This painting, whose Latin title can be translated as “Man, heroic and sublime,” was Newman’s largest at the time. It is so large that when you stand close to it, as Newman intended, it engulfs you in a vast red field, broken by five thin vertical lines the artist called “zips.” He likened this experience to an encounter between people: “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 2023
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)