Why Were Barnett Newman’s Paintings Destroyed?

Jewish American artist Barnett Newman’s paintings have endured several vandalistic attacks over the years. Here is an look into the destruction and restoration of these powerful works.

Jun 11, 2023By Elizabeth Berry, BA English, Italian, & Writing Seminars

why were barnett newman paintings destroyed


Barnett Newman (1905-1970) was a Jewish American painter and trailblazer in the abstract expressionism and color field movements. In 1969 and 1970, he created a series of four paintings titled Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue, a reference to Edward Albee’s 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Newman’s artwork was the subject of controversy due to anti-Semitic sentiments and a general misunderstanding of abstract art. Today, two different paintings in Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue series have been vandalized by knives, with Newman’s 1951 Cathedra being collateral damage in a third attempted attack. Below is a history of the vandalism and restoration of Barnett Newman’s paintings.


Abstract Expressionism and Hard-Edge Painting: Who Was Barnett Newman?

Vir Heroicus Sublimis by Barnett Newman, 1950-51, via MoMA, New York


In understanding the significance of the vandalism of Barnett Newman’s paintings, it is important to consider his identity and accomplishments as an artist. Barnett Newman (1905-1970) was an American painter born to Jewish immigrants from Poland in New York City. Today he is remembered as one of the most important figures in Abstract Expressionism and Color Field movements, with his works expressing complex ideas in simple forms. He was also a pioneer of hard-edge painting, a technique in creating abstract works that utilized monochromatic sections of color with hard edges to create a sense of flatness in the work. In line with this, Newman utilized vertical lines in many of his paintings, which he called zips, as can be seen in his iconic painting Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51).


One of the most notable details about Newman as an artist is the heightened sense of spirituality present in his work. Through the vast expanses of color in his paintings, Newman’s goal was to evoke a sense of spiritual awe in the viewer. As he said in a 1965 interview: “I have come to distrust the episodic, and I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality and the same time of his connection to others, who are also separate.”


The First Attack on Newman’s Work

Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue IV by Barnett Newman, 1969-1970, via Freunde Der Nationalgalerie


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The first attack on Barnett Newman’s work happened on April 13, 1982, when a German student vandalized Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue IV shortly after it went on display for the first time at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin. 29-year-old student Josef Nikolaus Kleer was apparently frightened and disturbed by the work, claiming it was a perversion of the German flag and making a mockery of the German people. Kleer vandalized the painting by hitting it several times with a security barrier and gluing various notes and pictures to it, including a caricature of Margaret Thatcher.


Thankfully, the first attack on Barnett Newman’s work did not happen during his lifetime, so the artist did not have to witness the destruction of his masterpiece. However, this attack sparked the first of many complicated restoration attempts on Newman’s work, taking two years for the painting to be restored to its former glory after Kleer’s vandalism. Considering Newman’s commemoration of Holocaust victims in several of his series of artwork, including The Stations of the Cross series, as well as his identity as a Jewish American, the most likely motive behind this attack is anti-Semitism. Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue IV (1969-1970) was Barnett Newman’s last major work before his death, which made its restoration after such a hateful attack even more crucial.


The Second Attack on Newman’s Work

Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III by Barnett Newman, 1967, via Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam


The second and most famous attack on one of Barnett Newman’s paintings occurred in 1986 when a man named Gerard Jan van Bladerin walked into the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and willfully damaged Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III with a box cutter. Van Bladerin created a series of long slashes on the painting which, when added together, were a total of fifty feet long. He was sentenced to five months in prison for the attack, which he served, though he never expressed remorse for destroying the painting.


Photograph of Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III after its 1986 slashing, by Suzanne Blanchard, via Het Parool


Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III had generated strong reactions for years leading up to the 1986 attack, with its simplicity provoking a sense of anger in many museumgoers. Many people who saw the painting thought that it did not deserve to be in a museum due to its simplicity, a criticism to which abstract art is often subjected. The museum had already received numerous letters expressing their outrage and disgust at the painting. Though Van Bladerin claimed his attack was motivated by a similar outrage, it is important to note here, once again, Newman’s identity as a Jewish American painter. Many people at the time did not even believe Van Bladerin deserved to be sent to prison for the vandalism.


Inside the Controversial Restoration of Newman’s Paintings

Photo collage showing where forensic samples of Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III were taken, 1991, via Volkskrant


After the 1986 attack on Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III there was a conversation concerning who would do the restoration of the painting. Despite the work provoking a lot of anger in museumgoers due to its simplicity, the painting was incredibly intricate, and experts knew that it would be nearly unattainable to complete a faithful restoration. Although the work was mostly just an expanse of the color red, both the shade and technique Newman used were difficult to replicate. Prior to the slashing, it was almost impossible to see brush strokes on the work with the naked eye. Additionally, one of the cardinal rules of restoring paintings is that everything done to the work should be reversible, something that would be very difficult to do with such large cuts through the body of the work. The painting sat damaged for many years because no conservationists wanted to touch it.


In 1991, Long Island based art conservationist Daniel Goldreyer agreed to restore the abstract painting, saying he had worked with Newman while he was alive and could replicate the techniques the artist used in the original. When the restored painting was presented, the art world was immensely disappointed. It was evident that Goldreyer did not employ traditional restoration techniques on the painting, and a series of forensic samples showed that he had painted over the entire work with a roller rather than just fixing the damaged area. Previous admirers of the painting said that it had been vandalized again with this restoration, with some going as far to say that Goldreyer did more damage to the work than Van Bladerin did in his original attack.


Collateral Damage in a Revenge Attack: Cathedra

Cathedra by Barnett Newman, 1951, via Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam


Eleven years after the 1986 attack on Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III, Gerard Jan van Bladerin returned to the Stedelijk museum once again with a box cutter. Like so many others in the art world, he was outraged by the shoddy restoration of the painting and wanted to enact revenge. It is curious that the person who hated the painting enough to destroy it would be so incensed by poor conservation technique, but Van Bladerin even went as far as to call the director of the museum and warn him that he would be coming. It is theorized that perhaps the vandal was upset about the ‘undoing’ of his previous work with the restoration. Though his threats were not taken seriously or prepared for, Van Bladerin was not able to locate the painting when he came to the Stedelijk to vandalize it.


When Van Bladerin couldn’t find Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III, he set his sights on another painting: Cathedra (1951). Barnett Newman’s 1951 painting Cathedra had the goal of expressing the sublime in a post-war world. Composed of a deep blue color and two of Newman’s signature zips, this painting sought to raise people’s spirits after such a bleak, anti-Semitic war.


Photograph of damage to Cathedra by Barnett Newman, 1997, via Art Damaged


In 1997, Gerard Jan van Bladerin vandalized Cathedra with seven slashes from a box cutter, similar to his prior attack on Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III. After creating the slashes in the painting, he again expressed no remorse and waited for security to remove him. As soon as this occurred, the museum took action to ensure a smoother restoration; “We immediately closed that section of the gallery and began first aid. We laid the painting on a flat, wooden surface and taped the cuts together, so they can’t crack, curl or rip further. Luckily the attacker used a very sharp knife, and before the museum acquired the painting in 1975, it had been relined, so the cuts are relatively clean,” museum director Rudi Fuchs said in an interview. Though Cathedra also had a long restoration process, eventually this abstract expressionist masterpiece by Barnett Newman was repaired following the third attack on his work.

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By Elizabeth BerryBA English, Italian, & Writing SeminarsElizabeth Berry is a writer from Los Angeles, California. She holds a BA in English, Italian, and Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University, and is working towards her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews. In her spare time, she writes articles about Italian art, culture, and literature. She loves golden retrievers, the color fuchsia, and kayaking.