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Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue

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Title: Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue  
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Subject: Vandalism of art, Western painting
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Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue

Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue I, the first painting in the series, 1966

Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue is a series of four large-scale paintings by Barnett Newman painted between 1966 and 1970. Two of them have been the subject of vandalistic attacks in museums. The series' name was a reference to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the play by Edward Albee which had premiered in 1962, which was in itself a reference to Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?, the 1933 song immortalized in Disney cartoons.[1]

Barnett Newman started the first painting in the series without a preconceived notion of the subject or end result; he only wanted it to be different from what he had done until then, and to be asymmetrical. But after having painted the canvas red, he was confronted with the fact that only the other primary colours yellow and blue would work with it; this led to an inherent confrontation with the works of De Stijl and especially Piet Mondriaan, who had in the opinion of Newman turned the combination of the three colors into a didactic idea instead of a means of expression in freedom.[2]

Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue I

This 1966 oil on canvas measures 190 by 122 cm, making it the smallest of the four. It was dedicated to Jasper Johns.[3] It was the subject of a 2006 installation by Robert Irwin at the Pace Gallery,[4] and also the centerpiece of the 2007 exhibition Who's afraid of red, yellow and blue?: Positionen der Farbfeldmalerei in the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden.[5] It is held in a private collection.[6]

Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue II

This 1967 acrylic on canvas painting is part of the collection of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. It measures approximately 305 x 259 cm.

Philip Taaffe's 1985 We Are Not Afraid is openly acknowledged as a reply and tribute to Newman's paintings, especially Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue II, matching the basic layout and even the dimensions[7][8]

Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III

Measuring 224 by 544 cm, this 1967 painting is part of the collection of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. It was attacked with a knife by Gerard Jan van Bladeren in 1986[9] and restored by Daniel Goldreyer in 1991. The restoration initially cost some $400,000, but was heavily attacked by critics who claimed that subtle nuances in the three monochrome sections had been lost and that Goldreyer had used house paints and a roller.[10] According to critics, the painting had been destroyed twice: first during the attack, and again during the restoration. Goldreyer filed a $125 million suit against the City of Amsterdam and the Museum, claiming that his reputation was damaged.[11][12]

After lawsuits, settlements, and further restoration, the final cost of the attack was estimated to be close to $1 million. The Amsterdam city council asked for a full forensic report on the controversial restoration.[13] When the report was finished, the City of Amsterdam and Goldreyer agreed to keep it under wraps, as part of a settlement. But almost 20 years later, on 11 September 2013, the Raad van State decided the report had to be made public by the Government of Amsterdam within six weeks.[14] A week later the Volkskrant newspaper published the report's main conclusions. It confirmed that Goldreyer had indeed repainted the entire red section with acrylic paint and had used a roller to add two layers of varnish to the, initially unvarnished, painting.[15] According to the newspaper, Goldreyer's restoration has "forever destroyed" Newman's work.[16] The painting was put on display again in the Stedelijk Museum in 2014. [17]

Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV

Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV was created in 1969–1970 and is the last major work by Barnett Newman. The oil on canvas painting measures 274 by 603 cm. It belongs to the collection of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, who bought it in 1982 from Newman's widow for 2.7 million Deutschmark / 1 million US dollar, partially with funds raised by the public. It was attacked on April 13, 1982, days before it would be presented to the public, by Josef Nikolaus Kleer, a 29-year-old student who claimed that the picture was a "perversion of the German flag" (the painting has vertical bands of red, yellow and blue, while the German flag has horizontal stripes in black, red and yellow), and that his actions completed the work, a reference to the title of the painting. The restoration took two years.[18][19]


The Who's Afraid of series has reached an iconic status in the world of modern and contemporary art, and has been the inspiration for many artworks, exhibitions, ...

  • Brice Marden created a number of works in red, yellow and blue in the early 1970s, influenced by Mondrian and by these paintings by Newman[20]
  • In 2006, Robert Irwin installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
  • Kerry James Marshall' 2012 exhibition "Who’s Afraid of Red, Black and Green" directly references Newman's works.[21]
  • In 2012, neon art, titled Neon, Who’s afraid of red, yellow and blue ?


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