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The Sublime and the Spiritual

Abstract Expressionists used color and scale to create a sense of spirituality and the sublime


Vir Heroicus Sublimis

Barnett Newman
(American, 1905–1970)

1951. Oil on canvas, 7' 11 3/8" x 17' 9 1/4" (242.2 x 541.7 cm)

Barnett Newman was an American artist best known for his color-field paintings and use of what he called “zips.” He generally created the zips, or strips of color that run vertically on his paintings, by applying masking tape to block off parts of the canvas and painting the exposed areas.

This work’s title, which can be translated as “Man, heroic and sublime,” refers to Newman’s essay “The Sublime is Now,” in which he poses the question, “If we are living in a time without a legend that can be called sublime, how can we be creating sublime art?”1 His response is embodied in part by this painting—his largest as of that time. Newman hoped that the viewer would stand close to this expansive work, explaining: “It’s no different, really, from meeting another person. One has a reaction to the person physically. Also, there’s a metaphysical thing … and if a meeting of people is meaningful, it affects both their lives.”2

Barnett Newman, “The Sublime is Now,” Theories of Modern Art (Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1984), 553.
Barnett Newman in “Interview with David Sylvester,” Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990).

Transcending physical matter or the laws of nature. Metaphysics refers to the branch of philosophy that studies that fundamental nature of being and knowing.

Awe-inspiring or worthy of reverence. In philosophy, literature, and the arts, the sublime refers to a quality of greatness that is beyond all calculation.

Paintings of large areas of color, typically with no strong contrasts of tone or obvious focus of attention.

Did You Know?
When he first exhibited this painting, 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.

Multimedia

SLIDESHOW: See visitor’s snapshots of Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis in the MoMA galleries. Share your own pictures by uploading them to Flickr with the tag “MoMA Vir Heroicus Sublimis”