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)
Barnett Newman was best known for his color-field paintings and use of what he called “zips,” vertical strips of color placed across the surfaces of his compositions. He created the zips by applying masking tape to block off parts of the canvas and painting the exposed areas.
This work’s title, which can be translated as “Man, heroic and sublime,” refers to Newman’s essay “The Sublime is Now,” in which he poses the question, “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 at the time that he made it. Newman hoped that the viewer would stand close to this expansive work, explaining: “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.”