On Size Matters

And speaking of Richard Serra. I can’t figure out how James Meyer’s 2004 Artforum essay on the problematics of size in contemporary sculpture got by me until now. It ends too soon, but it’s pretty great.
Beginning with the overwhelming Tate Turbine Hall pieces by Olafur Eliasson and Anish Kapoor, Meyer retraces the history of sculptural size and scale, and how minimalism’s supposedly non-anthropic form was still keyed to the human viewer’s presence. And how post-minimalist folks like Tony Smith and Richard Serra got into, basically, a size arms race, which manipulated the spatial power and experience of the institution instead of critiquing it or fostering self-aware perception. [I’m collapsing a whole lot here. It’s really worth a read.]
Anyway, I mention it now for two reasons, the first being that Meyer begins his history with the 1940s and Abstract Expressionist murals:

SCALE ENTERS THE DISCUSSION of postwar art within the context of Abstract Expressionism. The development of the mural canvas by the late 1940s introduced a bodily scale into painting–a scale that was variously described as one sustained between the painter and the work and between the viewer and the work; on one hand, a phenomenology of making, and on the other, one of perception. Jackson Pollock famously spoke of his drip method as a means to “literally be in the painting.” Mark Rothko noted that he painted “large pictures … precisely because I want to be very intimate and human.” Mural scale was seen as an antidote to the easel scale of Cubism and Surrealism and the illusionism this embodied. As Pollock observed in the same statement. “The tendency of modern feeling is towards the wall picture or mural.”

Which means postwar sculpture and space becomes yet another aspect of the photomural’s history and influence I have to look into.
The other, bigger [sic] reason, though, is Meyer’s articulation of size-ism and awe-based exhibition experience. His is one of the few strongly argued critiques of otherwise-sacrosanct subjects like Richard Serra’s giant torqued sculptures and the museums that fit it, particularly Dia:Beacon and the Guggenheim Bilbao:

Having demanded and inspired the enlarged spaces that museum directors and trustees find it so necessary to proffer, Serra’s sculpture has become the contemporary museum’s major draw, an attraction of sufficient size and impact.

satelloon in the grand palais, mockup with serras
This challenge to the pervasive art world conflation of size, significance, and permanence is basically the context out of which I hatched my own idea to exhibit a Project Echo satelloon in an art space. The problem being, of course, that since all the world’s biggest, newest museums were built to accommodate Richard Serra sculptures, there are less than five venues that could actually show a 100-foot diameter spherical balloon sculpture. They’re just as prone to stylistic and functional obsolescence as a 19th century, fabric-walled salon.
Of course, the real problem is I hadn’t read it, and I really should have.
No more scale: the experience of size in contemporary sculpture, James Meyer, Artforum Summer 2004 [findarticles]