Vir Heroicus Sublimis by Barnett Newman

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. – Barnett Newman

This enormous, eighteen by eight feet canvas is very intense not just in terms of its size but, to a greater extent, due to its absolute, deep red color. The proper way to experience the work is in person, only in person, and close up. Step into the room, estimate the space that the painting takes up in the room and sit in front of it, so it is only you and the picture plane. Look how intensively the potent red surface reflects the light. Then step closer, as close as you would to another person. And now let yourself be overwhelmed. Evaluate the surface and think of how the artist managed to make it perfectly smooth. Can you see a single brushstroke? Isn’t it sublime?

Newman masterfully structured his, almost monochrome, immense color fields by separating the space with vertical stripes in different shades of contrasting colors. “Zips”, as the artist called these stripes, were a constant theme of his color field paintings and make his works look complete and vivid. He described the zip as “a field that brings life to the other fields, just as the other fields bring life to this so-called line”. In other words, the zip is a key element that brings the whole structure together. It guides you through the field and ensures that you don’t get lost in this expansive pure visual field.

Newman painted Vir Heroicus Sublimis (Man, Heroic and Sublime) in 1950-51, when the United States was descending into the grasp of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and artistic censorship. The title refers to Newman’s essay The Sublime is Now, in which he asks, “If we are living in a time without a legend that can be called sublime, how can we be creating sublime art?”

Post-War America, with its strive for a new identity as the new global art center and a new set of values, created an auspicious ground for the avant-garde artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, and Barnett Newman and although their works differed aesthetically and technically, art critics like Clement Greenberg classified them all as abstract-expressionists. Members of the movement, official and unofficial, all strived to abandon traditional European iconography and technique and instead create their own standards. Newman’s pursuit was the integrity of the painting surface. The idea of absolute emotion and spirituality for Newman was represented in the experience of enormity and the sublime. Newman’s use of precise geometric forms and smooth application of paint established precedent for aesthetics of Minimalism in the 1960s.

Vir Heroicus Sublimis is on view at MoMA, Gallery 16, Floor 4.

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