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On view  |  Painting and Sculpture II, Gallery 16, Floor 4

Barnett Newman. Vir Heroicus Sublimis. 1950-51

Getting Close

At eighteen feet long and eight feet high, this painting is an enormous red expanse. Newman applied cadmium red paint in smooth layers so that no brushstrokes are visible...

“Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”

At eighteen feet long and eight feet high, this painting is an enormous red expanse. Newman applied cadmium red paint in smooth layers so that no brushstrokes are visible. The red expanse is subdivided by five vertical stripes, which Newman termed “zips.” Together, these vertical bands form an almost perfect square near the center of the otherwise asymmetrical, abstract composition. Later, Newman added the two-inch wide, neatly painted bone-white stripe just inside the right edge.

When first exhibited, Newman tacked a sign to the wall instructing viewers to move up close to the work. His goal was to have viewers engage directly and intimately with it—to bathe in its color and experience the rhythm and contrast of its lines.

"The Sublime Is Now"

Newman sought to create art that was transcendent, spiritual, and, in his words, sublimea desire revealed by the title of this work, which in Latin means “Man, Heroic and Sublime.” In his essay "The Sublime Is Now," Newman asked, “If we are living in a time without a legend or mythos that can be called sublime...

Newman sought to create art that was transcendent, spiritual, and, in his words, sublimea desire revealed by the title of this work, which in Latin means “Man, Heroic and Sublime.” In his essay "The Sublime Is Now," Newman asked, “If we are living in a time without a legend or mythos that can be called sublime... how can we be creating a sublime art? "He answered, “Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”

Critical Reception

Despite Newman’s lofty goals, critics who saw the painting were unmoved, rejecting it as impersonal, something a housepainter, rather than an artist, would do. To some critics, it appeared to run counter to Abstract Expressionism as exemplified by the work of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko...

Despite Newman’s lofty goals, critics who saw the painting were unmoved, rejecting it as impersonal, something a housepainter, rather than an artist, would do. To some critics, it appeared to run counter to Abstract Expressionism as exemplified by the work of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko.

Newman did not exhibit his work again until the late fifties. By then, critics and audiences had grown more receptive; Newman's flatly painted surfaces and controlled “zips” inspired a younger generation of artists, such as Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Frank Stella, who sought an alternative to the overtly emotive content of Abstract Expressionism. Newman, however, insisted on the primacy of expressive content until the end of his life.

New York School

The Abstract Expressionists are sometimes called New York School artists. There wasn't any actual "New York School" where artists took classes; rather, the term is shorthand for a loose association of avant-garde artists...

The Abstract Expressionists are sometimes called New York School artists. There wasn't any actual "New York School" where artists took classes; rather, the term is shorthand for a loose association of avant-garde artists who lived in New York in the mid-twentieth century, and who made art in the Abstract Expressionist style. The New York School artists established a meeting place in New York's Greenwich Village, The Club, which became a hub of Abstract Expressionist debates and activities from 1949 to around 1960.

In addition to describing visual artists, the term "New York School" has also been applied to a group of poets that included Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, and a group of composers that included John Cage and Morton Feldman. Less directly, it can refer to many dancers, choreographers, prose writers, and jazz musicians. Many of the key figures in each of these circles formed close personal and aesthetic relationships, collaborating and sharing creative influences across different mediums.

Paint

Paint is most often a combination of pigment, binder, and solvent. Pigment is the colored portion of the paint. It is often a finely ground material that is either found in nature or artificially produced...

Paint is most often a combination of pigment, binder, and solvent. Pigment is the colored portion of the paint. It is often a finely ground material that is either found in nature or artificially produced. Binder holds the individual grains of pigment together. In oil paint, the most common binder is linseed oil, which typically dries to the touch in about one week. The binder in most acrylic paint is an acrylic resin; the binder in watercolor paint is a natural resin called gum arabic. Solvent is a liquid that thins the paint. The most common solvent in oil painting is turpentine. Water is the solvent for acrylic emulsion and watercolor paints.

Palette Knife

A palette knife is a type of spatula typically used to mix paint on the palette...

A palette knife is a type of spatula typically used to mix paint on the palette. It can also be used to apply paint directly on the canvas and to remove it from the canvas.

Scale

By the end of the 1940s, most of the Abstract Expressionist painters were working on canvases that were taller and/or wider than a human being, that is, on a large scale...

By the end of the 1940s, most of the Abstract Expressionist painters were working on canvases that were taller and/or wider than a human being, that is, on a large scale. Large-scale Abstract Expressionist paintings envelop the viewer and saturate his or her field of vision. Besides radically changing the relationship between viewer and painting, large-scale Abstract Expressionist canvases served as literal announcements of the grandeur of their makers' ambitions.

Murals had been created for centuries, but such historically grand-scale works were designed to tell a story, using recognizable figures. Rather than telling a particular narrative, the large-scale canvases of Abstract Expressionism often vibrate with creative energy and trigger feelings, emotions, or sensations in those viewing them.

The Irascibles

The Irascibles is the label given to a group of Abstract Expressionist artists who wrote an open letter to the president of The Metropolitan Museum of Art...

The Irascibles is the label given to a group of Abstract Expressionist artists who wrote an open letter to the president of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, protesting the museum's exhibition American Painting Today 1950. The exhibition included no examples of Abstract Expressionist painting, and the group believed that the show's curators promoted only the most conservative kind of American painting and were "hostile to advanced art." In 1951, fourteen of the artists were assembled for a now iconic photograph, published by Life magazine in an article called "Irascible Group of Advanced Artists Led Fight Against Show."

Tint, Shade and Tone

In painting, a tint is a color plus white, a shade is a color plus black...

In painting, a tint is a color plus white, a shade is a color plus black, and a tone is a color plus gray.

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Barnett Newman (American, 1905–1970)

Vir Heroicus Sublimis

Date:
1950-51
Medium:
Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
7' 11 3/8" x 17' 9 1/4" (242.2 x 541.7 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Heller
MoMA Number:
240.1969
Copyright:
© 2014 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 195

Newman may appear to concentrate on shape and color, but he insisted that his canvases were charged with symbolic meaning. Like Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich before him, he believed in the spiritual content of abstract art. The very title of this painting—in English, "Man, heroic and sublime"—points to aspirations of transcendence.

Abstract Expressionism is often called "action painting," but Newman was one of the several Abstract Expressionists who eliminated signs of the action of the painter's hand, preferring to work with broad, even expanses of deep color. Vir Heroicus Sublimis is large enough so that when the viewer stands close to it, as Newman intended, it creates an engulfing environment—a vast red field, broken by five thin vertical stripes. Newman admired Alberto Giacometti's bone-thin sculptures of the human figure, and his stripes, or "zips," as he called them, may be seen as symbolizing figures against a void. Here they vary in width, color, and firmness of edge: the white zip at center left, for example, looks almost like the gap between separate planes, while the maroon zip to its right seems to recede slightly into the red. These subtly differentiated verticals create a division of the canvas that is surprisingly complex, and asymmetrical; right in the middle of the picture, however, they set off a perfect square.

Audio Program excerpt

MoMA Audio: Collection

, 2008

Curator, Ann Temkin: In 1950, Newman moved to a studio at 110 Wall Street that afforded him the space to make his first 8' x 18' painting. This was a radical leap in the scale for Newman and yet he did not shy away from devoting almost the entire canvas to a single color -- red.

The red is interrupted by five vertical bands. And these bands which Newman began later to call "zips" are distributed at certain points along the horizontal expanse of the canvas in these very asymmetrical proportions that have everything to do with how you perceive and how you absorb that painting.

This was a generation of artists who had just come through the Depression, had witnessed the Holocaust, the dropping of the atom bomb.

And instead of falling into despair about that the job these artists gave themselves was to invent a brand new language of art, which by extension would imply a brand new culture, a brand new civilization and a brand new beginning for humankind in general.

“Vir Heroicus Sublimis” is Latin. And it means “man heroic and sublime.” Newman was sincere in his wish that his painting would convey that majesty and that dignity and that sublimity of what man could accomplish.

Director, Glenn Lowry: Before MoMA acquired this painting, it was owned by collector Ben Heller.

Collector Ben Heller: Reader's Digest used to have a little thing called "The Most Unforgettable Character I've Met." Barney Newman is my most unforgettable character. He was one remarkable human being. I loved the man deeply.

Pollock introduced me and he said, "Here's somebody's work you should see." And I looked and I got out of there as fast I could. And I'm walking down the street and I said to my wife, "The emperor's clothes. Nothing there." I couldn't see a thing. But it troubled me. Jackson thought it was good. And so I went back. By the third visit I thought he was a great painter.

The Modern bought five paintings of mine. The Acquisitions Committee would not buy Vir Heroicus.

So I gave it to them. Barney was furious with me. He could have sold it. He had a buyer. I said, "That wasn't the point." I said, "It belongs there."

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