In Japan, there was a tradition of composing a poem on your deathbed, called a jisei. One final reflection on the totality of your life, a gift to your family, and a distillation of a complex existence into something beautiful. In 1769, the dying poet Shisue was asked by his students to compose a jisei, and with his brush, the master drew a single circle. No words, just a single line to represent the void, the universe in totality, and enlightenment.
Sometimes the simplest mark is the most powerful.
Barnett Newman discovered the power of a single line in 1948, when he ran a stripe of masking tape down the center of a small dark maroon canvas. Newman then tentatively painted a vertical line in orange oil on top of the masking tape, like the yellow line that divides American highways. It's an odd little painting, clearly an experiment by the artist, and yet it does feel good. The irregular line is engaging, and if you're not careful, your eye will bounce up and and down the canvas like a rotated game of Pong.
Like Malevich painting a black square just decades earlier, Newman's straight, vertical line was a visual element of irreducible simplicity. Newman later called these lines zips, and over the next 22 years, they would become the defining motif of his painting career. Using vertical zips to divide increasingly massive fields of bold color, Newman attempted to “to start from scratch, to paint as if painting never existed before” —an idea that would've been familiar to Shisue, who would've called this approach shoshin, the zen Buddhist concept of beginner's mind.