Saturday, August 11, 2007

Paintings I Like, pt. 12

Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimus, 1950-51. Oil on canvas, 7' 11" x 17' 9."

Those Ab Ex rooms at MoMA still knock me out, and I know this makes me a fuddy-duddy (at least in some circles). The variety that Newman gets out of his stripped-down vocabulary is really something; that white stripe stands way out front and moves as fast as a bolt of lightning, and the darker ones lurk around in an indeterminate relation to the picture plane, turning the whole red ground into a kind of semi-transparent haze.

As with most Ab Ex pictures, the scale really provides the grandeur. The best pictures of the genre have the same kind of presence as big natural things, like mountains or rainstorms, without having to depict those kinds of things at all. This painting is, for me, a kind of heroic landscape, analogous to the best Hudson Rivers paintings and certain Turners.

Newman was a lover of the dramatic (the title is Latin for "Man, Heroic and Sublime"), and bristled at any formal readings of his pictures; he insisted they were about life, death, creation, agony, and the end of capitalism. Maybe this stuff is all in there, but when viewed in a formal way, the best ones are nearly perfect.