… that separate presence which mirrors us while it insists upon its separateness from us — and thereby sanctifies our separateness.
This is from ‘Newman I’ (1986) in About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96 by David Sylvester (1996):
… he was forty when he produced his first known painting, around forty-five when he produced what seem the most indispensable paintings of this half of the twentieth century. Newman, then — given the resemblance of artists, not to mountaineers, with their finite ambition to scale particular peaks, but to jumpers and vaulters, with their infinite ambition to reach as far as they can (and their recognition that, whatever their success by comparison with others, they are bound to fall short in the end) — Newman was like those champion high-jumpers who delay coming into a competition till the bar is nearing its ultimate level.
… We tend to flatter ourselves that we are altogether better talent-spotters than our predecessors were in the days of the Impressionists and the Cubists — or even as late as the 1940s, when Mondrian died hungry. Yet Newman, who since the mid-1960s has come to be widely thought of as the greatest painter to have emerged since the Second World War, was generally ridiculed or ignored until the end of the 1950s.
Barnett Newman, Onement 1, 1948
[ … ]
… The similar emphatic frontality of a Rothko creates a related kind of confrontation. Here we are faced with a highly ambiguous presence which seems, on the one hand, ethereal, empty, on the other solid and imposing, like a megalith. It is a presence that alternates between seeming to be receptive, intimate, enveloping, and seeming to be menacing, repelling. It plays with us as the weather does, for it is a landscape, looming up over us, evoking the elements, recalling the imagery of the first verses of the Book of Genesis — the darkness upon the face of the deep, the dividing of the waters from the waters.
[line break added] “Often, towards nightfall,” Rothko once said to me, “there’s a feeling in the air of mystery, threat, frustration — all of these at once. I would like my painting to have the quality of such moments.” And of course it does have that quality; it belongs to the great Romantic tradition of sublime landscape. Newman’s art does not have to do with man’s feelings when threatened by something in the air; it has to do with man’s sense of himself. The painting gives us a sense of being where we are which somehow makes us rejoice in being there.
[line break added] It heightens, through the intensity of the presence of its verticals, our sense of standing there. With its blank surface somehow mysteriously returning our glance, it confronts us in a way that recalls confrontation with a Giacometti standing figure, that separate presence which mirrors us while it insists upon its separateness from us — and thereby sanctifies our separateness.
Barnett Newman, First Station