His Cross To Bear

Barnett Newman Dealt With Suffering in ‘Zips’

Courtesy of the Barnett Newman Foundation

By Menachem Wecker

Published August 01, 2012, issue of August 03, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

It’s tempting to read literal crucifixion imagery into Barnett Newman’s 14-canvas series, “The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani.” The portrait-oriented, black-and-white paintings and their bold stripes initially appear to be fully vertical in their thrusts, like crosses without horizontal shafts. But upon closer inspection, the vertical stripes, or “zips,” as Newman called them, which he created with the help of masking tape, bleed color from side to side, as a cross would if it were vibrating like a plucked guitar string. Each stripe, in a sense, consists of multiple miniature crosses, and subtle stains throughout the paintings could stand in as blood, sweat or tears.

Newman, who died July 4, 1970, insisted that his works didn’t literally represent the narrative of Jesus’ path to his crucifixion from the garden of Gethsemane. Instead, as Newman stated in a 1966 interview with poet and art critic Frank O’Hara on New York’s Channel 13, the series’s crucifixion imagery responds to the broader meaning of the cry that Jesus uttered on the cross: “Why have you forsaken me?”

The interview plays in a loop in the smaller room of the Tower Gallery of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., alongside the main gallery, where the series, which Newman created between 1958 and 1966, is on view through February 2013. The title of Newman’s series derives from the Aramaic for Jesus’ cry, although the phrase is sometimes rendered, perhaps more correctly, “Lama Shibaktani,” rather than “Lema Sabachthani.”

Despite — or perhaps because of — the direct New Testament reference in the title of the series, historians and critics have also noted Holocaust references in Newman’s work. “Other Jewish modern artists (like Chagall) dealt with New Testament themes,” wrote Harry Cooper, curator and head of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery, in an email to the Forward. “In addition, there was a certain post-Holocaust tendency among Jewish thinkers to take the sufferings of Christ as a symbol of Jewish persecution.”

Newman was born in 1905 to a Zionist family of Polish immigrants on Manhattan’s Lower East side. In his 2006 book, “American Artists, Jewish Images” (Syracuse University Press), Matthew Baigell, a professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University, writes that Newman was trained in Hebrew as a child and that he went to synagogue each year as an adult to recite Kaddish for his parents.

“Newman was not very observant, but he read the Old Testament (as well as the New) and was interested in Jewish mysticism. Many of the titles of his paintings reflect these interests,” Cooper wrote. Adam, Eve, Abraham, Uriel and Jericho are among the figures and places referenced in Newman’s titles. The Hebrew term makom, meaning “place” and also one of God’s names — referencing, in the abstract, God’s transcendence over particular places and His “occupation” of all spaces — was particularly important to Newman, Cooper added, noting, “He hoped such a place would be created between his art and the viewer.”

Is it surprising that a Jewish artist like Newman would address Jewish subjects through reference to the Crucifixion? In his 2007 book, “Abstraction and the Holocaust,” Mark Godfrey, a curator at the Tate Modern, in London, argues that Newman chose to title his series with a Christological reference rather than a reference to an Old Testament figure like Adam or Abraham, to “associate the paintings with… the intensity of the Passion,” as well as to make use of “an established metaphor that had been used to address the suffering of Jews and other groups under Nazism for almost 30 years.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.