Big Name, Big Art

10 05 2010

If you only paint little paintings can you become a big name artist? 

In the Art magazines and online, it is impossible to appreciate the actual scale of a painting. This is a hindrance and a boon. Two identically sized photographs of different paintings, appearing side-by-side on the same page, can be of two paintings that are immensely different in actual size and scale. One might be 8 feet by 8 feet square and the other 4 by 4 inches. So it is that on the printed page there is a kind of aesthetic parity that is not possible in actuality. However, in the gallery one discovers that most of the paintings by big name artists are big. 

Making It Big © 2010 Michael Maurer Smith


Some big name artists—like Susan Rothenberg, Jasper Johns or David Hockney sometimes work small. Hockney, has recently been drawing on an iPad. But, in the main, the big namers tend to work much larger than easel size. Some go gargantuan like Julie Mehretu with her recent mural for Goldman Sachs. It measures eighty feet long and twenty three feet high! It was allegedly commissioned for more than 5 million dollars. That’s real big! 

During the Renaissance easel painting became popular. As the merchant class grew there was an increased demand for modest sized paintings to adorn the walls of less than palace-sized dwellings. 

One sees something similar today in places like Santa Fe, where hundreds of galleries sell art ranging in quality from la tourista to middling to sublime—art made by relative unknowns as well as some of the biggest names in the Art world. Most of it is at sizes small enough to fit in a Prius, Bimmer (proper slang for a BMW) or the overhead luggage compartment of a 777. However, the high end galleries do show big works by big name artists. 

Ok, but what does all this say about the quality of the work? And does it matter? 

Let’s say I have a doodle by Cy Twombly. Something he did on a notepad while taking a phone call—does it have a comparable aesthetic and collectible value as one of his big canvases? Should it? If the photograph of Cy’s doodle is published next to photograph of one of his really big canvases in one of the Art magazines, but without dimensions given, will a qualitative aesthetic difference be discernable? 

It seems that making big art has much less to do with aesthetics and quality and more to do with marketing, self-assertion, ego and impact. It says, “if I have the time, space and money to paint big I must be an important and serious artist and if you can afford to buy my big art you must be an important collector.” And so the cycle is established—the artist paints big paintings to attract the big monied collectors who will buy the big art in order to assert their taste and power and as an investment. And thus big reputations are made. 

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith




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