"The big canvas": scale, size, and the spaces of American painting, 1948-1968

Ashe, Lisa Frye, McIntire Department of Art, University of Virginia
Feldman, Jessica, Department of English, University of Virginia

This dissertation considers the implications of large-scale abstract painting in the United States, from the rise of the wall-spanning canvas in Abstract Expressionism beginning in the late 1940s through the accelerated expansion of works in the 1960s, focusing on the real-spatial relations established among paintings, architecture, and observers. It argues that the history of "The Big Canvas," as the critic and curator E.C. Goossen described it in 1958, is most intelligible as a history of paintings and the places where they were shown.

The dissertation makes the case for a close alliance of Abstract Expressionist painting to the architecture of the residential-scale commercial galleries where it was first shown. Artists allied their work to the wall and the room by means of formats, scale, and facture. Against the common reading of large-scale Abstract Expressionist painting as uniformly contemplative and absorbing, the dissertation points to evidence in the work of Pollock and Newman of an impetus to activate and place the embodied observer in the real space of the gallery.

The alignment with the scale of the body and the room that characterized their work does not persist in the increasingly large abstract paintings of the 1960s, works as large as Al Held's fifty-six-foot-long Greek Garden of 1966. It is in regard to the big paintings of Held and others that critics begin to suggest that "sheer size" has replaced scale. The expansion of painting in the sixties, I argue, has to be understood in relation to the major expansions of museum galleries during the decade, including those of the Museum of Modem Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Jewish Museum. The expanded works and spaces of the 1960s, I conclude, are harbingers of the present, when there seems to be no limit to the size of new museum galleries and the works that fill them.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF file via OCR.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: