was singled out for praise by the acclaimed critic and proponent of Jackson Pollock Clement Greenberg.

The paintings of the Onement series are characterized by the distinctive stripe running down the centre of the canvas. The zip is considered a defining turning point in the artist’s practice and was formed by using tape and allowing the blue paint to bleed irregularly into the central area. In Onement VI the zip is distinguished both by the sharp edges that retain the memory of the tape and the gentle laps of darker paint seeping into the cool light blue.

Newman gave Onement VI to his wife Annalee in December 1953 and it remained in her collection for nearly a decade. It was later acquired by the prestigious collectors Frederick and Marcia Weisman in 1961, the same year that the Newmans lent the painting to the influential Abstract Expressionists and Imagists show at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and also the year Vogue Art Director Alexander Liberman shot the famous photograph of the artist with the painting.

Onement VI is the final, largest and definitive work of the venerated cycle. Of the six paintings in the series four are held by major museums; two in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, with one each at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford and the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio. There is only one other work from the series in private hands, the much smaller Onement V which was sold at auction in 2012 and currently holds the record for the artist. Not only is Onement VI the

largest in that acclaimed cycle, it also one of the largest paintings from Newman’s mature career. Of the 119 paintings created by Newman between 1945 and his death in 1970 just nine exceed the scale of Onement VI, eight of which are in major international museum collections, firmly establishing the work’s place as one of the most important examples of Newman’s oeuvre.


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