Why Small Is BIG

From Tom Friedman’s eraser shavings to Rob de Mar’s minuscule waterfall to Adia Millett’s tabletop dollhouses, intimately scaled sculptures are making a large impact.

A detail of Air Stream, 2005,   by Rob de Mar, who uses a variety of materials, including model-making supplies, to create his miniature landscapes.

A detail of Air Stream, 2005, by Rob de Mar, who uses a variety of materials, including model-making supplies, to create his miniature landscapes.


There isn’t much in contemporary life to encourage anyone to think small. This is the era of the Hummer, the McMansion, and the 10,000-square-foot apartment. Even the bagel has been affected, swelling from a hard, palm-sized ring to a puffed-out, chewy blob. What can artists do but reflect and respond in kind?

In recent years, photography has distinguished itself partly by gigantism, and drawings have consumed entire walls. By assuming the scale of museums, commercial galleries effectively equate the intimate with the insignificant, motivating artists to grow their work to suit and compelling institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Getty, and Tate Modern to build ever larger, whatever the cost.

Sculpture has not merely kept pace with this growth but has led the way—at least since the 1960s, which brought us such macro-minded Minimalists as Donald Judd and Tony Smith; massive Earthworks like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah (1970) and Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969) in the Nevada desert; and Christo’s 1976 California project, Running Fence. Mary Ceruti, director of the SculptureCenter in New York’s Long Island City, puts it most succinctly: “In sculpture,” she says, “the whole idea of small is anti-modern.” All the same, a variety of sculptors are devoting some portion of their creative lives to working in the land of the wee.

Take the process-oriented Tom Friedman. His materials are not just small—they’re trifling. He has coaxed beautiful sculpture out of such things as eraser shavings, pillow stuffing, and plastic cups; once he carved his portrait into an aspirin tablet. Recently he made a Styrofoam figure that is 12 feet tall, but he paired it with another that topped out at only four inches.

Friedman describes his largest work as “a wall piece covered with tiny white Styrofoam balls that you don’t really see. You only see the dots, but you look for the edges and it broadens your sense of space.” That quality is not peculiar to Friedman’s art. It is the nature of much small-scale sculpture to disorient the viewer, inducing a Gulliver-like self-consciousness and a sense of having lost one’s way. In other words, by focusing the viewer’s attention on the space around it, an artwork’s diminution of scale can actually give the piece greater resonance.

George Stoll, a Los Angeles artist, works small partly because it gives him more control over the process. In the past, he has made uncanny replicas of floral-printed toilet paper in hand-embossed silk, richly colored Tupperware vessels in beeswax, and trompe l’oeil painted balsa-wood kitchen sponges. “I’m attracted to the sensuality of the handmade object,” he says. “I’m not interested so much in the craft as the presence.” Nevertheless, Stoll also wants the evidence of his hand to show. “When something is really refined in its manufacture,” he says, “it kind of loses its spirit.”

Stoll works solidly in the camp of Pop conceptualism, best exemplified by his “Holiday” series, on view in a show opening on the 27th of this month at Baldwin Gallery in Aspen, Colorado. It includes embroidered organza “porch flags,” streamers made of plaster, pearls, and nail polish, and encaustic versions of dime-store Halloween masks. Taken together they serve as both a commentary on, and amused appreciation of, the way Americans celebrate holidays. “If any of my works were bigger, they would look the same from far away,” Stoll admits. “But they wouldn’t be the same.”

Stoll’s sculpture may be small next to most artists’, but it’s actually life-size. Richard Pettibone, on the other hand, has spent decades making minuscule reproductions of works by Andy Warhol, Piet Mondrian, and Marcel Duchamp, among others. If made to scale, his sculptures would be no more than clones.

Several recent group exhibitions have helped to focus attention on work of human scale or smaller. A magnifying glass certainly would have come in handy for a 1999 show at the Laguna Art Museum titled “At the Threshold of the Visible: Minuscule and Small-Scale Art, 1964–1996.” A historical survey organized by Ralph Rugoff, it included an image of Mount Ararat carved on a grain of rice by Hagop Sandaldjian (creator of microminiatures for the Jurassic Museum of Technology in Los Angeles), chewing-gum sculptures by Hannah Wilke, and Michael Ross’s thimbleful of dust. Rugoff says, “It intrigued me that you could walk in a room and think there was nothing there, unless you got more involved. It’s art that exists only in relation to everything else around it.”

Curator Jessica Hough’s “Model World,” at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in 2002, focused on miniature environments, such as Rob de Mar’s minuscule alpine waterfall and Charles Simonds’s interlacing towers constructed out of impossibly tiny “smears” of handmade bricks. Viewers definitely needed a guide at “None of the Above,” curated by the artist John Armleder at Manhattan’s Swiss Institute last year. The gallery appeared to be empty; hidden in plain sight were nearly 50 artworks, from a blip of rubberized horsehair to a few lone polyurethane peanuts.

Historically, sculpture has tended to be heroic: think of Michelangelo and Rodin, of Maillol and Moore, or even of Jeff Koons and his flowering Puppy. Richard Serra, Nancy Rubins, Claes Oldenburg, and Mark di Suvero are among this country’s best-known contemporary sculptors, and all of them are known for work of outsize proportions. Other artists, however, have built big careers on very small art, with distinct consequences for sculpture today.

In the early 1970s, when sculpture was ruled by modernist monuments and Minimalist hulks, Joel Shapiro caused a sensation when he placed three-inch-high bronze or cast-iron domestic objects—a chair, a dollhouse, a coffin, a bird—on the floor of Paula Cooper’s SoHo gallery. “Shapiro is the patron saint of small,” says Tom Finkelpearl, director of the Queens Museum of Art, home to a 1:1200 scale model of the entire city of New York. “He was the anti-Oldenburg, taking big things and making them little.”

Better known today for tall, blocky, figural bronzes, Shapiro was only doing what most sculptors do: exploring the effect of form on space. And, he says, “I didn’t think it had to be big to do that.” His child-size chairs and houses were recognizable archetypes that projected both vulnerability and authority. They were at once seductive and impregnable. While they could almost disappear within a space, they could dominate it as well.

Shapiro explains, “If I made a table large, it would just be a table. If I put it on a base, that would remove it from the actual world, so it wouldn’t have to function in the space around it. It would be another precious object. But by putting it on the floor or extending it from the wall in an architectural setting, it became a discourse on space or scale. If a sculpture isn’t doing anything to alter the space around it,” he concludes, “it isn’t interesting.”

In his extremely modest, nearly invisible art, Richard Tuttle tackles the same issue head-on. By cutting what he calls “crummy materials” such as wire, plywood, and cloth into small, sad, irregular shapes and insinuating them into walls or attaching them just above the floor or below the ceiling, he creates works of great deliberation but negligible craft, impossible to apprehend apart from their surrounding environments.

“I was interested in the image as a reference to another world,” says Shapiro. “Richard’s work never had any such reference. It was more about discovery.” Tuttle’s 3rd Rope Piece (1974), for example, is a three-inch bit of cord nailed to a wall three feet above the floor, in the manner of an insect specimen. The work involves not just the rope, the nail, and the shadow it casts, but also the volume of space around it, thus immersing a willing viewer in the very act of seeing. As Madeline Grynsztejn, curator of the retrospective “Richard Tuttle: The Presence of Simple Things,” currently at the Whitney Museum (through February 5), has said, “He really does flirt with nothingness.”

Finkelpearl, a former director of New York City’s Percent for Art program, points to a similar trend toward unobtrusiveness in public art. For that, he credits the debacle over Serra’s Tilted Arc, which was removed from Manhattan’s Federal Plaza in 1989 after a ten-year lawsuit. “There was a reaction against the monumentalism of the Serra,” which led to “a more integrated approach,” says Finkelpearl. He mentions the goofy, money-grubbing bronze dwarves by Tom Otterness installed in a park near the World Financial Center in New York. “They’re whimsical,” Finkelpearl admits, “but they’re also a fairly readable critique of capitalist enterprise.”

Simonds, master of the unfired clay miniature, may have made the most invisible public art in the most visible locations, placing the architectural “remains” of an invented civilization of “little people” on the windowsills of buildings all over the world. His three-part Dwelling has been on view at the Whitney Museum since 1981, permanently installed in the museum’s stairwell, and on the second-story windowsill and the chimney of a building across the street.

Some of Simonds’s tableaux are situated on pedestals or in holes that the artist has cut into walls. In 1983, one of his pieces grew large enough for the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum. For the most part, however, his sculptures have stayed within the scale of his own body. Yet the size of his work is more a byproduct of his creative process than its starting point. “When I’m making these dwellings,” he says, “I don’t actually think in terms of scale. I’m more in its space than the one around it, so in a way, to me it seems full scale: it’s a fantasy place and I’m walking around in it.”

In fact, there are many reasons for a sculptor today to favor the domestic scale over the monumental. One is real estate: artists who cannot afford studios outside their apartments, or who simply prefer to work at home, only have room to do so much. Cynics may also point to the influence of a market that prizes the collectible over the colossal—few collectors can accommodate a Serra-size work—though bigger sculpture generally commands bigger prices. Technology can also exert an influence; the digital revolution and the invention of new materials have made not just small but infinitesimal sculpture possible.

Karin Sander, a contemporary German conceptualist, has produced eerily realistic, Thumbelina-size versions of actual people with the help of a laser scanner, a machine used for making industrial prototypes, and an airbrush. Chris Caccamise makes painted-cardboard models of used consumer products (a squeezed tube of toothpaste is one) as well as happy rainbows, clouds, and other items more usually associated with nursery decor. He also seeks out subject matter in the history of art. For an exhibition last month at Brooklyn’s Sixtyseven Gallery, Caccamise made a tiny replica of a Tony Smith L-shape work, adding bright color. “It’s an exact-scale copy,” he says, “but it looks more like a house.” Caccamise, who works for Matthew Marks Gallery, is not the least bit interested in graduating to large-scale sculpture. “I like the idea that I’m making something perfectly collectible that is small and precious,” he says. “It’s kind of an ideal commodity.”

Of course, many artists create or assemble small objects as components of large sculptural installations, another kind of endeavor. Evan Holloway, based in Los Angeles, works somewhere in between, skewering sickly pink or yellow synthetic-plaster heads the size of lollipops on steel rods or incorporating them into small mechanized sculptures. His work is a wry, anarchic, and often unsettling reflection of a society with a self-destructive gene.

Overall, Ceruti has observed a move away from the Minimalists’ rigid formalism to a more fragile or ephemeral conceptualism. “The younger generation is definitely looking more toward Richard Tuttle than Donald Judd,” she notes.

“Perfectionism makes my hair stand on end,” says Nancy Shaver, who has a predilection for the small, the cheap, and the accessible. Working out of her antiques shop in Hudson, New York, she refashions decrepit wooden boxes into wall reliefs that measure less than 6 by 12 inches and enlivens them with roughly geometric, abstract paintings. For Shaver, this small, unassuming form has proved limitless. “I like the idea that these pieces exist somewhere between sculpture, painting, and drawing,” she says. “They also command space disproportionate to their size, with room enough for all the things I’m interested in.”

For Kiki Smith, who is known for sculpture that evokes the conditions of the human body (particularly the female body), “small things are what last. Big things tend to be taken apart or recycled, as in war, when bronze and metal is melted down.” She points out that we relate to the world more readily through small objects we handle than large ones we can’t pick up. Smith, whose work is the subject of a traveling retrospective now on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through January, does not limit herself to any particular material, scale, or even medium. “Most of nature exists in things we don’t see,” she says, “and I make decisions based on the real world. Essentially, I work at my kitchen table.”

John Newman, too, prefers to work at a table. Until the late 1980s, when he started traveling in Africa, India, and Asia and meeting local craftsmen, Newman made large metal sculpture and masklike wall reliefs. “I realized that intimacy was something we hadn’t seen in New York in a long time,” he says. “So I started working at my desk. I wanted to make things without trucks and cranes—that were lightweight and not toxic. That was the practical side of things.”

Newman defines a small-scale object as “an imaginative idea about space.” He mixes materials like glass and string or paper and stone, achieving a balance of volume, weight, and form that allows his lyrical abstractions to stand alone, but would be impossible to achieve at any larger scale.

For other artists, the table is both workbench and pedestal. Vincent Fecteau, based in San Francisco, exhibits his foamcore-and-papier-mí¢ché collage works on the same kind of tables he keeps in his studio. “That way they can interact with each other,” he says. “I’m not that interested in installation, but you have to show them somehow, and people have a real resistance to pedestal sculpture.” He adds, “I’m almost envious of painters who can just hang their work. A discrete object somehow has to have a relationship to space to have any content.”

Using model trees, wire, and flocking, de Mar creates entire ecosystems on lily pad–like platforms. He suspends them well above the heads of most viewers, essentially affording them the panorama of a distant landscape. “It’s an imaginary journey,” he says, “a mental leap.” Growing up in Maine, de Mar, who is 6 feet tall, says, “I was always looking out across a valley, fascinated that I could store this huge environment in my brain. I can’t work at the scale of nature, so I make it human scale.”

The living space as repository of family history is what interests Adia Millett, a New York artist still in her 20s. Her tabletop dollhouses, just large enough to allow viewers to peer inside, are melancholy interiors in which the class and religious beliefs of the imaginary occupants are evident. Her rooms feature working lights, furniture, and much decorative detail, but they’re missing certain functional items, like doors. “I want people to remember they’re just miniatures,” Millett says, “so they can never really get inside, except in imagination.”

One danger of small-scale sculpture is its appeal to sentiment. Its often lonesome or neglected appearance can induce a powerful sense of longing for things lost or never realized. It is the sort of nostalgia that most artists take pains to avoid, but Jeanne Silverthorne welcomes it with open arms. “I’m interested in nostalgia as a subject,” she says, “partly because it’s a forbidden area. Anything that everyone else is dead set against seems to me a good place to investigate.”

In the past, Silverthorne has replicated full-scale items in her studio in sculptures of miniature proportion and enlarged the most transitory matter of all—sweat, tears, and ulcerous bacteria—into cast-rubber pieces. For a recent show at the Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Los Angeles, Silverthorne made phosphorescent, cast-rubber portraits three or four inches high of elderly people—real people from whom she took DNA samples and hair. “They have this up-to-the-minute scientific reference,” she says of these works. “But they are also like voodoo figures that seem magical.”

If this appears ghoulish, consider the work of Charles LeDray, who makes exquisite—and very tiny—versions of everyday objects (a chair, a ladder, a shaft of wheat) out of hand-carved human bone. (He doesn’t reveal its source.) It is one way to keep viewers from regarding his work as cute.

LeDray started out in the early 1990s, making tiny men’s suits stuffed with even smaller suits, hand-sewn and strung along a clothesline above the viewer’s head, or stitched together to form a rope that dangled from the ceiling. “I’ve been called a teddy-bear artist, a craft artist, a boy who sews, a man who does women’s work, a clothing artist,” he says. “But I think I’m an artist who makes art, at whatever scale it needs to be.” For LeDray, “Scale is a bouillon cube that can condense and hopefully enrich a concept.”

“Charles does not think he makes small art,” says Claudia Gould, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and the organizer of LeDray’s 2002 midcareer retrospective. The show included Oasis (similar to his Untitled, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York), 1996–2003, a large glass case containing six glass shelves supporting no less than 2,000 tiny, glazed ceramic vessels that LeDray had made one by one. “I don’t work in small scale,” LeDray insists. “Everything is the scale it needs to be within my esthetic or conceptual judgment. It’s more about how things find their gravity.” As Gould says, “We think we’re all giants or that we’re all very tiny. Whatever the perception is, it’s not the truth. That’s what Charles calls into question.”

Ultimately, of course, one experiences art in the space of one’s own mind. It can expand to the breadth of the universe or narrow to focus on a single idea, object, or view. Where large pieces can be read at a distance, small ones, like Fabergé eggs, demand slow, close-up examination, and hold the promise of surprise. In this fast-paced world of what Rugoff calls “the drive-by art experience,” that can be a virtue.

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