PRINT Summer 2004


The appropriation of the gigantic on the part of commodity relations marks the magicalization of the commodity, the final masking of the gigantic apparatus which is the nature of class relations themselves. —Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (1984)

The size is nothing; what matters is the scale. —Barnett Newman, in Pierre Schneider, “Through the Louvre with Barnett Newman” (1969)

Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project, 2003, is a work that commands attention. The most recent in a series of commissions funded by Unilever for Tate Modern, the work suffuses the museum’s Turbine Hall with an apocalyptic glow, the effect of hundreds of yellow mono-frequency lamps arranged behind a giant translucent half disk suspended on the back wall. Above, a mirrored ceiling spans the vast room’s length, suggesting the illusion that the half disk is whole. I look up: Where am I? I am a speck in a distant, cavernous space, surrounded by the minuscule reflections of the many visitors who surround me. I am a remote, disembodied image; I am small.

The Weather Project does not consist of light and mirrors alone. Puffs of mist waft out from around the room, transforming the Turbine Hall into a microclimate unregulated by the weather. Small clouds rise and accumulate; the room’s spatial contours emerge and recede in the violet haze. The installation feels confusing—at first. But this initial feeling of disorientation quickly dissipates. Viewers sit down on the cold floor. Others spread themselves out, gazing up at their distant images with narcissistic regard. Groups of friends arrange their bodies in ornamental configurations, opening and closing their limbs to resemble snowflakes and stars. We look at ourselves, and at others looking at themselves. The Weather Project’ s perceptual qualities, as such, are ultimately less compelling than the work’s social effects. The enormous Turbine Hall has been transformed into a gathering place, a place to “people-watch,” a place to be.

Much of the writing on Eliasson stresses the phenomenological ambitions of his work. Eliasson’s art, we are told, renders us conscious of our perception, recalling in this ambition the phenomenological philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Indeed, in such works as Beauty, 1994, which produces a rainbow through the simple combination of a fine mist and a spotlight, or Seeing Yourself Seeing, 2001, a sheet of mirrored glass from which the reflective element was removed in vertical strips, so that it both reflects the body and allows one to peer through the work itself, we are rendered conscious of the act of looking. A second point, following from the first, is that the perceptual qualities of Eliasson’s art are critical in ambition. According to this claim, Eliasson’s work renders us conscious of seeing and, in so doing, of the institutional frame. Recalling the phenomenological debates around Minimalism and the various practices of institutional critique they inspired, Eliasson observes: “Our ability to see ourselves seeing allows us to evaluate and criticize ourselves.” Certainly, the Tate installation earnestly revealed its “construction.” One can easily perceive the source of the mist, machines stationed in the walls of the Turbine Hall, as well as the lamps that illuminate it from behind. The catalogue and publicity also announce the project’s reflexive aims; the tactics of institutional critique are dutifully rehearsed. For instance, a poll of Tate Modern’s employees recalls Hans Haacke’s visitor polls of the early ’70s. However, whereas Haacke’s interrogations were intended to activate the gallerygoer, Eliasson’s are provocations of a more personal nature. Rather than determining the viewer’s opinion of American involvement in Vietnam, for example, he elicits opinions on a decidedly uncontroversial topic: the weather. (“In which season do you kiss someone other than your partner the most?” is typical.) But the most ambitiously “critical” dimension of The Weather Project is the roundtable discussion conducted by the artist with the Tate staff and one of the museum’s architects, Jacques Herzog. Recalling Andrea Fraser’s projects consisting of interviews with museum employees, these textual supplements are meant to underscore the work’s reflexivity.

Attempting to reveal the museum to be a construction (i.e., a conglomeration of social, economic, and aesthetic relations), Eliasson’s works are said to be purged of illusion. And yet the result of such tactics is not only an elucidation of the museum’s frame; the artwork then defers awareness back to the beholder. The artist’s description of Seeing Yourself Sensing, 2001, installed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on the windows facing that museum’s sculpture garden, then in the process of demolition, is telling. “I would like to think of the awareness of this architectural intervention . . . as part of my project,” Eliasson wrote in the accompanying brochure, “and use this moment of megamuseumomanic instability as an occasion for visitors to take their eyes off the museum and look back at themselves.” Eliasson’s smaller-scale works, at their most effective, organize an awareness of one’s perceiving body in the gallery space. A viewer of Seeing Yourself Sensing is compelled to compare his or her body image with the actual contours of the room. But something unexpected happens to spectators of The Weather Project. We lie down—and lose ourselves, become part of, indeed become, the spectacle before us. The phenomenological practices of the ’60s and ’70s, to which Eliasson’s work is sometimes compared, prized an active spectator—one who could “see” and, in seeing, make informed decisions. But The Weather Project delivers a mass audience that cannot fail to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the installation itself: The museum is not so much “revealed” as transformed into a destination, an event.

The Weather Project is hardly unique in this regard. More and more, we are accustomed to installations that are keyed not to the individual body and its perceptual grasp but to an increasingly grandiloquent architecture. The commission that preceded The Weather Project in the Unilever series, for example, Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas, 2002, reduced the viewer to Lilliputian stature; the projections of Bill Viola and others surround and overwhelm. Where once scale implied a calibrated relation between a viewer and work within a modernist gallery of knowable proportions, in the practices in question a scale that exceeds our perceptual understanding—i.e., size—has become prevalent. This tendency has hardly gone unremarked. In “Size Matters” (2000), Robert Morris identifies a “Wagner effect” pervasive in current practice, a demand for aesthetically awesome situations; Briony Fer has described the “exhilarating” effect of today’s “melodramatic” installations. The present argument explores how the concept of installation is increasingly one that depends on the experience of size, and how this has subsumed the phenomenological and critical ambitions of an earlier period, even though many of the contemporary practices are invested in staging acts of perception. This tendency is not confined to Tate Modern, nor to the practices of Eliasson and Kapoor, most of whose works are bodily scaled. My aim is to trace a broader transformation—one that has occurred in tandem with a profusion of large international exhibitions and “destination” museums of inordinately vast proportions: Such spaces demand an art of size. The following genealogy of scale and size in the art of the last half century is one attempt to make sense of this situation.

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.”

Pollock’s and Rothko’s statements speak of the artist’s search for intimacy with the canvas; the viewer could presumably participate in this “human” experience through an identification with the painter-beholder. If Rothko and Pollock were addressing their own need to paint large pictures, Barnett Newman described the encounter between the beholder and the work as a phenomenological relation: The painting should cause the viewer to feel present. (“Not there—here,” he quipped.) Newman conceived of this relationship as one of scale. Aesthetic size, for Newman, implied a grandeur that exceeded an individual body’s grasp (the Great Pyramids, for example); scale denoted a somatic relation. As he insisted to Emile de Antonio in Painters Painting (1972), even an easel-sized painting, such as his own inaugural “zip” canvas, Onement I, 1948, can have scale. Whether the painting was small or large didn’t matter: “Size doesn’t count. It’s scale that counts. It’s human scale that counts.”

During the 1960s, artists like Donald Judd and Robert Morris extended this bodily notion of scale into three dimensions, reinflecting the idea of presence—in antihumanistic terms, however. (One of the many paradoxes of Minimalist practice, which Michael Fried famously identified in “Art and Objecthood” [1967], is that in order for the artwork to be purged of anthropomorphic associations, in order for it to affirm the viewer’s presence, it had to be scaled to, and in some sense evocative of, the body.) In “Notes on Sculpture” (1966), Morris, a participant in the task-based performances of Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer and a performer in his own right, theorized a version of Minimalist sculpture that was, like the props used at Judson Church, bodily scaled. Indeed, Morris’s definition of sculpture implied a phenomenological interaction between the work and the spectator; he called this relationship scale: “In the perception of relative size the human body enters into the total continuum of sizes and establishes itself as a constant on that scale.” A work of sculpture was neither too large nor too small, neither a monument nor an ornament (Morris’s analysis was strongly reminscent of the art historian Herbert Read’s The Art of Sculpture [1956], which opens with this distinction); it should establish a “comparison” between its size and the body size of the viewer so as to reveal its shape or gestalt.

Morris now introduced a third term to the discussion of scale: Scale denoted not only a relation between a viewer and an artwork, as for Newman, but a triangular interaction between spectator, artwork, and gallery space. One became more aware than in previous art that one was perceiving the work “from various positions and under varying conditions of light and spatial context.” Revealing shape as gestalt, the Minimalist sculpture, Morris suggested, deferred one’s attention from the work per se to the room. This scaled relation of the spectator, the artwork, and the gallery was short-lived. If the seminal exhibition “Primary Structures” at the Jewish Museum in 1966 heralded the bodily scale theorized by Morris, the show “Scale as Content,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the following year, announced an altogether different concept of scale—a scale that, orchestrated between the sculpture and the grand architecture of the Corcoran itself, exceeded somatic comprehension. The word “size” entered Lucy Lippard’s review: “Sculpture that seemed large in scale ten years ago may look small now that we are accustomed to large size, sheer size, mere size.” The exhibition consisted of just three works (all completed in 1967). Tony Smith’s Smoke and Ronald Bladen’s The X straddled the museum’s double atrium. Outdoors, Newman’s Broken Obelisk suggested a not altogether successful magnification of the painter’s practice.

The problem of size, it should be clear, became prominent at the moment of Minimalism’s emergence; Morris’s denunciation of the monument in “Notes on Sculpture” acknowledges this concern. Minimalist practice, as a rule, retains a bodily scale to counter modernist monumentality, then embodied by the large Picasso or Calder sculpture blown up from scale models, as well as the gigantism of the Corcoran works. And yet even as Morris and Carl Andre insisted on the importance of somatic scale, others marshaled size as a critique of traditional monumentality and of the portable commodity that even the Minimalist object was then in the process of becoming. With the antimonuments of Claes Oldenburg, the large Earthworks of Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, and the ephemeral outdoor projects of such artists as Dennis Oppenheim and Alice Aycock, size took on a distinctly countercultural meaning, suggesting a kind of art that could not be easily bought nor exhibited within the white cube. Queried about such projects in these pages in 1974, William Rubin, then director of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, declared that “the museum concept is not infinitely expandable.” The museum could only grow so large, Rubin insisted; the outdoor practices of the ’70s endeavored to prove him correct.

It is the sculpture of Richard Serra that most illustratively bridges the discussion of scale and size from the ’70s to the present, recapitulating the narrative traced here within a single practice. In Serra’s early work, the phenomenology of making—a bodily encounter with materials inspired by Pollock’s practice, as well as the performances of Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown, as Serra has suggested—returned; Casting, 1969, and other early process sculptures established a concordance of scale between the artist’s body and that of the beholder. Serra retained this somatic scale in his early fabricated works: The body that makes is displaced into the body that perceives. In a sculpture like Circuit, 1972, the viewer exists as the point of completion of four upright steel plates placed at ninety-degree intervals in a square room. Standing in this in-between zone one is keenly aware, as in the best Minimalist installations, of one’s body existing in relation to the sculpture and the room’s volume.

Serra’s forays into the outdoors in the ’70s expanded the scale ratio of body/work/place well beyond Morris’s definition. Certainly, Serra’s early land works retained a somatic scale. In Pulitzer Piece: Stepped Elevation, 1970–71, and Shift, 1971–72, the slabs of Cor-Ten steel or concrete are laid fairly low to the ground, allowing one’s sight to trace their extension with the grade of the land. As Serra recalls, the perception of another body was integral to the planning of Shift: “In the summer of 1970, Joan [Jonas] and I spent five days walking the place. We discovered that two people walking the distance of the field opposite one another, attempting to keep each other in view . . . would mutually determine a topological definition of the space. The boundaries of the work became the maximum distance two people could occupy and still keep each other in view.” In her 1983 essay “Richard Serra, A Translation,” Rosalind Krauss analyzed Shift in light of the phenomenological concept of transitivity, the chiasmatic relation of two bodies, of “seer and seen,” by which, according to Merleau-Ponty, the subject comes to know herself. Reconceiving the experience of sculpture as thoroughly contiguous (with real space, with others), Shift was a powerful demonstration of the phenomenological premise of being-in-the-world (the self, for Merleau-Ponty, is not a monad but utterly penetrated by all that surrounds it and capable of acting on these surroundings). This integration of the spectator with place suggested a new concept of scale. As Serra noted to Peter Eisenman in 1983, once his work began to stage acts of perception outdoors, scale denoted the viewer’s and work’s relationship to context: The third term of Morris’s formula became primary. Serra’s supporters often described this engagement with place, or site-specificity, in critical terms. His work, Douglas Crimp observed in an important essay of 1986, “runs the risk of uncovering the true specificity of the site, which is always a political specificity.” In order to disrupt the normative experience of such sites as Federal Plaza in Manhattan or the Place de la Concorde in Paris, Serra’s practice underwent a breathtaking expansion. Whereas the almost dainty plates of Pulitzer Piece barely reached one’s chin, Serra’s major projects of the ’80s, such as the elegant Clara-Clara of 1983 and the rather forbidding Tilted Arc, 1981, towered over the viewer. Revealing the spatial parameters of ever more grandiloquent settings, these works internalized, and to some extent reproduced, the perceptual authority of these settings.

The critical claims once made on behalf of Serra’s practice have become increasingly difficult to sustain. His progress in the intervening decades suggests a practice that does not so much resist and reveal the conditions of its display so much as generate and affirm these conditions. A number of Serra’s recent works, notably the Torqued Ellipses, orchestrate novel perceptual encounters by means of computer-generated forms executed in massive sheets of steel. The experience of walking through these sculptures—the walls shifting and slanting and towering over one’s body, never resolving into a single point of view or gestalt—is undeniably impressive. A spectator cannot fail to marvel at the artist’s ability to organize complex and aesthetically engaging arrangements of mass, shape, and volume on an epic scale. Suggesting a decisive rejection of the somatic scale of the artist’s early practice, such works rephrase the perceptual encounter as drama, as spectacle. Serra is our most emblematic sculptor because, to paraphrase Andrea Fraser, he gives the museum what it wants. (“Aesthetic size,” Susan Stewart reminds us in On Longing, “cannot be divorced from social function and social values.”) 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. “To make a big splash in the global pond of spectacle culture today,” Hal Foster writes of the Guggenheim Bilbao, “you have to have a big rock to drop.” The “big rock” must in turn be filled with works of adequate size, spectacular works, works, in short, that can deliver an audience: wall-size video/film projections, oversize photographs, a sculpture that overwhelms.

In her 1983 essay on Serra, Krauss presciently identified an incipient, “world-wide homogenization” of culture. To counter this effect, she proposed a phenomenological model of art, suggested by Serra’s practice: “It is precisely in that mute, still space that separates the viewer from the work of art . . . that we find an acute resistance to the internationalization of culture.” But Serra’s practice no longer persuasively suggests a solitary retreat from the throng of spectacle, a critical awareness of one’s bodily being and surroundings. His largest works, like Eliasson’s Weather Project, point to an instrumentalization of the phenomenological tendency itself, within a scenario of unrelenting global museological competition.

Nowhere are these effects more apparent than at Dia:Beacon, in upstate New York. Often thought of as a sober Minimalist antidote to the baroque excesses of the Guggenheim Bilbao, Dia:Beacon is typically described as an extension of the permanent installation developed by Judd at Marfa, which Dia had initially sponsored. Dia:Beacon was “built to let people see art the way Judd would have wanted,” according to Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times. Others have considered the Beacon space a sanctum sanctorum, a “Vatican” of Minimalism. Certainly, Dia:Beacon bears out a number of principles consistent with Judd’s concept of installation: adaptation of a given, prosaic space; natural light; the permanent display. But it is important to ask, Would Judd actually have liked Dia:Beacon? Would he have endorsed the arrangement of his low plywood boxes in the tall, open spaces so suited to the recent works of Serra and Heizer? (At Marfa, artists are afforded discrete spaces, precluding such comparisons; even such ambitious works as Judd’s one hundred milled-aluminum boxes, 1982–86, or Dan Flavin’s untitled (Marfa project), 1996, are divided between buildings of comprehensible proportions.) Next to these more recent installations, Judd’s works and Smithson’s mirrored piles of sand look small—the latter appearing so incidental that Kimmelman could observe that Smithson had produced no sculpture of “lasting significance” in comparison with his “Greatest Generation” peers. A bodily sense of scale is maintained in several installations at Beacon, especially those handsome rooms devoted to the paintings of Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, and Blinky Palermo. Yet with regard to sculpture, a viewer comes to feel a profound tension between the galleries of historical Minimalist and post-Minimalist works and those spaces that embody a belated post-Minimalist aesthetic of size. The remarks of Leonard Riggio, chairman of Barnes & Noble and of Dia’s board, and the principal patron of Dia:Beacon, are telling: “My epiphany came when I saw Serra’s Torqued Ellipses [1997]. I immediately got the idea of the single artist space, seeing art in its own environment. I just got the concept of Judd, Flavin and all the others without even seeing their work yet” (emphasis added). Such remarks confirm my own experience of Dia:Beacon—the sense that an aesthetic of size, as developed by Serra and endorsed by Dia’s director, Michael Govan (who “discovered” the former Nabisco box factory from his airplane), has subsumed a Minimalist concept of scale. Beacon restages the phenomenological encounter of the art of the ’60s and early ’70s as a contemporary aesthetic attraction of international appeal. Bilbao already had its 104-foot-long Serra Snake, 1994–96; Beacon countered with Serra’s multimillion-dollar Torqued Ellipses. Bilbao recently announced an even more ambitious, more expensive commission of seven steel labyrinths and torques: It would appear that the institutional demand for an art of size is just beginning.

And yet the present dominance of size is hardly absolute; a sculptural scale tied to the body remains of concern to other artists. We might consider the work of Charles Ray, for example, as a counterpractice to the current gigantism; the modulations of scale in his sculpture indeed bespeak a somatic and critical awareness that both evokes and departs from that established by the significant abstract sculpture of the ’60s.

Ray has long spoken of his engagement with the work of Anthony Caro, to which he was introduced as an art student. Indeed, the cover of the catalogue for the artist’s retrospective exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art depicts not a work by Ray, as we would expect, but Ray standing next to Caro’s Early One Morning of 1962. The connection implied between Caro, whose work has long receded into the annals of late modernism, and Ray had never been entirely clear to me. What possible relationship could be established between Caro’s welded, part-by-part abstract constructions and Ray’s bizarrely lifelike (but not quite lifelike) corporate giantesses? The point of overlap between these artists, I came to realize, is the body—the body as the subject of the sculpture, and the body of the viewer as the sculpture’s object; this concordance is rooted in a concept of somatic, as opposed to architectural, scale. Caro’s early, figurative sculptures recalled his own apprenticeship to that great devotee of the sculpted figure, Henry Moore; Caro’s subsequent adoption of David Smith’s welding technique was, as Fried once noted, not a flat rejection of Moore but an extension of the older sculptor’s bodily focus into an abstract idiom. The lesson of Caro for Ray, I would claim, is the awareness of sculpture as a medium keyed to the viewer’s body rather than to context. Indeed, this connection is made apparent when we learn that the clothes donned by Ray (standing next to the Caro) in the cover image of his LA MOCA catalogue were hand-sewn by the artist to fit his own body.

Ray’s most memorable sculptures retain this somatic intensity and precise sense of scale. The artist’s power-suited Amazons are larger than we are, but not too much larger; his Family Romance, 1993, disturbs because of the way it relativizes the expected relations of scale between the parents and children; his self-portrait in a bottle (Puzzle Bottle, 1995) troubles our sense of size through its obverse, the miniature. And in his Ink Box, 1986, Ray restores the geometric shape and one-to-one scale of Minimalism only to disturb, with the threat that the ink might stain one’s fingers and clothing, the pure phenomenological encounter theorized by Morris. Ray’s works imply that perhaps the most effective sculptural practice at present may not involve an obvious declaration of size, nor Minimalism’s transparent bodily scale. Scale, in his practice, entails a constant adjustment adequate to particular sculptural ideas. Ray’s work retains a nuanced spatial relation keyed to one’s body; normative expectations of scale are troubled precisely because a somatic scale is retained. Where size, at present, is often marshaled to overwhelm and pacify, in the best works of Ray, scale returns in the phenomenological sense as a formal quality capable of inducing awareness and provoking thought.

James Meyer is associate professor of art history at Emory University and the author of Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (Yale University Press, 2001).