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The Sublime and the Spiritual

Abstract Expressionists used color and scale to create a sense of spirituality and the sublime

Vir Heroicus Sublimis

Barnett Newman
(American, 1905–1970)

1951. Oil on canvas, 7' 11 3/8" x 17' 9 1/4" (242.2 x 541.7 cm)

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?”1 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.”2

Barnett Newman, “The Sublime is Now,” Theories of Modern Art (Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1984), 553.
Barnett Newman in “Interview with David Sylvester,” Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990).

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

Transcending physical matter or the laws of nature. Metaphysics refers to the branch of philosophy that studies that fundamental nature of being and knowing.

Awe-inspiring or worthy of reverence. In philosophy, literature, and the arts, the sublime refers to a quality of greatness that is beyond all calculation.

A closely woven, sturdy cloth of hemp, cotton, linen, or a similar fiber, frequently stretched over a frame and used as a surface for painting.

The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.

Paintings of large areas of color, typically with no strong contrasts of tone or obvious focus of attention.

The perceived hue of an object, produced by the manner in which it reflects or emits light into the eye. Also, a substance, such as a dye, pigment, or paint, that imparts a hue.

Up Close and Personal
When he first exhibited this painting, Newman tacked a sign to the wall instructing viewers to move up close to the work. His goal was to have viewers engage directly and intimately with it—to bathe in its color and experience the rhythm and contrast of its zips.


VIDEO: The Painting Techniques of Barnett Nerman: Vir Heroicus Sublimis

VIDEO: From the Curator: Barnett Newman