Listening to Art

01.05: Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis

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Listening to Art, by William Denton.

Volume one, number five: Vir Heroicus Sublimis by Barnett Newman.

Hello, and welcome to Listening to Art. I’m William Denton.

This issue is the first of three devoted to the American artist Barnett Newman, who is usually known as an abstract expressionist. He was one that incredible group in New York in the 1940s, fifties and sixties, with Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Willem de Kooning and others.

Barnett Newman was born in New York City in 1905 and died there in 1970. He worked in his father’s clothing manufacturing company for a decade through the Crash and the Depression, and also taught art in the 1930s. Starting in the twenties, he painted, off and on, as he could.

In 1948 he painted Onement I, which had a “zip,” or stripe, in it, and this was the real start of Barnett Newman as an artist and as the Barnett Newman we know now. Newman did not have a solo show until 1950, when he was 45. He had a second show a year later, and that is where Vir Heroicus Sublimis was shown. Both were at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, and neither was a success.

The Museum of Modern Art, where the painting hangs now, says “Vir Heroicus Sublimis” can be translated as “Man, Heroic and Sublime.” In 1948, two years before starting on the painting, Newman wrote a short article titled “The Sublime is Now.” (It is included in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, edited by John O’Neill, pp. 170–173.) He says that American artists of the time are finding their way to the sublime by “denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it.” He finishes with:

We are reasserting man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions. We do not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend. We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful. We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or “life,” we are making [them] out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history.

Art critic Thomas B. Hess, in his biography Barnett Newman quotes Newman (p. 55) on the title of the painting:

He was working on this 18-footer when he heard over the radio the announcement that President Truman had recalled General MacArthur. When Newman describes the incident he laughs and flings a fist upward, like a tribune of the people commanding the revolution to begin. “Truman fired MacArthur; I said, ‘Vir Heroicus Sublimis!’”

This is a painting, oil on canvas, 541.7 cm wide by 242.2 cm high.

Now let’s listen to Vir Heroicus Sublimis by Barnett Newman, recorded at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City, on 16 May 2017.

That was Vir Heroicus Sublimis by Barnett Newman. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I did.

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Bibliography

All web sites accessed as of 15 July 2017.