It was when I saw Rudolf Stingel’s exhibition at the Gagosian in March 2011 that I was struck by the aesthetic importance of scale in contemporary art. I don’t mean to suggest that paintings or sculptures should be large in order to be taken seriously, or that unusual size can make a bad work good, but rather that scale – size – has become an essential and basic part of the vocabulary of contemporary visual aesthetics.
As I entered the gallery, three large canvases of a black and white self-portrait after an old photograph took ownership of the space and of the viewer. Almost identical and over ten feet high, the paintings were like monumental columns, inscribed slabs of stone that stood ageless, defiant to the passage of time. In the next space, eight silver paintings of embossed fabric (carpets in this case) faced each other, reminding me of Mesopotamian baso-reliefs. In the last room, a totally unexpected series of abstract and textured gold paintings made me wonder: how does all this fit together? where is the cohesion and coherence? The use of time, both as a subject and a process, seemed to be the obvious link between the paintings, but the less obvious (although quite unhidden) theme, challenging the idea of time, was the use of scale: time and space, time in space.
Works of art that are notable for their unusual scale (large or small), tend to be linked to the concepts of space, delimitation, expansion, manipulation. The image, although the driving force of intentionality, becomes secondary to the space. The space becomes the medium, and the work’s subject becomes the viewer’s experience in the particular space which she shares with the work. There is a closer relation between the viewer, or you might say participant, and the work, as it forces her to draw close, follow a path, to be manipulated by voids or tight corridors, or feel the claustrophobic presence of a large and imposing “object” – she stands in comparison or competition – subjection or prowess – to the work. The different uses of size also play an important role in suggesting historic time through the implication of monumentality, using time in both physical and metaphysical or conceptual ways.
One well-known artist who emphasizes space over image is Richard Serra. One could say that of course he deals with space, he is a sculptor, which is perfectly true. But even in his drawings, Serra deals and works with and within the space as the source, as the subject, and as the limitation. In an interview with Charlie Rose, he said, “I don’t draw image, I draw interval or I draw space.” His intention is not to create an image either in drawing or sculpture, but to “create a volume of space within the architectural volume of space . . . different in kind.” The use of scale as an intrinsic part of the artistic language is a new way of placing a work within, and of connecting it with, a space, an environment, and its audience. If Stingel’s works would have been five feet smaller, the impact would have been lost, the works banal and the subject forgettable. For many contemporary artists, space is the new subject and scale is the medium with which that space can be manipulated.