Visual Descriptions

Barnett Newman. Vir Heroicus Sublimis. 1950-51 74

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. © 2022 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Narrator 1: 7–4. Vir Heroicus Sublimis. 1950 to ‘51, by the American artist Barnett Newman, 1905 to 1970. Oil on Canvas. 7 feet, 11 inches high, by 17 feet 9 inches in length. 242 by 542 centimeters.

Narrator 2: This is an Abstract Expressionist painting. But it does not at first glance convey the expressive handling of paint that you might associate with Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. This is a great field of monochromatic red. A deep, saturated red. From top to bottom, from side to side, it’s over 100 square feet of red.

It’s not the glossy red of a sports car, it’s not as bright as that. It’s not the dark liquid red of blood either. Instead it has a matte finish, and perhaps, the shade of a field of poppies. It’s not just that it is impossible to put a name on a particular shade of color. iIt’s also that such a large, flat expanse of red can seem to change, even as you look at it.

This expanse of color is interrupted by five thin vertical stripes. Newman called these, “zips.” Each is an inch or two wide, but no two are exactly alike. Starting at the left, the first, about eighteen inches from the edge, is a lighter, orangier red than the dominant color of the painting. The color of this ‘zip’ is imperfect and uneven, particularly along its edges.

The next, another four feet over is bright white, and seems to boldly divide the painting into two unequal parts. The zip to its right is another seven feet over, and its color is much softer and darker. It might be described as maroon. Between those two vertical stripes is an almost perfect square of red in the center of this enormous canvas.

The next vertical stripe is about two feet from the right edge of the painting. It’s the same orange color as the one on the far, and just slightly wider. The final zip is tan, and almost looks like raw canvas. But closer examination shows that it too is paint. About two inches wide and about an inch from the right edge of the unframed, stretched canvas.

In the lower left corner is the artist’s signature and the year, 1950. Just below it, the artist apparently went back in the following year, and added a ‘plus’ sign, the number 51 and his initials, B–N. We know that in that year, Newman added the “zip” closest to the right hand edge of the painting.

Narrator 1: To hear the Collection Tour audio on this work, press 4–0–3.

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