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Catalogue Essay - Small Paintings and Sculpture


An art dealer went into an artist’s studio and sifted through the works in progress, selected some of the small paintings on the bare floor and said: “Make them bigger. Make them two by two meters and I will sell them at the art fair.“

The size of an artwork does matter. But at times it is confused with value and quality as this anecdote suggests. The buzz phrase Bigger is Better has arguably dominated artists and the Fine Arts market. Some reject this slogan as a real issue, since it is merely the economic side-effect of supply and demand, whilst others use it as broader criticism of the destructive and detestable forces of Capitalism. These arguments, however, do not help to understand the idea of size and scope of art works.

For now let us assume we are simply dealing with a fashion and the phrase can be amended: Bigger is Fashionable hence Better. The competitive nature of the arena becomes apparent: a certain feature in art is preferred over others and draws attention to itself. Once it is attractive enough, this feature is likely to become mainstream and eventually might dominate a market or define a style.

In this sense any kind of fashion is dynamic and therefore inextricably linked with inflation. Karl Popper distilled this idea in The Poverty of Historicism calling it the ‘zero method’. He described it as:

…the method of constructing a model on the assumption of complete rationality […] on the part of the individuals concerned, and of estimating the deviation of the actual behaviour, using the latter as a kind of zero-coordinate.

In this case it simply means that what is Big and Fashionable today will not be Big and Fashionable enough tomorrow and therefore gives the process an aggressive spin. This might explain why the buzz phrase is not Big is Good, but Bigger is Better.

It would be sad if this model was the only factor determining the development of styles and history of art. And, of course, it is too simplistic for a satisfying explanation. Fashion occasionally sweeps a trend of competitive conformism through the art scene and the market. However, allocation of attention is also driven by irrational and barely predictable influences that may reverse trends, re-enact styles or shift the focus from size to colour ad infinitum. So Bigger is Better as a tenet is fleeting and bound to vanish at some point in the future.

If we strip contemporary art of the Bigger trend, what is the significance of the size of an artwork? If size is not just a means to subvert the established form, what happens to the observer of a small painting or sculpture? The conceptual painter Ad Reinhardt remarked: '…that breadth and depth of thought and feeling in art have no relation to physical size.’

And it is in line with Irving Sandler’s comment when confronted with the Bigger is Better theme: 'The perception is the thing.’

Sandler highlights the process of observation and interaction. Both want to see the size of an artwork as a symbol with meaning, and not just a signal that signifies a simple ratio of size to value which implies Smaller is Worse.

If we accept that, it is pertinent to ask ourselves what small artworks can do. From a purely subjective point of view, what they are about? They are primarily about proximity.

The ‘smallness’ of artworks demands proximity. When we spot a small painting or sculpture we have to consciously make the decision to get closer. Unlike our experience with very large canvases and monuments we are not impressed by the sheer grandness of forms or by vast patches of different colours. And by stepping closer we enter a realm of intimacy that is the prerequisite of understanding the piece.

Such proximity with a small artwork leads us, the observers, into what might be labelled a 'quiet’ process. We probably squint to read the details of it, yet noise, or big paintings in the immediate surrounding might easily distract us from this intimacy with the smaller work.

Just as an observer will move closer to a small object, so is a diminuative piece easily moved. Whereas we have to leave the monuments and large canvasses behind in the museums and public places, we can physically bring the small artworks home or carry them with us. Like medieval likenesses of the Virgin Mary or the matchbox-size figurines that accompanied Giacometti to Paris, we are able to bring them into our daily lives and spend more time with them. It is an extended intimacy which even can grow into a lifelong relationship.

Ultimately the size of an artwork is an inherent part of its creation. It is one of many variables in the Fine Arts along with colour and form and cannot be subject to judgement as such. The term Better then is simply the fashionable outcome of the time the artwork was created in. It tells us more about its contemporaries and their aspirations than about the artwork itself. The term Bigger can be reduced to being the comparative of Big. And we may well appreciate small artworks just as intimate and vulnerable encounters, something which often gets lost in our time.

The paintings that the art dealer had selected in the studio were re-painted on large canvases. And for whatever reason, they were not sold at the art fair.

Sven-Alexander Mündner