Jacopo Tintoretto, Paradise, 1592; oil on canvas, 30 x 74 feet. (see an excellent enlargement here)
Is bigger better? (speaking of artworks of course). It's been many years since I stood in front of this gigantic painting by Tintoretto, so I don't know how I'd feel about it now. Does the wow factor translate into something deeper?
Fra Angelico, The Apostle Saint James Freeing the Magician Hermogenes, 1425-29; tempera and gold on panel, 10.2 x 9 in.
Or is there a different kind of awe that comes from the intense focus and intimacy that a very small work calls forth? The small predella panels of Fra Angelico have given me deep and complex aesthetic and emotional pleasure.
The Master of Catherine of Cleves, The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, ca. 1440, Saint Valentine; 7 1/2 x 5 1/8 in. Detail.
Seeing this exhibition of the Hours of Catherine of Cleves at the Morgan Library (you can see the entire manuscript in hi-res images at the link) inspired me to begin painting on parchment. The paintings are close to small miracles, taking us into a closely observed world full of stories and wonder.
Richard Serra, Junction/Cycle, 2011
In contemporary art, an artist who immediately springs to mind when thinking about very large work is Richard Serra. I happen to have come to love and appreciate his work, writing about my change of heart here. In thinking about the size of Serra's work, I feel that the enormity of it is essential to its meaning: our physical relationship with it, walking through and around it, is a powerful experience.
Ken Price, Geometrics, installation view from his retrospective at the LA County Museum of Art
At the same time there is someone like Ken Price, making tabletop clay sculpture, completely engaging and endlessly inventive.
Joel Shapiro, installation view from 2009 exhibition at LA Louver.
Or Joel Shapiro, who has made sculpture from tiny floor pieces to large public projects. I like his pieces like these, which are a smaller than human sized, where form and content and scale seem to work so well together. So here is a question: is Serra so much more well regarded than these other sculptors because he's truly a better artist, or because his works are monumental in size?
Anselm Kiefer, Jerusalem, 1986; acrylic, emulsion, shellac, and gold leaf on canvas (in two parts), with steel and lead; 12 1/2 x 18 1/3 feet.
When I think of giantism in contemporary painting, I think of Anselm Kiefer. I have had the opposite experience with Kiefer's work as with Serra's, beginning by admiring it enormously when I first saw it in the 1980s, finding a rich narrative in the imagery and use of materials, but now feeling bullied by the paintings; they seem to be unnecessarily large, like male braggadoccio. I've felt the same way about Frank Stella's work, and wrote a blog post about his "Irregular Polygon" series, which I felt were much much too large for their content and form.
Raoul de Keyser, Again, 2010; watercolor and charcoal on canvas mounted on wooden panel,
6 1/3 x 11 4/5 in.
For me, the way I'm feeling about art making now, I find looking at modestly sized works such as those of Raoul de Keyser (see more paintings here) much more satisfying. Intimacy and tenderness are important qualities, certainly as important as boldness and grandeur. So now I come to why I've written this post, a brief complaint: I am tired of people telling me to work larger, telling me that my paintings, textiles, drawings, would look great really really big. They are not meant to be big; part of their meaning resides in their small size; at a larger size they'd be different work, work I'm not interested in doing now, though I have in the past and might in the future. Why is it that no one tells an artist about her six foot painting "gee, that would look so great at 12 inches!"? Each of us has to find what we want to say in our work, and how to say it, at whatever size works best; there should be no outsized respect for large work in itself.