The Latin title Vir Heroicus Sublimis can be translated “Man, heroic and sublime.” Newman once asked, “If we are living in a time without a legend that can be called sublime, how can we be creating sublime art?” This painting, his largest at the time, is one response. Newman wanted the viewer to stand close to this 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.”
Gallery label from Collection 1940s—1970s, 2019
It may appear that Newman concentrated 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.
Newman was one of several Abstract Expressionists who suppressed any signs of the action of the painter’s hand, preferring to work with broad, even expanses of deep color. In 1950 he moved into a new studio that afforded him the space to make this work, his first 8-by-18-foot painting and a radical shift in scale. Vir Heroicus Sublimis is so large 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. These stripes, or “zips,” as he called them, vary in width, color, and firmness of edge; the white zip at center left looks almost like a gap between separate planes, while the maroon zip to its right seems to recede slightly into the red. These starkly differentiated verticals create a division of the canvas that is surprisingly complex and asymmetrical. Dispersed throughout, they also act as markers in space and time as the viewer surveys the work.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)