Sydney Stutterheim, PhD, is an art historian and writer whose research focuses on postwar and contemporary art. She joined Gagosian in September 2018.
Lunching at New York’s Algonquin Hotel, Ernest Hemingway reportedly told the infamous Round Table—a weekly meeting of critics, novelists, playwrights, and actors that convened between 1919 and 1929—that he could compose a six-word short story complete with a beginning, middle, and end. With wagers placed, he wrote the following on a napkin and passed it around: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” Whether this account is apocryphal or true, the deceptively simple, bet-winning narrative evokes an infinite array of stories—from the haunting to the comical, the sweet to the sinister—far exceeding the physical space the words take up on the page.
This legendary anecdote demonstrates the vast possibilities embedded within structural constraints; such a case may also be made for the uniquely profound nature of small-format creations across the arts. After all, who would argue that the emotional power of the gospel-turned-protest-anthem “We Shall Overcome” has less value and influence than Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony due simply to its comparatively short length? Is the concise use of language found in the poetry of Maya Angelou less impactful than the extensive tomes of Leo Tolstoy? Do the greatest still photographs not encapsulate pivotal moments as piercingly as protracted forms of documentation, such as feature-length films, do?
Throughout history and across cultures, small-scale visual artworks have conveyed the innate intimacy at the core of all aesthetic experience, soliciting a deep and visceral exchange between artist, viewer, and work of art. From ancient Near Eastern votive sculptures to medieval illuminated manuscripts, Jin dynasty Chinese ceramics to fifteenth-century European “cabinet paintings,” artists have been continually inspired by the vast potential of working at a concentrated scale. In the twentieth century, the advancement of more modestly sized artistic mediums—such as photography, collage, and artist’s books—as well as a visual “economy of means” through abstraction, resulted in further revisions to the conventional correlation between the dimensions of an artwork and its significance. The enduring appeal of smaller works persists through the present day, as such pieces offer an unparalleled visual experience on the level of both production and reception. Given their prevalence, the question becomes: what are the unique advantages of—or possibilities posed by—artworks at this scale?
For visual artists, practical constraints such as limited working dimensions often result in an increased intentionality to their working process, imbuing each carefully considered gesture with more import than ever. In contrast to large-format paintings, for example, the potency of every brushstroke in a smaller canvas becomes heightened, as each part plays a greater proportional role in the work as a whole. Such restrictions demand a return to essentials, soliciting a judicious consideration of the necessity of a given line or mark.
This discriminating approach often produces an alternative model of immersion, as each individual artistic gesture calls for careful, in-depth viewing. In contrast to paintings or sculptures that dwarf the beholder, there is an allure to physically coming close to the work, engaging in a rigorous exploration of the aesthetic decisions determining the formal components of a composition. For example, in his portal-like Little Great American Nude #3 (1960–61), spanning only five inches in diameter, Tom Wesselmann demonstrates how each choice assumes an integral role in the overall structure, as the limited space requires a skillfully prudent approach to possible artistic interventions.
Given the greater relative weight of each mark or line, many contemporary artists have been inspired by the potential of reduced working dimensions and have specifically produced a body of smaller paintings and sculptures in addition to their work on a larger scale. Often the resulting projects demonstrate the distinctiveness of an artist’s signature style, allowing for distillations of a particular concept. For example, given the immediately recognizable nature of Damien Hirst’s Spot paintings, the artist has gone on to produce a series of micro-dot iterations, which refine and concentrate attention onto the unique possibilities of shifts in scale. In the case of Hirst, this transfer of size manifests as a radically altered perspective, in which the viewer comes to realize that the smaller dots suggest a more distanced viewing location, while the dimensions of the canvas complicate this assumption. At once “zooming in” and out of the composition, Hirst plays with the viewer’s knowledge of his larger Spot paintings to explore new directions for his concept.
Likewise, in a recent sculpture, Miroir (2019–20), Urs Fischer distills and refines key aspects of his previous artistic production, such as the use of mirrors and isolated brushstrokes of paint. Yet in contrast to many of Fischer’s large-format paintings and sculptures, this piece—composed of numerous hand-rendered, colorful marks applied in an abstract configuration directly on the surface of an oval-shaped mirror, which is mounted on a gilded support—powerfully imbues the surrounding environment with an intense, electric charge, despite measuring less than two feet in height. The presumed fragility of such an object is countered by the sculpture’s substantial presence in its surrounding environment. That is, Miroir performs a formidable transformation of the space in which it is situated, far exceeding its own physical expanse. As such, the work demonstrates the potency of smaller-scaled objects as a result of their contained size, a feature that artists can use to create profound impact on the surrounding architecture in which such works are placed.
Another unique feature of small-format artworks is the opportunity to test out ideas and conduct trials of new concepts, materials, or methodological approaches. Many artists work on such a scale to pursue experiments in specific techniques; the resulting pieces provide important insights into working processes, explorations of new ideas, or underlying preoccupations. Yet these are far from studies or preliminary projects; in fact many of the most significant art historical breakthroughs of European modernism occurred in artworks featuring scaled-down dimensions.
For example, smaller canvases were integral to the development of French Impressionist painting. While there is a long history of artists having worked in nature to create preparatory landscape sketches, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that artists began to produce finished canvases entirely outdoors. Seeking an immediacy to their depictions, the Impressionists embraced plein air approaches, which necessitated a significant shift in working procedures and materials: the introduction of tubular paint and the move toward smaller, more easily transportable canvases.
Such a predilection for the experimental possibilities afforded by more diminutive compositions was also evidenced across art movements, mediums, and locales in the first half of the twentieth century: whether in the woodcuts of German Expressionism, modestly scaled Cubist canvases that shattered illusionistic pictorial space, fiercely political Dada collages, jewel-like Surrealist paintings and sculptures that radically estranged daily life, or the many illustrated magazines like Vu or USSR in Construction that featured cutting-edge graphic design, photography, and layout. For example, Man Ray’s assemblage Indestructible Object—originally made in 1923 but later transformed following a traumatic romantic breakup to include a photograph of his lover’s eye on the pendulum of a metronome—powerfully conveys the tremendous possibilities to create affecting, haunting work at all proportions and sizes. In many cases, the limited scale of such works offered freedom from typical economic constraints in terms of production, as artists could experiment without devoting ample financial resources to a given project, resulting in some of the most radical innovations in modern art.
A final key component of small-format art concerns its unique ability to convey a private, highly personal experience for artist and viewer alike. A condensed surface area distinctively beckons the viewer toward the art object to engage in a profound one-to-one interaction. This is perhaps best exemplified by the Tabrīz school of Persian miniature painting from the fourteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries, in which intricate, sumptuous illustrations were used to animate accompanying texts. Despite the painstakingly laborious process of production of these illustrations, their placement in handheld books meant that they would typically be viewed exclusively by a single reader at a time, signaling a limited, highly exclusive audience.
The exceptional intimacy of viewing art at this scale is heightened due to the fact that artists often produce smaller artworks alone; such pieces become uniquely imbued with a direct connection to the maker that creates a palpable weight. In doing so, the beholder enters into the actual physical site previously occupied by the artist during the work’s production. Moreover, the scale of such works conveys the emotional immanence of a private exchange, allowing a viewer to imagine the working process in the studio. This reciprocal relationship—between artist, viewer, and art object—conveys at once a sense of inwardness and immediacy, as if one is entering into the privileged, typically private space in which artistic creation is formed.
The decision by an artist to work alone in the studio is deliberate and signals particular interests and concerns. For example, in 2001 Adriana Varejão began making “sauna” paintings that depict invented bath house chambers tiled in seemingly infinite monochromatic gradations, recalling the perspectival grids underlying Renaissance compositions as well as the geometries of the digital realm. A painted analogue to detailed mosaic work, Sauna musa (Muse Sauna, 2004), the smallest work of the original series, depicts a closed and uninhabited space that calls upon viewers to move in close to the canvas to experience its otherworldly, oneiric atmosphere, positioning themselves at the very site occupied by the artist during the working process. Rendered in a scale and a jewel-like palette that recalls medieval illuminated manuscripts, Sauna musa recalls the intimate viewing experience that marked the religious encounter of these earlier examples, yet its sensual mystery suggests a somewhat more erotic form of spiritual connection to the art object and its maker.
As the film director Orson Welles reportedly remarked, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” From music to writing, from painting to sculpture, artists have continually explored various means of using compact dimensions to convey a direct immediacy from creator to audience. Like a large shadow cast from a diminutive object, small-format art exemplifies the vast and transformative power of objects despite their physical surface area, a David to the world’s Goliaths.