Painting Big – Modern Art and the Large Scale Canvas

The large scale of modern art, including the American Color Field painters, was a major break with the historical convention of easel painting. The scale of these works allows the viewer to actually “walk into” the painting since the edges disappear from the viewer’s line of vision. This dramatically challenges naturalistic perspective. The spatial experience is completely altered and the canvas becomes a type of sky with a new kind of space spreading outward rather than inward.

This sense of spreading outward works equally well with the expansive, all-over paintings of Jackson Pollack as well the works of American Color Field Painters Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis and the centrally focused works of Kenneth Noland. With Frankenthaler and Louis, the works often seem to continue somewhere outside of the canvas.

For example, the cloud-like shapes that fill the canvas in Frankenthaler’s Tutti Frutti feel as though they are part of a larger mass that exists outside of the range of the canvas itself. Louis’ stripes in Unfolding Light likewise may stretch off into infinity at the bottom of the canvas. Noland’s centralized works, such as the exemplary circle painting Song, begin in the center of the canvas and reverberate off into the unseen distance equally in all directions.

Frankenthaler, Louis and Noland also employed different shapes as formats while utilizing the characteristically large scale for their works. Frankenthaler and Louis generally used different sizes and forms of rectangles and squares. Noland’s emphasis on geometric forms such as diamonds and chevrons as structure for the display of color in his works resulted in an even greater emphasis on the shape of the canvas as well. Noland ultimately gave added emphasis to the framing edge in his attempt to create a unified whole.

For example, the importance of the canvas shape is clear in the interplay between the positive and negative spaces in Noland’s chevron work 17th Stage. The sense of precarious balance would be destroyed if the tip were further from the bottom edge. The optical triangles that result from the empty canvas on each side of the chevron would also be destroyed if the frame were either wider or longer.

With these modern artists, the framing edge itself had taken on a pictorial importance unprecedented in prior traditions. In accordance with this, many of these artists cropped their works after they had been completed. Decisions about the ultimate size and shape of each work became the final creative act for the modern artist. diamond painting tiere

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