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.
The Latin title of this painting can be translated as "Man, heroic and sublime." It refers to Newman’s essay "The Sublime is Now," in which he asks, "If we are living in a time without a legend that can be called sublime, how can we be creating sublime art?" His response is embodied in part by this painting—his largest ever at that time. Newman hoped that the viewer would stand close to this expansive work, and he likened the experience to a human encounter: "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."
Vir Heroicus Sublimis, Newman’s largest painting at the time of its completion, is meant to overwhelm the senses. Viewers may be inclined to step back from it to see it all at once, but Newman instructed precisely the opposite. When the painting was first exhibited, in 1951 at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, Newman tacked to the wall a notice that read, “There is a tendency to look at large pictures from a distance. The large pictures in this exhibition are intended to be seen from a short distance.” Newman believed deeply in the spiritual potential of abstract art. The Latin title of this painting means “Man, heroic and sublime.”
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."