Collection 1950s–1970s

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Barnett Newman. Vir Heroicus Sublimis. 1950-51 403

Oil on canvas, 7' 11 3/8" x 17' 9 1/4" (242.2 x 541.7 cm). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Heller. © 2024 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Alex Fialho: In New York, artists are always looking for more space and cheaper rent. In the 1950s, artists like Barnett Newman sought out larger studio spaces to make art on a bigger scale.

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 foot 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.