(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"