Obelisk Art History

Onement, I

Barnett Newman, 1948
Onement, I, Barnett Newman
Onement, I, zoomed in
69.2 cmOnement, I scale comparison41.2 cm
See Onement, I in the Kaleidoscope

Onement, I is an Abstract Expressionist Oil on Canvas Painting created by Barnett Newman in 1948. It lives at the MOMA, Museum of Modern Art in New York. The image is © Barnett Newman Foundation / ARS New York, and used according to Educational Fair Use, and tagged Abstract Art.

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, experimental little painting, but it feels good. The irregular line is engaging, and if you're not careful, your eye will bounce up 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 became 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 known to Shisue as shoshin, the zen Buddhist concept of beginner’s mind.

Reed Enger, "Onement, I," in Obelisk Art History, Published September 09, 2017; last modified November 08, 2022, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/barnett-newman/onement-i/.

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