Scale and Composition

Shep Steiner’s recent comment affirms that T.J.Clark’s recent LRB article on Picasso and British art is worth reading. What Clark is responding to is Picasso’s skill at scaling the image to the size of the canvas, something that all great artists of the past could do. He might be right that in modernist painting this achievement makes the picture stand out as an object in a fresh way, but post-war art invented two new senses of scale that were not active in Cubism. First of all, the internal arrangement of the picture was scaled to the body of the viewer. This is not absolutely new, and Clark could likely cite historic examples, maybe in David, but there is a qualitative difference, a new emphasis, a new immediacy, or should we say presence. This photo of Clifford Still in front of one of his canvases illustrates well what I mean. The open space between the two black areas is about his size; it’s like a doorway that he could step through. In this context, parts of the

canvas that exceed human size really feel big. Bigness becomes scale, other words a proportion that means something.

Clifford Still, August 1975 (PH-998)

This might be a good moment to stress that the word scale, in common usage, can mean sheer size, but that in art it means nothing like that at all. Scale is a ratio, a proportion, a relation between two things, most commonly between the size of an image and the size of its support. The newer sense of scale is between the size of the image, now co-extensive with the support, and the size of the viewer’s body. What I’m beginning to believe is that this kind of scale is enabled by an articulation of the interior of the work, by figuration. It is possible to present a simple field of color, and scale it to the viewer, and I’m not sure what to say about that right now, but I do assent in principle to Clark’s point, quoted in the earlier post. What I don’t believe is that Cubist pictures, or any other modernist work before WW II,  accomplish this kind of scale.

Secondly, painters learned to scale the brushstroke to the size of the support. Again, one might suggest that this is implied in the scaling of the image, but I would disagree—in any case, again there is a new emphasis on the presence of the brushstroke, and how it indicates the presence of the artist against the reality of the canvas. De Kooning could do it, in his penultimate period, Joan Mitchell could do it, or aspired to, and Philip Guston did it very well in his late figurative work, but learned how during his abstract period. Clark has a feel for this kind of scale, for example when he describes Pollock’s “No. 1 1948” as “brittle.” What he means is that the skeins are a bit too small for the size of the canvas, which is really not that big, but aspires to bigness. In later works, such as the very big one in Düsseldorf, or “One No. 31 1950,” the skeins get thicker, the stains larger. In the Düsseldorf picture the nodes, or places where the ropes of paint get tangled, are really good examples of scaling to the size of the support.

Jackson Pollock, No. 32 1950

I can’t see this in Cubism, but I can see the beginnings of it in Synthetic Cubism if we take each flat patch, or area, collaged or not, as equivalent to a brushstroke. But that would force us to swerve over to Matisse and from there slide on to a new understanding of Color Field painting as an art of very, very large brushstrokes, something I’m happy to entertain, but which would be more heretical than almost anything else on this blog.

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