art after 1940

Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950-1. Oil on canvas. Abstract Expressionism.

In order for the painting to have its full affect, the viewer must stand directly between the lines; close enough that you can’t see past the painting beyond your peripheral vision. The purpose is to create a sublime void-like experience by enveloping the viewer’s sight in the painting. When there’s really nothing the eye can see, you become a part of the painting itself. Impressively, this monumental work shows no visible evidence of the artist’s hand which avoids bringing to mind human intervention, achieving a truly sublime experience.

On Vir Heroicus Sublimis (taken from the Museum of Modern Art):

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.”

Currently located in the Museum of Modern Art (New York City).


Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Pont Neuf Wrapped, 1975-85. Woven polyamide fabric.

Begun under Henri III, the Pont-Neuf was completed in July 1606, during the reign of Henry IV. No other bridge in Paris offers such topographical and visual variety, today as in the past. From 1578 to 1890, the Pont-Neuf underwent continual changes and additions of the most extravagant sort, such as the construction of shops on the bridge under Soufflot, the building, demolition, rebuilding and once again demolition of the massive rococo structure which housed the Samaritaine’s water pump.

Wrapping the Pont-Neuf continued this tradition of successive metamorphoses by a new sculptural dimension and transformed it, for 14 days, into a work of art. Ropes held down the fabric to the bridge’s surface and maintained the principal shapes, accentuating relief while emphasizing proportions and details of the Pont-Neuf, which has joined the left and right banks and the Île de la Cité, the heart of Paris, for over 400 years.

Joseph Beuys, The Pack, 1969. Nouveau Realisme.

Tate on The Pack

The Pack exudes the chaotic and dynamic energy which Beuys considered essential in order to bring change in society. Twenty-four sledges, resembling a pack of dogs, tumble from the back of a VW van. Each sledge carries a survival kit made up of a roll of felt for warmth and protection, a lump of animal fat for energy and sustenance, and a torch for navigation and orientation. Beuys commented: ‘This is an emergency object: an invasion by the pack. In a state of emergency the Volkswagen bus is of limited usefulness, and more direct and primitive means must be taken to ensure survival.’

This strongly autobiographical work refers directly to Beuys’s plane crash over the Crimea during the Second World War. He often described being rescued by a band of Tartars who coated his body with fat and wrapped him in felt. Whether real or mythical, the story shows the symbolic importance of these materials in Beuys’s mind. It also suggests a fable of death and rebirth in which Beuys is purged, perhaps of his wartime guilt, and brought back to life by a nomadic people.

Untitled by Clyfford Still. 1945. Oil on Canvas.

This work, from early in Still’s career, maintains figural representation through patterns and colors. The compositions verticality lends itself to help create these patterns. For example, the very dark figure on the left brings to mind Death. His use of earthy colors, contrasted with “dangerous reds,” guide the viewer’s mind to personify the well known figure. Still was very interested in Native American myth. He used myth as inspiration as well as a tool to help him to grasp “universal truth.”

Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943. Oil on Canvas. Abstract Expressionism

Pollock, who suffered of acute depression, started undergoing Jungian psychoanalysis in 1939. This truly sparked his automatism, the unconscious search for ritualistic images with universal truth and meaning. Unlike the surrealists, who branded this technique, rather than editing and refining their automatist expressions to actively discover their content, Pollock was driven by impulse and let the unconscious, unstudied images pour onto the canvas. Many of the resulting works created between 1942 and 1948 were given titles fueled with mythic connections, spirituality, or the sublime.

Jackson Pollock on Mural:

[It’s] a stampede… [of] every animal in the American West, cows and horses and antelopes and buffaloes. Everything is charging across that goddamn surface.

Currently located in the University of Iowa Museum of Art.