VIR HEROICUS SUBLIMIS, BARNETT NEWMAN, 1951

Yesterday we talked about Minimal Art, and we mentioned Barnett Newman. He wasn’t just part of Minimalists, but also of the Colorfield movement and of the Abstract Expressionism.

This work is exhibited permanently at the MoMA, New York, and the label says:

Vir Heroicus Sublimis, Newman’s largest painting at the time of its completion, is meant to overwhelm the senses. Viewers may be inclined to step back from it to see it all at once, but Newman instructed precisely the opposite. When the painting was first exhibited, in 1951 at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, Newman tacked to the wall a notice that read, “There is a tendency to look at large pictures from a distance. The large pictures in this exhibition are intended to be seen from a short distance.” Newman believed deeply in the spiritual potential of abstract art. The Latin title of this painting means “Man, heroic and sublime.” (source: MoMA.org)

In fact, approaching the work from a close perspective, it’s easy to see that the red fields were painted after the thin lines of different shades, not before, like everyone would probably assume. This leaves the observer the impression that those different shades are actually spaces from where he can see beyond the canvas. Fine open holes, with a ray of light coming through. The red monochrome is somehow hiding something behind it, something that wants to come out and that is about to come out.

The canvas becomes a sort of Narnia’s wardrobe, a Snowwhite mirror, an Alice in Wonderland rabbithole. There is nothing physical behind it, everyone could look and see it with their own eyes. But there is something in it, another dimension.

We already spoke about the will of overcoming the canvas when talking about Lucio Fontana’s cuts. Here the canvas is not yet destroyed to go beyond it, but the idea is starting to grow.

Newman was used to thinking that the encounter with a painting was exactly like the encounter between two people. It’s how you approach the canvas that will leave something to both parts.

-M.C.

Bibliography and further readings:

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