December 10, 2010

A Question of Size: Frank Stellas's "Irregular Polygons"

Frank Stella, Union I, 1966; fluorescent alkyd and epoxy paints on canvas;
102 3/4 x 174 x 4 in.

Last week, when I went down to the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College to see the exhibition of Native American ledger drawings, which I wrote about here, I was also looking forward to seeing the exhibition of a group of Stella paintings from the mid 60s titled Irregular Polygons. They are a group of 11 shaped compositions, each one in 4 color variations, and each named after a town in New Hampshire. The exhibition brings together one of each composition in the series. From what I could see of the works online, they were going to be great inspiration for my hooked rugs, ripe for idea-stealing for shaped textiles.

When I stood in front of the actual paintings, I have to admit that I was shocked (the internet is a great blessing, but images reproduced online can be very deceptive). They were enormous, squeezing each other and pushing up to the ceiling and down to the floor. That interesting, vibrant image above is nearly fifteen feet across! I don't have a problem in general with very large work––I've never felt that a Jackson Pollock or a Barnett Newman was too large; being inside a Richard Serra sculpture is a powerful experience––but these paintings just seemed much too large for their concept, aggressively so. I could have enjoyed them at six to eight feet.

This feeling was heightened by looking at the working drawings, which I quite liked. With this drawing, you can see Stella's playing with color, seeing how switching value relationships affects the space. The square seems to act as a more dominant positive shape in blue than it does in yellow, which alludes to an opening.

There were several sheets of small sketches, of varying shape and color. One thing I find interesting is that in the sketches, Stella uses diagonal lines in corners to imply depth, which he abandons in the final paintings.

So the question becomes: what size is right for a particular work of art? Can a work be too small, perhaps the sculptures that Giacometti used to carry around in a matchbox? If it seems too large is it because it appears made for a corporate market, so we feel a bit suspicious? (These Stellas might look a lot better in a gigantic space.) How do we know that it is "just right"? I'm an artist who has worked quite large, up to ten feet across, and now very small, each for different reasons. I hope that my choices make sense, and I'm sure those readers who are artists hope the same.


  1. The size of some NYC ground floor galleries is not friendly to smaller works (which usually cost less). 57th Street is different though where I have seen some work that is a size suitable to the art, not the dealer/collector.

  2. A, I agree that most Chelsea galleries seem built for large (dare I say corporate) and very expensive art, though there are many pleasant exceptions. Let's face it, art is a commodity.

  3. Altoon, yes, all true.
    yet large Renaissance art in churches in Italy seems to belong there, and was made for it.
    There are so many treasures that happen to be small and many you have recently posted here.
    I like Giacometti's small sculptures too. any way, luckily he made all sizes. Morandi's are just right too.

  4. A., the churches are marvelous, but I also love the smaller gems, such as Romanesque churches. Perhaps we can see today's corporate and enormous gallery spaces as our art churches. But my point in this post was less condemning size per se and more thinking that some work is inflated beyond its need.

  5. I remember seeing some of Stella's early paintings -- stripes, hand-painted -- and being very moved by them. They are quite big, and have the same human-scale as some Pollock and Newman works, and evoke in me similar responses. His paintings with hard edges and the larger industrially-produced later works in aluminum don't work for me. Scale is a problem, and, in his case, also the downplaying of handmade-ness. It was the wavery brushstrokes along the edges of the stripes in the early paintings which made them for me. (On the other hand, the edges of the stripes in Barnett Newman's paintings, clearly made with masking tape, also are great, in my opinion. So who knows why it's ok in one and not in the other case?)

  6. Helen, I love those early Stellas too, the Protractor series. They are a reasonable large size and from what I remember have more 'hand' in them. These polygons were made with masking tape and the paint was allowed to seep under the tape, making for an irregular edge, but somehow the edges looked sloppy rather than felt. Why is one okay and the other not is the big question; I believe it has to do with doing what the work calls for so that it has an internal consistency where meaning and method coincide.

  7. and another issue, tangent to this: which takes precedence for a given viewer, the physicality/ material of a work or the content/concept? this is a can of worms. perhaps ideally the two are inextricable in a work of art, but how often are we looking at things on the internet or in repro, both which negate the physicality/ size...

  8. rappel, I agree that "ideally the two are inextricable". Also that with widespread reproduction via internet size and surface have become null. With the great benefit of wide distribution online, our work, if not made expressly for the digital screen, is unfortunately distorted; this is why some artists now work only in pixels.

  9. Altoon,

    Rappel above asked about which comes first, the physicality or the content/concept? In my mind, as he said, they are inextricable, a bit liking looking at a human and trying to determine which part of him/her is nature and which, nurture. But I also think that aside from reasons of commodity/commission, that the "just rightness of size" follows from listening closely to oneself--to the ideas that flow from us as artists and hewing to them as closely as we can with the idea that each carries it's own unique blueprint. Interestingly, the Stella drawings in their spareness, bare a resemblance to the Native American ledger drawings you posted recently.

  10. Hannah, I do very much agree that we have to listen to ourselves, but that isn't easy when there are so many ideas around us clamoring for attention, and when we naturally have self doubt. But it's important.

    I hadn't noticed the relationship between the Stella drawings and the ledger drawings, but it's there in the lined paper and in the use of materials. Thanks for pointing that out.

  11. But Stella's drawings were made to prepare for large works and I doubt that is true in the ledger drawings. I see the relationship in the lined paper and simplicity.
    Besides the endless reproductions of art we see now on the internet, I wonder how digital images will change art history. Now, there is more information available about artists. No one knows much about Hercules Seghers or how he made his prints and maybe that's a good thing.

  12. A, as I mentioned, I saw a similarity only in paper and materials; I can't speak for Hannah. As for the simplicity, another word for that might be "abstraction", which in Stella's case has moved a lot further from visual reality. The ledger drawings were definitely Not made as preparation for larger works.
    It'll be very interesting to see how digital images will change art history. I already feel very happy about being able to see so many things, with such great quality, online. I think that more information is a good thing, so I have to disagree about that.

  13. Yes, its good to be able to see all this work in digital form. But as you say above, the real thing is different. Because in a digital image you don't see the actual size. I do really like Stella's small sketches you show.
    In any case, the art historians will have a lot of information to write about many years from now...