PRINT December 1976

The Size of Non-Size

IN 1960 PIERO MANZONI EXECUTED executed a line in a Danish newsprint factory that stretched 7,200 meters. This act is relatively well known, but another and similar work is much closer to my present subject: the infinite line. About this he said: “An infinite line can only be drawn leaving aside all problems of composition and size: in total space there is no size.” Here Manzoni comes close to the concept of scale implicit in virtually all the work that has been called “post-Minimal” or, more loosely, “post-modernist,” minus a social-political dimension. On the physical level, we are no longer concerned with prescriptive size—that a work should be large or small according to its formal needs. Artists are ready to use any size, in the service of needs that are nonphysical. We live at a moment when artworks veer from one extremity of scale to another, without concern for style or genre.

The irony is that this fact—and the topic of “scale” itself—is rarely discussed. The issue has not yet surfaced as an open subject for dialogue for two reasons: “scale” is no longer fashionable, because it has gotten a bad name from the propagandists for “impossible art,” as well as the indoor Nevelsons, Calders, and Caros blown up to expensive size for use in city plazas. The term “art for public scale” has become in this sense a hollow mockery. More importantly, certain attitudes toward scale (or non-scale) are so pervasive and deeply rooted that no one feels it necessary to discuss them: they are as tightly locked inside current art as the concept of the flat picture plane was in the ’60s. There are occasional references to scale by such artists as Terry Atkinson, Hans Haacke, Robert Barry, Mel Ramsden, Ian Burn, and Eleanor Antin (the last in correspondence with the author), but no straight-ahead writing. It hardly needs to be said that contemporary critics have rarely touched the subject either. Thus I am on fairly untrod but fertile ground. Surely the issue of scale—once examined—will reveal hidden assumptions fully as relevant as the more modish subjects now demanding our attention (video, story art, or the October Revolution).

The first step, obviously, is to discard with Manzoni the primitive notion that “scale” is a matter of physical size. This encrusted idea is based not only in the materialist ethic of formalism but in Renaissance esthetics. The dictionary still defines scale as “the proportion which the representation of an object bears to itself”—a central problem, in brief, of realist painting. This dictionary idea of scale has to be exploded entirely, in order to understand the full range of its modern redefinition in art. Depending upon the medium and the strategy employed, however, a work of art can now act in any one of several scales—time (as in film, videotape, and story); rapidity and ease of dissemination (as in printmaking, pamphleteering, photographic reproduction, and circulation through the mails); the size and nature of the chosen audience; the ecological cycle, and the extent to which the work penetrates the social-political context in which it is created. In other words, the scale of a work of art (particularly in the ’70s) can be measured by its effect upon the whole culture, in terms of its predetermined arc of action—where it attempts to go, the issues it tries to confront, and its chosen audience.

The matter of the audience is central to my view of scale, and obviously conflicts with solipsist attitudes toward art-making. While the work of art is gestated and completed in private, the act of exhibition projects it outward, and renders the work a public issue. This step—the consequences of which are normally ignored in art writing, where the meaning of the work is nearly always assumed to be at one with the artist’s intention—is a fateful and complex one. Art writing assumes that artists’ and viewers’ interests are entirely convergent. Among other consequences, however, the act of exhibition invites the world beyond the studio to interpret the work, thus sharing the metaphorical destiny of art (its meaning) with others. This particularly applies—for good and ill—in the 20th century, which has proliferated means of communication, making it virtually impossible for the work to adhere to its original intention, scale, color, or texture for very long. This is so even for artists who obdurately insist on the one-way nature of the work: Reinhardts and Pollocks are known to the vast majority of their public not in their intended physical terms, rife with nuances of texture and undercoating, but in the smooth, flat, and reduced form of photographic reproduction. In recent years, artists have even begun to use certain of these disseminating devices (the photograph, the book, the mailer, video) as primary agents of their work, rather than secondary or reproductive. Clearly mode of address and actual encounter condition perception, and this entirely social exchange demands analysis.

Where is the audience? Who makes it up? How large is it? These are questions crucial to the full understanding of recent art, in all its apparently disparate forms. They can be applied to 400-ton monoliths standing alone in the desert, anticipating an audience via photography and art magazine reproduction, as well as words planted as flares on the landscape of Long Island, which anticipate the same, and to post-Happening interpersonal activities set in motion by the artist far from center-stage—but later reported extensively in photo-text documentation. Story art assumes a reading audience, moving from point to point of the narrative in a public gallery, rather than a private space (such as the audience for the postcard, book or exhibition notice). The assumption is the same in the intricate, content-rich maps and studies of Newton and Helen Harrison. But they deserve a meditative attention perfectly in harmony with their physical scale, and perfectly at odds with the public gallery, a context that discourages slow, sustained reading.

Video assumes several disparate audiences, which it often confuses—the audience for sculpture (for video-based installations in gallery spaces); the audience for film (sitting in rows of seats to watch videotapes played on gallery/museum monitors); and the authentic video audience (watching at home in an intimate, private space).

Here we must distinguish between the nature of the art audience and the nature of the “audience” as it is commonly defined by filmmakers, by commerical television, and by McLuhan-influenced media theorists. Generally I’m speaking of a shifting entity called an “art” audience, i.e. one conditioned to accept an esthetic experience often of a difficult sort. But within this group, there are obviously many differing constituencies and expectancies. Though any of the works I describe here might in time “reach” millions of viewers, that is certainly not their proper intention. Art is by definition more difficult than entertainment and therefore less likely to attract/hold large numbers of people. This is not a distinction that I mean to give up, nor does recent art, regardless of its medium (video can be as “difficult” as painting, even when broadcast). Current art may come to us via exhibition, catalogue, telecast, and reach us alone, in groups, in well-lit galleries or dark, crowded rooms, in the morning, or in the evening. Each of these contacts affords us its distinct rhetoric, whether direct or mediated. In no sense is the deliverance of the art statement an impersonal one, neutral, without specific context, devoid of a value system that needs to be assessed (popular media theory notwithstanding).

The way in which we perceive audience (or ignore it) is motivated in part by political values and moods. I have already argued (in “What Is Content?” Artforum, October 1973) that political ideas can frequently infiltrate form. The same is true—even more sharply—of scale, though not in the naive manner often argued (i.e. Art Must Expand In Size to Save the World). The events of the past decade have definitively laid to rest the rosy mood of the early ’60s—when nothing serious seemed to matter—and made it impossible to continue the making and judging of art in isolation from other, broader concerns. The anxiety inherent in recent artmaking and writing (I refer here to the Artforum-October debate, to the extreme Marxist analyses that characterize The Fox, to the doctrinal split within the Art-Language group as a whole and to the activities of the Artists Meeting for Cultural Change) is an example of this. Why are these things occurring? For those who yearn for Business As Usual, for a return to parties, Pop, and glamor, these debates seem irrelevant to the art process. Seen from another side, the argument is perfectly natural. The ’70s are a decade in which appalling truths have finally become clear to large masses of people, from the poisonous quality of the air we breathe to the stupendous revelations of corruption that accompanied Nixon’s resignation. The perception of the audience is directly related to this sense of political and physical breakdown. The result, in fact, is not an art of propaganda but an art that is two-way (among other things), in dialogue with its considerable (and influential) audience, often on matters that seem heavy, pretentious, and extra-esthetic to the Pop/Ironic sensibility. An art engaged in this particular expansion of scale (into audience) is thus a cultural phenomenon that often alludes to or enacts a justified anxiety.

In stressing the importance of audience and of content, I am once again repeating the obvious point that scale in art is much more than a matter of physical size. In fact, the locations beyond size are precisely the points that interest me most—and lead us toward a dematerialized conception of scale. Size is a decision of mind, not of hand. The choices that confront artists in making a work of art perform this way or that are often unmindful of physical necessities. Criticism is deficient when it confines itself to formal issues, ignoring the decisions that determine content through this crucial issue of scale.

Although I am attempting to discuss scale in nonphysical ways, the matter of quantitative size can hardly be ignored. Here, too, we find that decisions in art reflect a complex of deep, cultural attitudes, as well as information. We cannot perceive—or choose—what we do not know, or care about. Aristotle’s attitude toward scale in The Poetics is bounded by what he knows: no object that is a thousand miles long can be beautiful, he says, for “the eye cannot take it all in at once.” He could not comprehend or accommodate a scale that is now available to us (thanks to the satellite). Aristotle could not have seen that far even by ascending the highest mountain. The Renaissance concept of scale was molded by the needs of a realist esthetic. Not until late in the 19th century—when vast vistas of the earth’s surface were beginning to be domesticated by the train and aerial-balloon photography—did the propriety of a post-Aristotelian physical scale begin to appear in art history. Here it is, in John Ruskin’s words: “No beauty of design in architecture, or of forms in mountains, will entirely take the place of what may be called ‘the brute largeness.’ That is to say, the actual superiority in feet and inches over the size of Humanity, our constant standard, the general truth being that . . . the greatest effect on sublimity will be produced by the largest truth which is clearly manifested to us.”

But I am not arguing in behalf of brute largeness, or against it. I am arguing that either extreme of size (down to the smallest) is workable, but only when it is inextricably wound into the form, content, and intention of the work. So are extremes beyond size. On the level of definition alone, Ruskin obviously takes into account neither the temporal implications of a work of art (or architecture) nor the social and political context in which the work appears and on which it acts. An analogy in recent experience is Christo’s Running Fence, the latest in a series of projects launched in the ’60s that are conventionally understood to be ambitious and effective explorations in esthetic scale. In a formalist sense, they are. Christo’s projects cover many miles of outdoor space, the bare condition (it would seem) for post-studio art. They furthermore engage the ’60s sense of process perfectly, requiring the help of hundreds of workers over long periods of time (often several years) before they are finished. Yet these workers and the landscape of the work (most recently the Fence) are employed simply as a means toward an end that has nothing to do with them, in any deep and permanent sense: to produce a Christo.

The Running Fence engendered considerable public and political opposition, none of which deterred Christo, who often declared that he welcomed the complaints and controversy, which simply enriched his work. After a series of bitter court battles, Christo won all the county and state approvals needed to erect the fence, which ran from the edge of the Pacific Ocean across Marin and Sonoma counties in California. At the conclusion of the last legal case, Christo announced to the bitterly divided courtroom audience that each man or woman there had become an ingredient in his art, whether they were for or against the fence. In other words. Christo understood the political controversy over the work as an aspect of form, not as content. The specific value of the issues raised by the opposition—which included that of psychic as well as ecologic intrusion—were subsumed in the art-life continuum, first defined by Cage, later by Kaprow and others.

But art is not life, as we certainly know: it is an activity encircled by life, upon which it depends. Christo is thus wrong to oppose his critics on the ground that they (the life issues) are simply art materials. General Motors might well dump refuse into the water we drink, on an equivalent ground that it is a tautological act without wider ramifications. The Running Fence is an example of Ruskinian scale, insensitive to the political implications of its high-keyed presence in a rural landscape, and unresponsive to the needs and objections of the local audience it pretended in part to serve (the real audience is, of course, the international art community which attends the Fence from afar, through the media of drawing, photography, and film).

In saying this I’m not questioning Christo’s motives. From the beginning he has acted in all his large-scaled projects in perfect fidelity to his premise (that art is life and therefore permitted equal ambitions). His work has followed through a certain notion of expanded scale to a logical end. More than many other artists he has carried the implications of certain ’60s ambitions to their purest corporate resolution. (Recently Christo was invited to be guest speaker at the Young Presidents Organization next February: like them, he took over a corporation before he was 40 and attracted a multinational group of investors.) The results, however, must lead us to stop here, to reassess our premises, and to find a rationale in scale that leads toward more positive meaning, rather than ambition, chaos, or form-as-form.

A cultural definition of scale, as I said, would rid itself of the notion of proportion and encompass time and politics, as well as size. Why time? Because it’s hard to believe in or support a theory of art based on fixed, unchanging values or needs. This is the basic argument against the monolithic and static form, in architecture, as well as art. Colin Rowe has argued cogently against the fatal paradox in modernist building: in the service of a supposedly public goal, modernism has erected an unending parade of bland, faceless, and functional structures, towering over cities throughout the world—a feat of construction unmatched in human history. What began as a method allied with socialist politics became—with the collapse of European socialism in the ’30s—an arm of capitalist monument-making, or form divorced from its usual content. The alternative now is either to build or design in league with time (permitting rearrangements and change at a later date, in the manner of John Johansen’s Mummer’s Theater in Oklahoma City) or to confine the art of advanced architecture to private, domestic dimensions.

The work of Peter Eisenman and Michael Graves, centered on weekend homes and pre-existing houses, serves this altered sense of scale. Eisen-man’s House II in suburban Connecticut argues for an architecture of symbol and meaning far from the acute concentrations of urban movement. Graves’ addition to the Alexander house in Princeton is equally polemic, correlating form and color with the ritualistic functions of light, room, doors, and columns. This is admittedly mandarin architecture that avoids public imposition, unlike the Christo Fence or the megalomaniac stadia recently reared by the Gaullist architect Roger Taillibert for the Olympic Games in Montreal (at a cost of more than $1,000,000,000 and 11 lives lost in the rush construction). Temporality and modesty (of physical bulk): these qualities are inseparable from the sense of scale in post-modernist art.

Since Picasso and Gertrude Stein it is banal to say that the contemporary experience of the world is spatially complex. More important, it is temporally complex. Our sense of time is open and abstract—to the point where we are willing to allow for reversals and curvatures as well as sense the movements of time across sequences and spatial segments beyond our immediate experience. Performance, film, and video (most of all) serve this cycling, pressing sense of time moving on. Aristotle argued not only against objects more than 1,000 miles in size but against plots that stretched out beyond the point where all of it could be easily held in memory. Robert Wilson’s plays stretch from 12 hours in length to 168 hours; rather than compress or actually represent time, he expands a minute of “real” time into an hour of theater time. Roger Welch’s film, Welch, is a pastiche of home movies made at differing times in his family’s life, merging—when seen in whole—into one tenseless moment. Alan Sonfist’s abandoned Animal Hole is a form in time, created by the life needs of its occupant, tunneling through the earth. The live telecast can transmit a focussed sense of this passage of the immediate moment, shared with the viewer. My yearlong collaboration with Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid in Moscow (in a four-part series of performances) is predicated on simultaneity. It began as an exchange of photographs by political necessity as well as esthetic choice. We perform (and photograph) at precisely the same moment, separated by thousands of miles of space-time, yet sense the simultaneity of the act. Later, the spliced photograph collapses these miles into one plane and one image.

It is no accident that the photograph served this work well, allowing us to collaborate together beyond the reach (if not the surveillance) of competing political systems. Cheap, flat, and accessible, the photograph is the signifier of recent art, as canvas-stretcher and steel-frame served its predecessors. The photograph furthermore calls no attention to itself (as medium), unlike film and video which also figure largely in the subject under discussion. The fact that Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots originally circulated entirely as a postcard image is now a matter of indifference to its audience, which can only remember the boots as image. James Collins’ voyeured girls are undergoing the same transformation: they appear in so many guises and scales (postcards, magazine reproduction, framed gallery objects) that they lose any identity with physical scale, and medium. I myself think that video art will never begin that process until it becomes cheap and readily available, via cable television broadcast. Only then—divorced from the prestige of its medium and its museum, gallery, or prime-time broadcast context—can the content function as such, freed from its obtrusive mode of address.

Contemporary criticism is often blinded by extremes of scale. Rhetorical attitudes are always attached to works that expand or contract beyond the norm. We assume that a small painting is intended for an intimate audience or that a large one is “public” in nature, that painting itself is private, while a videotape is public. There is no specific basis in fact for these assumptions (is a Joan Jonas videotape less private than a painting by Lowell Nesbitt, a tiny Rosenquist more private than a large Pearlstein?). Nor is there any basis for the persistent notion that an artist who actively engages in politics in his work is “utopian” or “anti-art.” Beuys’ decision to undertake dialogue with a constant, changing public is a proper use of scale in the service of content of his political aktion (to ask for a referendum on the structure of government in Germany). The scale of Haacke’s works—reaching into interlocking ghetto-midtown entrepreneurial systems and the track record of paintings caught in the snares of the art market—is perfectly consistent with the intent of the work, which is to materialize otherwise invisible machinations. Indeed, the full awareness and esthetic use of art in the exploration of contexts beyond itself is—to my mind—a core potential of new work. Of course, virtually every attempt to broadcast a videotape engages a corporate or market system at one level of difficulty or another, as does art writing itself (which must of necessity find publication in the pages of magazines subsidized by art dealers). Christopher Cooke’s little-known 1971–72 work, Limited Interval Administration Project, dealt exclusively with extra-contextual systems. Cooke deliberately incorporated his activities as a museum professional in this work, using his own tenure as director of the ICA in Boston as its source. In his successful proposal to the board of trustees, he stated:

Any and all activities of this year may/will be recorded for use as a comprehensive exhibition which will be the result of this year’s activity. The work consists of: 1) the process of directorship; 2) notes, tapes, films, documents saved by the artist during the year; 3) activities, events, and things generated by the artist in the process of carrying on this project.

Equally relevant to my present point—though less premeditated—was Walter de Maria’s year-long Proposal for the Olympic Games (1971). Planned and offered as a site piece on a hill overlooking the 1972 games in Munich, it contemplated drilling a cylindrical hole through the hill itself and deep into the earth. Debated and discussed heatedly by the Olympic Committee and in the press, de Maria found himself forced to defend and clarify his proposal in public time and again. The argument concerned itself with the nature of sculpture (de Maria contended that form could be created by physical absence as well as presence), of conception in art, and of execution. The proposal was thrice debated in this manner—accruing complexity and public involvement at each step—and thrice defeated. Had the form been realized—paradoxically—de Maria’s work might have run the same moral risk inherent in Christo’s fence.

I have been deliberately describing recent works that deal with aspects of scale beyond size. Their actual form is frequently nothing more than a photograph, a book, or a performance. What, then, of extreme physical size? When can it be employed? Terry Atkinson maintains in Art Language (1970) that Duchamp has left us at a point where any size is within reach: “If a bottle-rack can be asserted as a member of the class ‘art-object,’ then why not the department store that the bottle-rack was first displayed in, and if the department store why not the town . . . and so on, up to a universal scale.” This is the classic (if ironic) statement of scale-as-gesture. It ignores both the meaning of the gesture and its effect upon the context beyond art. It assumes that there is no difference between a massive Heizer triangle standing alone in the desert on its own land, beyond harm or harming, and a running fence cutting across an exurban landscape walked and cherished by others. The Duchampian position also assumes (wrongly) that art is free to do whatever it wishes because it is impotent and beyond meaning. Udo Kulterman announces in Art and Life that the time has come to deal with universal-scale and quotes with approval the aktion of Marinus Boezem, “who had the idea of signing the universe with the help of an airplane whose condensation trails would spell out his name.” Again we see the absurd refusal to think through the moral and political consequences of esthetic action: in this case (as in Christo’s) the “gesture” endorses the notion that the selfish or solipsist act is justifiable, if it ends in art. The extension of art into massive physical size is a complex, fragile, and portentous step, not to be taken lightly. The reason for this caution is and ought to be the power of art as a philosophical model for the audience it increasingly attracts. The same is true of political discussion, theorizing, and acting.

The problem of scale—and its use—is inescapably and properly a matter of a consciousness that shapes larger values. Its changing definition is a function of changing cultural needs. I have tried to demonstrate that the physical size of a work of art is simply one of several components that describe its scale, and that the work may function successfully on many expansionist levels, whether or not it is large or small. Sheer size alone (as in modernist plaza sculpture) is irresponsible and boring. Far more important are the means by which the work extends itself in time and in politics. I am partial to—and argue for—accessible, low-cost media, such as the photograph, cable television, radio, the postal system, the book. I am also partial to the rare act that opens a medium heretofore closed—network television, the line between East and West, the global communication satellites—but accessible by its very nature. The situation obviously forces the artist to contend with extra-art issues, in order to work effectively. Both creating and observing are conscious and informing acts, and both make the culture we live in. The infinite line exists beyond form but not beyond meaning.

Douglas Davis is an artist and critic living in New York.