Barnett Newman. Vir Heroicus Sublimis. 1950-51

Barnett Newman Vir Heroicus Sublimis 1950-51

  • MoMA, Floor 4, 404 The David Geffen Galleries

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
Additional text

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)
Medium
Oil on canvas
Dimensions
7' 11 3/8" x 17' 9 1/4" (242.2 x 541.7 cm)
Credit
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Heller
Object number
240.1969
Copyright
© 2021 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Department
Painting and Sculpture

Installation views

How we identified these works

In 2018–19, MoMA collaborated with Google Arts & Culture Lab on a project using machine learning to identify artworks in installation photos. That project has concluded, and works are now being identified by MoMA staff.

If you notice an error, please contact us at [email protected].

Licensing

If you would like to reproduce an image of a work of art in MoMA’s collection, or an image of a MoMA publication or archival material (including installation views, checklists, and press releases), please contact Art Resource (publication in North America) or Scala Archives (publication in all other geographic locations).

MoMA licenses archival audio and select out of copyright film clips from our film collection. At this time, MoMA produced video cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. All requests to license archival audio or out of copyright film clips should be addressed to Scala Archives at [email protected]. Motion picture film stills cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. For access to motion picture film stills for research purposes, please contact the Film Study Center at [email protected]. For more information about film loans and our Circulating Film and Video Library, please visit https://www.moma.org/research-and-learning/circulating-film.

If you would like to reproduce text from a MoMA publication, please email [email protected]. If you would like to publish text from MoMA’s archival materials, please fill out this permission form and send to [email protected].

Feedback

This record is a work in progress. If you have additional information or spotted an error, please send feedback to [email protected].