Saturday, February 23, 2013

Small abstractions: Intimate and expansive

Artists have been painting large scale canvases since the late Renaissance, and these paintings are filled with scenes depicting religious parables, historical events and occasional moments of ordinary life. They were intended to inform as well as show off the technical mastery of the artists as they rendered complex architectural space, the landscape, and scenes replete with human activity. (For the ultimate in monumental Renaissance works, see Tintoretto's Paradise-- a whopping 30 feet high x 74 feet wide).

(You might be wondering where I'm going with this--just where are the small abstractions mentioned in the heading?  Read on.) 

COURBET  Allegory: The Artist's Studio, 1854   11'8" x 19'6" inches

As abstraction began to take hold during the mid-20th century, the focus of the newer monumental works, now devoid of concrete subject matter, shifted towards color, gesture, and emotion. Accompanying this was a change in the experience for viewers, who were no longer reading a painting to be informed, but rather to be transformed. What became mythic was the experience of the color or gesture, rather than the historical moment. The source of wonder was the depth of the spiritual charge of the painting, rather than the skill of an artist in rendering lifelike details.

POLLOCK    One: Number 31, 1950        8'10" x 17'6"

MARDEN The Propitious Garden of Plane Image, Third Version, 2000-2006    6' x 24' (six panels)

To enter a gallery space lined with enormous paintings can be dazzling, humbling, spiritual, and at times overwhelming. When the paintings are installed with enough room to breathe, when we can view them from far enough away to see them in totality yet not be distracted by other works, it is perhaps possible to enter a meditative state. It is at times possible to have the paintings take over and lose oneself in them. 

But to take in a monumental painting in a single glance, we are often quite distant from it--too far away to simultaneously delight in seeing the painter's hand while losing ourselves in universe of the painting. And when we move closer to see the surface, the subtleties, the marks of the hand, we have lost the totality of the image. We are likely to peruse just a small area of a monumental painting from this intimate distance. Of course, looking at these paintings on a computer screen at a fraction of their actual size completely changes the experience. But you have been there, so close your eyes and recall the experience.

And this is where my discussion turns to the beauty of small abstractions, which I often find simultaneously intimate and expansive.  Paintings of this size demand that you lean into them.  Something magical happens when you draw close to a small painting and your entire gaze falls on the image. The rest of the world seems to disappear and the universe of the image is all encompassing. 

KLEE   Fire in the Evening, 1929      oil on cardboard     13 1/4 x 13 1/4"

ALBERS    Study for Variant, 1947     oil on paper     9.25 x 12.437"

Your attention rests on the the irregularity of the surface and the most subtle gradations of color. Perhaps you are viewing the painting from the same distance as the artist when it was first painted. Paintings of this size do not allow the artist to hide, so the conversation with the artist begins to feel more direct. The intention behind the work comes through with powerful and concentrated clarity.

REINHARDT    Untitled, circa 1935      gouache on board      5-1/8 x 4-1/8"

SERUSIER     The Talisman, 1888     oil on wood panel    10-1/2 x 8-1/2"

DIEBENKORN    Cigar Box Lid No. 7, 1976     oil on board    9 x 7-3/4

You notice marks and underpainting that are only visible because you are standing at most an arm's length from the work. What appeared to be a solid band of color from a few feet away is revealed to be numerous narrow bands neatly stitched together.  And once you are engaged in this dialog with the artist as maker, you linger because there is no need to step back. The entire image is there to hold you. 

BOURGEOIS   Untitled, 2005    Fabric     9-3/8 x 11"

H. MIRANDA WILSON    Time of Night, 2012    oil on panel   9 x 12"

Some small works are incredibly intricate, while others resonate with seeming simplicity. They may be boldly painted or beckon quietly. But they each exert a pull on me that far exceeds their modest size.

FRECON  version o, dark to light, 2008     oil on panel     10 x 8"
SCULLY  Untitled from Ten Towers, 1999    aquatint and etching      image 10 x 4"


  1. A wonderful meditation on the beautiful relationship between viewer and artwork when the work is small and intimate.

  2. I love the Klee and the H. Miranda Wilson pieces especially. As a painter, I always look closely at a painting to see how it was made, to see the subtleties and intricacies of the painting, no matter how big it is. But most viewers (who are not painters) probably don't do that. The experience of a small painting, viewed from an intimate distance, gives the viewer an experience of color and composition, the brushstroke, and the hand of the artist. Lovely selections for this post!

  3. Thank you Altoon and Diane, for reading and commenting. It took me quite a while to understand where I wanted to go with this when I first thought of writing on this topic. I feel that time spent looking at small pieces teaches me patience.