Barnett Newman and the Anarchist Sublime

Issue: 
Spring 2017
Author(s): 

Often overlooked in histories of abstract expressionism is the role that anarchism as a philosophy played in the art of postwar American painters like Barnett Newman. For Newman, anarchism was not merely a programme for revolutionary action but an experimental way of life that, much like painting itself, sought to imagine a life lived free from coercive authority. Through his signature painting style, which featured vertical stripes painted on coloured canvases, Newman put forth a radical political theology based on the writings of Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza and Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin. In his art, Newman presented what might be called an anarchist sublime, an aesthetic experience that opened up viewers to the expressive capacity of being itself.