The large-scale artwork in BIG reflects a new direction by artists of the 20th century who pushed physical as well as conceptual boundaries.
Prior to 1950, monumentally sized 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.
When presented with the monunmental scale of the works in BIG, visitors can experience an allusive sense of wonder only made possible when stepping into the gallery and standing before these large-scale objects.