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New Exhibition Makes a Statement with Large-Scale Works
November 4, 2017–May 6, 2018
The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) is pleased to present BIG, an exhibition of large-scale modern and contemporary artworks from MMoCA’s permanent collection. On view from November 4, 2017 through May 6, 2018, BIG includes works by well-known artists such as Sam Gilliam, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jennifer Steinkamp.
Prior to 1950, large-scale art was generally reserved for mural paintings in the narrative tradition and abstraction was explored on an easel-sized scale. Artists, particularly Abstract Expressionists, transitioned to large canvases to capture new and big ideas. Art galleries could not contain the sheer size of the paintings being produced. In Jackson Pollock’s self-titled exhibition of 1950 at the Betty Parsons Gallery, his paintings spanned the entirety of the walls and some even grazed the ceiling. As a result, galleries and museums had to adjust their spaces to accommodate the new art being created. The large white walls and long corridors of the modern museum and gallery spaces are a direct result of this new way of creating art on a massive scale.
The shift to large-scale works also required museum and gallery-goers to alter their way of engaging with art. Easel painting was intimate and required the viewer to slowly lean into the pictorial space; large compositions immediately confronted the onlooker from afar. Large-scale art was historically associated with an immersive, bodily experience that instilled sensations of awe and wonder in the viewer, known as the sublime. This idea of becoming overwhelmed simply upon looking was first explored in the context of the natural and the physical world during the 18th century Enlightenment and eventually found its way into the art world beginning with the large, quasi-abstract, expansive landscapes of 19th century Romantic painting produced by artists like Albert Bierstadt. It wasn’t until the Abstract Expressionists abandoned figuration that the concept was reintroduced into the art historical canon of the 20th century. With their giant drips, smears, and splatters that spread towards the edges and corners of the canvas, abstract artworks generated a new way of looking and viewers were left to consider the enormity and boundlessness of the work before them.
Included in BIG is Sam Gilliam’s Carousel (1970), which transcends both the pictorial plane and the sculptural object by removing the wooden stretcher bars that typically provide a painting with its two-dimensionality. Measuring 10 feet high by 75 feet long, the vivid, color-stained canvas hangs suspended from the ceiling. Gilliam painted the canvas by soaking and splattering the colors onto the cloth when it was laid out on the floor and continually folded the cloth as it dried. More paint was added and eventually the creases from the folds were translated into lines and patterns that move throughout the fields of color that ebb and flow throughout the massive canvas sheet. Previously hung in the glass Icon at MMoCA, the painting will take on a new form in the main galleries when it is suspended from the ceiling. Gilliam’s drape paintings are intended to be re-envisioned by the artist with every installation, providing visitors with a unique experience with the work.
More than other formal elements in the visual arts, such as color, line, or shape, scale directs attention towards the capacity of the artwork to respond to a specific location, and call into play the role of the viewer. The effect of looking at art in a printed catalogue or an on-line image isn’t the same as placing oneself before a large-scale object. One must step into the gallery in order to experience the allusive sense of wonder that is inherent in these big works of art.
To date, generous funding for BIG has been provided by Nancy Mohs; the Theda and Tamblin Clark Smith Family Foundation; Bell Laboratories; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and MMoCA Volunteers.
Housed in a soaring, Cesar Pelli-designed building, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art provides free exhibitions and education programs that engage people in modern and contemporary art. The museum’s four galleries offer changing exhibitions that feature established and emerging artists. The Rooftop Sculpture Garden provides an urban oasis with an incredible view. The museum is open: Tuesday through Thursday, noon–5 pm; Friday, noon–8 pm; Saturday, 10 am–8 pm; Sunday, noon–5 pm; and is closed on Mondays.
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