PRINT October 1967

Scale and the Future of Modernism

EVEN BEFORE MANY MODERNIST PAINTINGS were as large as some of them have become in the last few years, we tended to think, and to accept, the modern picture as large, even mammoth. Long before the outsized pictures that are, if not yet common, more common now, Jackson Pollock shocked and amazed his contemporaries with paintings that ran as much as eighteen feet or longer. Eventually the “big picture” became a standard feature of the New American Painting. Were we to check back now, we would probably find that the first sign of a crisis in the style was in the area of scale, in the way big pictures began to be filled out mechanically with big swatches, chunks, or gusts of paint rather than developing from a real feeling for scale, for scale is expressive in and of itself. In retrospect, it is possible to detect the reason why Pollock came to drip paint as he did, to elasticize line, to make it painterly, as it were, thereby enabling him to achieve the monumental scale that was dictated by a feeling for style which, until he flung the paint, was a major source of frustration to a man whose traditional handling of the medium was anything but facile.

But compared to the paintings of the late Renaissance, to, say, Tintoretto’s Crucifixion in the Scuola or Veronese’s Marriage at Cana in the Louvre, not to mention any number of enormous decorative fresco cycles, most, if now not all (Rosenquist’s F-111 is 85 feet, 3 inches long) of these big pictures are puny indeed. Nevertheless, the successful big contemporary picture has to be recognized in context as an accomplishment of scale, with intentions as heroic as the most monumental work produced heretofore.

The irony, however, is that scale, the mastery of which was its great achievement, has proven to be one of the major stumbling blocks in the development of modernist painting. Abstractionist art made large-scale painting possible or, rather, credible once more, but there seems to be a limit, and it is a not very large limit, beyond which an abstractionist painting cannot go. It begins to appear that the broadness of shape implicit in abstractionism’s process cannot be extended over too large an area without simply losing point, without seeming too generalized; for, in fact, the generalizations of form in the abstract are as “abstractions” particular ones; but while they are particular as generalizations, they can become too general to be “particular.” In this sense abstract art, and no art that is good art for that matter, can actually be reductive. The traditional compositional parts of a painting may be reduced, that is, diminished, as they have progressively been in the 20th century, but the result when it is effective, is, conceptually at least, quite complex. But beyond a certain size it seems that this abstract density is threatened with attenuation and scale seems to be merely filled out, or in, as the case may be. At present, at any rate, very few painters are capable of maintaining large scale meaningfully in the abstract.

Indeed, abstractionist painting does not seem to be doing more than holding its own. On the one hand, old-guard Abstract Expressionists like Rothko, Motherwell and Newman, to mention only those who produce large scale paintings with significant frequency, are bound to traditional painterly modes of generalization that confine mass (color) more than, or as much as, they release it. They continue to employ a symbolism or structure, or both, that is largely detached, though in varying degrees, from the color feeling, or situation, as I believe Michael Fried has put it. On the other hand, the post-painterly abstractionists such as Noland, Olitski and Poons, who work from inside the color mass and who have achieved a new expansiveness with color, have at a certain point in their process to simulate differentiation of the field by striping, lining, spotting or shading with hues rather than values—this mainly to avoid the visually senseless bath of a monochrome. Even Ad Reinhardt’s monochrome is only seeming.

Inevitably, the limitations of large scale in the abstract are at least paradoxical in that breadth of effect is a prerequisite to monumental design, yet excessive breadth is inimical to monumentality. The moral seems to be that some sort of interruption is necessary for meaningful pictorial continuity. Simple units are more single in combination. For this reason, and though the predominantly or comparatively unbroken color surfaces of post-painterly abstraction theoretically give it an advantage over brushy abstraction, it has not conceptually advanced scale in the abstract. Rather it has structured a deeper kind of space than was possible in the painterly and more ambiguous abstract style.

The special significance of Frank Stella’s shaped canvases, then, is that of having taken an extreme position on ambiguous space by making a solid of depth and plane, almost didactically pointing out the decorative failure of Abstract Expressionism. For by asserting shape as such, Stella infers the real degree and nature of the monumentality to be sought. To this end the canvas shape recapitulates in its edge all of the compositional parts while its literal area remains undivided and unbroken. The purpose of the stripes is to assure breadth of effect by repeating the one general contour of the frame, thereby keeping the surface free of distracting “parts” and asserting its wholeness with the shape. Like Noland’s chevrons and bands, the stripes are ornamental; they fill the space without actually defining or shaping it. The assertion, or the filling itself, is an event, a part, but it is minimized by the repetition of its agent, the stripe, which singles out none of the lines as more important than others. Stella’s recent experiments with color probably were attempts to heighten the challenge of achieving a distraction-less wholeness through the use of shaped colors that would cancel out as internal shapes through an illusion designed to give each particular autonomy. But they failed to cancel out effectively, because, I think, optical illusion is not as effective as an illusion that is also symmetrical (as the stripe paintings are) in neutralizing area in favor of shape. At least they are not as infinitely extensible in effect.

In any event, shape that is autonomous, that is, free of the traditional rectangle and with it traditional part by part composition, but which is not exactly sculpture, is as limited as any general area within a rectangle in terms of its effect on the scale of the work. Stella’s shapes are identical with their actual scale but they are defined and confined pictorially. They therefore can no more expand beyond a certain scale than a picture whose internal areas are similarly broad to begin with.

All of which implies that color as such is just another kind of shape—which is true. The illusion that edges can be at least symbolically retired is obviously shattered by the fact that scale contracts in order to prevent over-generalization as much as it expands to produce expression. Thus what happens at the edge of the pictorial surface, or where the edge happens to happen, in post-painterly abstraction is crucial to the internal consistency and necessity of the work. The picture in fact shapes up there.

Nevertheless, the pictorial “field” itself, being resistant to more than the most schematically elemental kind of conventional particularization (drawing), is actually pretty much the source of the present lull in painted abstraction. For by ruling out anything denser than the color area itself, by ruling out, in other words, anything more figural than that, it limits invention to the edge. The basic differences between Noland, Stella, Poons and Olitski lie not in their use of color or mass as such, but in the sort of line, or surrogate for line, that each employs to shape (or, for that matter, un-shape) the color. Lately, however, Olitski appears to have succeeded in varying the density of color mass with color itself, qualifying the “liney” areas which he has been introducing at the periphery of the “field.” Otherwise, the edges these artists employ are passive. They are permitted rather than designed to occur, suspending invention before they interrupt the general effect to which they remain subordinate. There cannot then occur the sort of movement which sustains, through propulsion, a picture’s being read across a very extensive surface. There is no propulsion in a field. The field is simply there.

My next statement will at first sound somewhat curious. It is that literal size does not have to be increased unless it cannot be increased or unless it is unusually difficult to do so. This refers to the fact that if scale is a reflection of content, scale cannot be increased unless there is more content. Therefore if scale cannot be increased beyond what is given, it means that the style has stopped developing.

As for the word, content, it is troublesome, of course. I use it to refer to a principle of commensurability which holds that everything in a picture motivates and justifies everything else. Nothing in a picture is a pretext for something else. In other words, the principle that governs form governs “content.” (Both. form and subject matter are the means to this “content.”) The Impressionists chose subject matter from everyday life because they wanted nothing to interrupt the sensation of light with an expressive presence that was not consistent with a sensory and secular preoccupation with light. You do not require a crucifixion to demonstrate an optical effect. And as the expression was in the light, the subject not only had to be neutral, it had to be willing to recede as the representation of atmosphere became more important, as in Monet’s last water-lily series. This did not mean that the subject was a pretext, but that the imagination had been wholly secularized. Sentiment, what used to be referred to as idea, mind—these were replaced by sensory realism and its own kind of composition.

An involvement with color as such and the generalized structure it requires to be felt as such is a form of Impressionism, despite the fact that the abstract impression is deposited in a surface that a priori has been fortified and even re-classisized by Cubism. Color is therefore not primarily expressive, but is rather a means of particularizing a luminous pictorial “field” while still keeping the picture, and the illusion of color space, abstract color is actually a subject, or functions like a traditional subject, because like conventional subject matter, it elicits a desirable and corresponding structure. The structure that is to say, corresponds to a feeling illustrated by the subject. Specifically, the use of contrast of colors rather than contrast of tones to create atmosphere permits the use of lines (edges) within the picture, whether they are manifest as stripes, smears or dots, or the use of the external edge of the canvas itself to give the color atmosphere a classic toughness, just as the color saturations seem translucent and opaque at the same time, Thus the pictorial field has a kind of classic precision while maintaining a generalized openness at the same time. The internal and external edges, such as they are, are therefore crucial because they control the scale which, if overextended, can upset the delicate formal ecology of color abstraction.

The problem of scale is also a problem of decoration, as the greatest decorative paintings of all time—the monumental murals of the Renaissance—make clear. A relationship between monumentality and decoration is therefore assumed, as of course is a relationship between the mural and architecture. But mainstream modernist abstraction is essentially a monumental, decorative style without architecture. As such it cannot be pure decoration, purely muralesque. It acknowledges as much by its failure to advance beyond a certain scale. And I take this as an indication of a reluctance or an inability to dispense entirely with easel conventions.

Easel painting can have both decorative and monumental aspects, but in an easel painting the illusion stays within the frame, whereas in a mural it extends beyond it into the room. The room is the frame. This has a decisive effect on the kind of structure employed. The decorative style refers in fact to a form of structure which creates illusion coextensive with a wall. An easel painting does not have to reaffirm the wall. Thus, if modernism’s, monumentality has been conceptually circumscribed, it is partly because the distinction between mural and easel concepts have been blurred duet a lack of real walls to paint on.

I suspect that most large group show s of modernist art look awful because what are basically murals have been hung as easel paintings, or that murals and easel pictures have been hung indiscriminately together. What is frequently taken as the diversity of modernist art may actually refer to the confounding of two basically different orders of art. Ideally no mural is hung on a wall; it is either in the wall or made to appear so by molding which attaches it to the wall. If memory serves, a number of paintings by Monet in the Jeu de Paume in Paris are literally imbedded in the wall, placed, that is, behind a false framing wall which runs from the floor to the ceiling like a huge “mat.” The widespread practice of staining color into unsized canvas may be a reaction to feelings of deprivation. Meanwhile, most abstractionist paintings both retain and require some sort of frame, and stripping of one sort or another is widely favored, many with edges of gold or silver. That only a strip has been retained as a frame suggests the pressure from the muralesque side of modernist art upon the elegant, deeply scooped moldings of the past. At the same time the retention of even a strip of wood or metal attests to the at least residual presence of easel conventions.

I subsequently find it possible to believe, at least poetically, that primary structures are reacting against this conceptually unsettled and decoratively disenfranchised state of affairs and that its forms constitute incredibly packed metaphors of the entire traditional decorative complex—architecture, painting and sculpture.

Because of its somewhat unfocused identity, modernist abstraction has necessarily maintained an equivocal relationship to illusion. Indeed, it is now fairly common practice to refer to it as “abstract illusionism.” But as it contributes to equivocal decorative effects and equivocal scale (because shape is not exactly pinned down, as it might be by traditional drawing) it behooves us to look very briefly into the nature of this illusion. The first thing to say is that while abstractionist art rejected nature, it never rejected illusion, because to reject illusion is to reject space and art without space is ornament. There is in fact a decided ornamental flavor to a Judd wall sculpture or a fluorescent Flavin; their embellishment is actual rather than illusionistic and both are, significantly, attached to architecture. But no illusion is actually “abstract.” As I have already spoken of color as a subject, it more or less follows that the depth of abstract illusionism is tantamount to a realistic illusion. Perhaps here is where the trouble starts. For realism, no matter how reduced, is inimical to idealism, to the stylizations of decorative structure. Even at his largest, Courbet was not a decorative painter. Correspondingly, atmospheric space is hostile to linear definition. Consequently the shaping (which is implicit in the concept of decorative structure) that goes on in color abstraction is rudimentary if not actually hidden. There is enough, given the build up of color, to give it the toughness of which I spoke earlier, but it also points up the dilemma. I have already discussed Stella’s solution to the problem of shape.

Shape, in and of itself, even when combined with enormous proportions, does not, however, guarantee either an effect of monumentality or a decorative containment of it. A singular case in point is Al Held’s recent attempt to create a “hard-edge” mural. Twelve feet high, fifty-six feet long, Held’s Greek Garden, is the largest abstract painting that I have ever seen. But though it is obviously impatient with and critical of both the cautionary scale and the seemingly simplistic structure of color-field painting, and other kinds of abstract painting, it is, I regret to say, an inflated easel painting, and not a very successful one at that. To begin with, the internal shapes, and their coloring, do not create the scale, they merely support it. The size has been imposed on them. Nor has the color a structural function. It has merely been assigned to bold graphic shapes of maroon, black, green, yellow. Between themselves there is no purposeful color contrast, and, shape to shape, no meaningful adumbration of chiaroscuro is evoked either. So the work is pretty flat. Decoration requires a reasonably deep space in order to be expressive. But the hard shapes ruled that out by sealing rather than opening the surface. The intention of color painting is to both open the surface and hold it at the same time. The size of Held’s painting, finally, is as willed as it is conceived, inspired probably by the rhetoric of gesture which Held inherited from Abstract Expressionism.

Nevertheless, such sizes ought to be possible, but for the several reasons which have been advanced already, I do not think that they can be realized by present day color abstraction either, perhaps not by any kind of abstraction. The success of color abstraction within its limits and the failure of Held beyond them tends, I think, to back me up.

It behooves us, therefore, to consider some of the recent experiments with scale that have begun to appear outside of abstractionist painting. I shall be brief, because my first impressions in some instances and my considered impressions in others do not lead me to believe that a conclusive direction in terms of scale has in fact, as yet been established outside of abstractionist painting. The record shows, however, sculpture as high as 120 feet,1 another sculpture, designed by Peter Forakis for an industrial park in Atlanta, which is 90 feet high and 160 feet long. The record also includes James Rosenquist’s pop mural, F-111, which as I said before is 85 feet, 3 inches long. Finally, Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein and Al Leslie have likewise assayed monumental figure compositions, though they are not nearly as gargantuan as the Rosenquist mural.

As for the new sculpture, it is not and cannot be decorative in the way a flat painting is. But as part of an architectural ensemble, like niche sculpture was, it can be decorative. Yet most of the new sculpture decries anything so “pictorial.” At any rate, primary structures entered abstract art at a very late phase in its history. I do not therefore expect it to have a very long meaningful life span. It does fit now, but the larger pieces, like those of Grosvenor, Tony Smith and Bladen, have seemed to me too architectural or too painterly and not metaphorical enough, not original enough as metaphors. A metaphor by its very nature is compressed, and while I have not seen the “skyscrapers” that were being designed (as I wrote this) for the citywide sculpture exhibition in New York, I would not be surprised if they are already academic. By that I mean that perhaps primary structures as an idea has already fulfilled itself in terms of scale, that anything too extensive threatens its compressed force, and that anything exceptionally vast is perhaps taking the word structure at first too literally and finally pretentiously. Structure is the scheme that holds the other parts; it is not visible as such. (This is probably the reason, too, why I don’t have strong feelings about Sol LeWitt’s work.)

Like Held’s Greek Garden, Rosenquist’s F-111 apparently was an uncommissioned work. The significance of two such unpatronized efforts should not be ignored. Incontestably, a true decorative style in something of the traditional sense of the word is being revived. Pop, meanwhile, is a decorative style and Rosenquist’s mural proves it. It really is a mural, despite what I regard as its fundamental flaws (the details are fitted into a structure they do not entirely create; they thus seem excessively prominent). Lichtenstein and Dine can also claim some degree of realization, but only a degree. Pop is just not conventional enough to develop. In order to develop, a style has to be very broad at its base, and Pop is narrowed by its subject, by its perverseness, by an over-sensitivity to period as such. It has perceived the moment, but gotten stuck on it. It disguises its obsession with immediacy as irony, but irony is idealism in a somewhat embittered form, a form turned in on itself, a sense of failure admitted publicly with a laugh. So it is entertaining. Both Lichtenstein and Rosenquist, employing pre-stylized subject matter, signify their incapacity to invent either a significant symbolism or meaningful new structure. Both have borrowed their basic compositional formats, Lichtenstein from comic books, Rosenquist from Synthetic Cubism and collage. Even Warhol’s compositions are camp parodies of all-over painting; but his facsimile cartons of groceries were camp anticipations of primary structures. His is the greater failure, therefore he is the most violent and “original.” But he epitomizes the tendency of Pop art to create a style out of symptoms rather than ideas.

Obviously, then, the most promising new area for me is realism, not merely because I have long been its advocate, but because my generalizations, outlasting their contradictions, always fall, finally, into a pattern which insists that the possibility is there. I could not consciously contrive that kind of logic and consistency. But I should not continue to call it realism. A monumental and decorative realism is simply mis-classified and misunderstood when it is cataloged under that long, featureless rubric, realism. At any rate, neither Alex Katz nor Philip Pearlstein nor Al Leslie, all of whom work on very generous size surfaces, have solved all the problems of a monumental realism, but they have solved some. They recognize the figure as the subject most appropriate to monumentalization. Only the figure can reflect the human ego that can conceive of and support ennoblement. A hamburger is just not the same. In art this is not vanity as it reflects on man, on a culture’s self-image and, I must add, a belief in heroes. This sounds absurd since so far all we have seen assume this heroic role are nude, apathetic giants (or, if dressed, with their flies open), and homely garden parties, but some contradictions have to be expected in a style barely begun. And there are problems. Leslie completely defies architectonic structure and has not yet used color. He is not aware of the structural implications of his scale. The differences between Katz and Pearlstein are more instructive. In Pearl-stein, the figures finally overwhelm the structure; in Katz the structure completely dominates the figures. There is almost an excess of illusion in Pearlstein; illusion is flattened out too much in Katz. Katz tends toward iconic two-dimensionality rather than a muralesque sifting of deep space. Pearlstein is a strong composer. Yet Katz, Pearl-stein, and even Leslie, and others, have more than intimated a new kind of idealism. Potentially it is the least contradictory of new tendencies in monumental art. Radically conventional, it states the demand for a more social architecture more vehemently than at any time since the end of the Baroque.

Sidney Tillim



1. Projected for the city-wide, city-sponsored sculpture exhibition which opens in New York in October. The press release did not identify the artist.