Monday, June 21, 2010

Is Bigger Better? Perhaps it Depends on How Old You Are

An art dealer who achieved a considerably quick jump in stature in the art world and truly international presence for his artists once told me that the secret to his rapid success was an epiphany on scale. He realized and shared that as soon as they began exhibiting really large works, everything else seemed to fall in place. Insane numbers of sales, more serious curatorial attention, acceptance into more prestigious art fairs...everything a dealer could want. Mind you, that dealer went under during the recession, but...

During the heyday of the boom, I had also heard of another dealer who pressured one of her star artists to work harder toward an art fair deadline. We're gonna have the largest painting in that fair, she reportedly insisted, as if the decision on scale were hers and not the painter's. That dealer remains in business.

Armed with these anecdotes, I've tended to think that the pressure on an artist to go bigger than they would normally has at its core the goal of succeeding more in the market arena, rather than in critical arena. [I'm not one for pressuring our artists either way. My fallback position when asked about scale is that the work should be the size it needs to be in order to be best conceptually resolved.]

Of course, the notion that bigger art is better is hardly new in art-making, but from an artist's point of view it may not be entirely related to either marketing concerns or strategies to gain critical attention. The Boston Globe's Sebastian Smee offers another explanation in his article "Living Large" [via Tyler]:
What is the state of contemporary art today? Lord only knows. Things are so teeth-gnashingly topsy-turvy out there that only an amphetamine-fueled fool would dare propose an answer. But if you’re looking for trends, one seems undeniable: Artists today love displaying ephemeral materials on a grandiose scale.

In every case, the results take up space. Lots of it.

A brisk attempt to account for the phenomenon might point out that the humble materials bespeak a desire to undermine clichéd expectations of preciousness in art, while the grandiose scale betrays art’s envy of the culture’s more spectacular entertainments.

But two new contemporary shows at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and one at the nearby Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute suggested to me an alternative reading: an attempt to reconnect art with the enchantments and marvels of childhood. Confusions of scale, as Lewis Carroll knew, are central to every child’s experience of the world. And all materials can seem ephemeral and full of transformative potential to minds not yet schooled in the difference between worthlessness and worth. [emphasis mine]
In my opinion, this enchantment with larger-than-life objects excuses a wide range of rather one-note artwork out there, but then I fell among those who forgave "Avatar" all its lapses in story quality because it did indeed manage to instill a renewed sense of wonder for me. So I don't underestimate how difficult enchantment is, especially in this day and age.

Still, none of the larger artworks that makes me initially catch my breath as I feel shrunken down to a child's point of view tends to impress me anywhere near as long as the work that is sublime for far more complicated, mature reasons. That work I can return to again and again...the spectacular work, well, you can only truly be surprised the first time. That's not to say artwork can't do both--be spectacular in scale AND complex in conception, but most of the time my parting thought with big-for-bigness-sake work tends to be only "that's gonna be a bitch to dust."

Labels: art appreciation, art making


Blogger Mark said...

My sales in the past 6 months have all been small 11x9" the largest 36". Difficult to reason why. Two were young and just beginning to collect, the others money was not an issue.
I do hear a lot about paring down, simplifying lifestyles, but if a large work strikes a nerve a serious collector will often jump.
It's Summer!!

6/21/2010 09:40:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

As a painter I think a lot of the excitement for large-scale comes from available exhibition spaces. You can imagine how it will make for a killer show, far more than someone actually accommodating it in their collection.

For installations or site specifics, this is doubly so. The blast is using the real estate to the max, and so I tend to think it's curated and public spaces that have prompted so much large-scale stuff.

Personally, it almost never sold, and I've always been left with the problem of storage, but I've never regretted taking on supersize assignments. They just haven't really paid off.

6/21/2010 10:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those Dostoyevsky books where way too big. Even the characters' names go on forever. Give me something small, precise, elegant and to the point, such as Eddie Fischer's autobiography and I am one happy+fulfilled camper.
Passive aggressive tries at humor aside, I think many artists have always enjoyed working on a huge scale. Whether it succeeds is another question. To me, Julie Mehrutu's mural for the evil investment bank comes to mind: too much of the proverbial eye-candy.

6/21/2010 10:15:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Bigger is not always better, it's how you use it that counts.

6/21/2010 10:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wasn't the old saying - "If you can't make it good, make it big and paint it red?"

And perhaps largeness-for-its-own-sake speaks more about the public than the art?

6/21/2010 12:24:00 PM  
Blogger kalm james said...

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6/21/2010 01:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whether you work large or small, it's more about what you have to do (with it).

O blog dee blog da

6/21/2010 01:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...

Big works often fetch bigger gallery prices, and at a distance look more impressive on a wall. But I can agree with Anon: "Give me something small, precise, elegant and to the point." I love looking at Indian and Persian miniatures, and I can't recall a more amazing recent exhibit at the Met than the disbound Très Belles Heures by the Limbourg brothers. It took me two hours to see the exhibit at a faster pace than it deserved, and there was hardly a page that wasn't thoroughly awe-inspiring in its fine detailing of shape and color, the application of the gold leaf, and the precise calligraphy. Vermeer, too, often works on a small scale.

6/21/2010 01:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd think an escape from reality would mean more to one who spent serious time in it. But artificial escape through immersion, rather than intimacy and reflection on a human scale, seems to be the order of the day and there doesn't seem to be such a thing as too much of it.

And for beauty, immensity and a scary,lonely, dislocated feeling, art can't compete with sunsets and the starry sky.


6/21/2010 02:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

++an attempt to reconnect art with ++the enchantments and marvels of +++childhood.

Whose got the biggest bird?

(Florentjin Hoffman makes giant versions of his personal childhood toy collection.)

Cedric C

6/21/2010 03:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Remind me to curate a show of photographs of gigantic art inflatables in states of catastrphy.

Cedric C

6/21/2010 03:15:00 PM  
Blogger J. Wesley Brown said...

Dusting? What about shipping?

6/21/2010 09:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Randall Anderson said...

Just as a point of reference, an brilliant essay I site often and hand to people whenever I can - Douglas Davis, Artforum, October 1976, The Size of Non-Size.

Generally I try to make the work the size it has to be. I'm currently making three huge pieces for the Toronto Sculpture Garden. It's hard work! I had to move to a new studio. It's costly. When the show is over, what then? Where do these things go! I get as much out of the 2 inch square etchings I make and the small water colors. But this work has to be large. But usually size is used for all the wrong reason.

I once walked across an empty room at the Whitney and was suddenly accosted by guards. I had inadvertently kicked a small Joel Shapiro house across the room. It had been secured, all alone, to the floor in the center of the room and was only a few inches tall. Whoops! But, after that the little house became a monster, filling the space. Then again, there are those things made to fill big space, that just aren't memorable.

I have a good friend who makes paintings 5.5 x 8 inches. They take three months to make. When I see one I'm in awe. But that's another story.

6/21/2010 10:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

As I said on a previous thread, this is where we're headed. With apologies, here's the link again. Regarding dust, I had exactly that response to the 2008 Tara Donovan show at the ICA.

6/22/2010 07:00:00 AM  
Blogger man said...

Ha! I've been trying to find a way to re-interpret my drawings on a large scale for years now. Nothing has worked because they really do need to be the size they are. But I can't tell you how often I hear (from collectors/critics/artists/friends) that, in so many words, I should make them bigger.

The truth is, if the viewer shifts his/her own perception of scale they actually become massive. You get lost in them, the same way I get lost in illuminated manuscripts. This is because in my opinion scale is in the imagination of the mind. Children are much more capable of shifting their sense of scale. Granted I was an odd child, and the son of an artist no less, but I remember starting at 6 or 7 playing a game where I would imagine I was an inch tall and then look at the world with those eyes. Then I'd do the reverse and imagine myself 100 feet tall. And anytime I'm having trouble SEEING something I still play this game.

Lastly, on a practical level in most all cases it's easier to justify higher cost for bigger work. But, alas, I have to make the work I have to make. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Great post. Cheers.

6/22/2010 12:18:00 PM  

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