Davids and Goliaths

"Scale Matters: Mega Vs. Mini"

The big summer show at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, which began in late spring and runs through early fall, is called "Scale Matters: Mega Vs. Mini." Highfalutin theme aside, the exhibition is really just an excuse to show off selections from the museum's permanent collections -- which is not such a bad idea. The Norton has quite a few extraordinary pieces that aren't always readily accessible. Its contemporary collection, in particular, includes representative works by a diverse range of major 20th-century artists.

I just wish the museum had gone at this exhibition with a little more gusto. As it is the show feels a little halfhearted. It's easy to get the impression that someone noticed the "Size Matters" teasers for last summer's movie Godzilla and thought, "Hmm. Summer, slow season. We need a theme to hang a show on," and took it from there. But there's nothing in the way of a guide to take visitors through the exhibition -- unless you can tolerate one of those well-meaning but usually exasperating docent-led tours. There's no catalog or brochure, not even a flier or a simple photocopied handout.

The introduction posted at the entrance to the show is only modestly helpful. "Why do some small sculptures seem heroic? Why aren't all big paintings monumental? Because scale matters," it reads. "Just as artists contemplate form, composition and color before beginning to paint or sculpt, they also consider how size affects their work and informs the way viewers see it….Viewed together, these works… explore the fascinating but almost subliminal issue of how size -- whether of the object, the subject matter or the space in which it's viewed -- imparts meaning." Follow-up panels are posted throughout the show, but they read like random afterthoughts.

It's even difficult to tell exactly what's included in the show, which meanders through the Norton's labyrinthine interlocking galleries in fits and starts. Are the works in the big gallery to the right of the main lobby included, or is it just coincidental that so many of them perfectly fit the theme? And do the oversize pieces in the lobby constitute a sort of prelude to the exhibition? What about the large pieces in the small "Art and Industry" gallery -- does scale matter for them? Evidently the answer is no. In checking with the museum after my visit, I discovered that none of these pieces is considered part of theshow.

The day I visited, I wasn't the only person having a problem with the way the show is arranged. An apparently confused docent had ushered her group into the exhibition somewhere in its middle. As she rushed people through the galleries, she urged them not to look at the art until after they'd entered the exhibition at its startingpoint.

But don't let the carelessness with which "Scale Matters" has been assembled keep you from seeing the show; just adjust your expectations accordingly. Assume, as I did, that those big canvases in the lobby are indeed part of the exhibition. Stand in awe of the massive acrylic-on-canvas Erebus (1976), a magnificent abstract by Cleve Gray in which a dramatic smear of black floats in a vibrant sea of deep purple accented with wisps of orange and two broad orange borders. Check out the Frank Stella piece, an abstract on paper called Untitled (Bonin Night Heron) (1980), and the stark geometry of Thomas Downing's acrylic Untitled(1965).

The exhibition's official starting point features a lovely huge bronze head, by José de Creeft, of one of the most famous size-shifters in Western literature, Lewis Carroll's Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It's followed by a dozen tiny 16th-century engravings, astonishing in their intricacy (they're not much bigger than postage stamps), by the German artist Hans Sebald Beham. The engravings are featured in two pieces: The Days of the Seven Planets and The Four Evangelists: St.Matthew, St.Mark, St.Luke, and St.John.

What follows is a delirious hodgepodge, a roller coaster ride from the gargantuan to the minuscule and back again. Henry Buhl's Sunflower (1985), an enormous, four-panel Cibachrome of the title object in sharply focused closeup, hangs a few feet from three progressively smaller sculptures: a Chinese Tang dynasty Colossal Head of a Buddha in limestone from the 7th Century; a cast-bronze Seated Buddha from early-16th-century Thailand; and an astonishing ivory miniature, perhaps two inches high, called 37 Workers Cleaning the Great Buddha at Nara, by a 20th-century Japanese artist identified as "Keiun (Minosuke Omura)."

Nearby is an equally astonishing gravure print by the aptly named American artist Chuck Close, who has radically redefined contemporary portraiture with his huge closeup heads. From only a few feet away, the piece here, Leslie/ Fingerprint/Silk Collé (1986), looks like an ordinary black-and-white headshot. Move closer, however, and you'll see that the image has been created by an accumulation of fingerprints of varyingshades.

Around the corner are a couple other well-chosen examples of portraiture. A tall vertical oil on canvas by Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Philip, Lord Wharton (1639), is a concise synopsis of large-scale portraiture in the classic European tradition. It's slyly juxtaposed with one of Duane Hanson's almost frighteningly realistic sculptures, Young Worker(1976) -- a perfect choice because Hanson's work wouldn't make sense at all if it weren't life-size. Too bad someone decided to throw La Cathédrale, Auguste Rodin's mawkish bronze sculpture of two large hands almost but not quite entwined, into the mix.

Further into the show is the usual assortment of hits and misses. Among the former is Doug Safranek's Searching the Rubble (1998), an egg-tempera-on-panel piece which takes a sharply observed inner-city street scene and reduces it to an extremely realistic image no larger than a sheet of notebook paper; the painting is small in scale but vast in atmosphere. Claes Oldenburg works his usual magic by taking the opposite approach with the witty, subtly suggestive Soft Screw (1976), a slightly curving sculpture of a screw that's maybe a couple of feet tall. (I'm guessing at dimensions because, inexplicably for a show about size, the museum has declined to provide the specifics for any of the pieces.)

The exhibition is rounded out by a few fairly obvious choices. The Georgia O'Keeffe oil-on-canvas Pelvis With Moon (1943) is notable mainly because it's so much smaller than the artist's typical paintings. And by now the gaudy grandeur of Andy Warhol's Campbell Soup SeriesII (1968), a set of ten poster-size silk-screens, is considerably diminished.

Regardless of whether it's part of the "official show," be sure to make the gallery I mentioned off the front lobby part of your show, because it includes several vivid examples of why "scale matters." Karin Davie's vibrant, shimmering Nice#1 and Nice#2 (both from 1992), are large mirror-image oils that could have been painted at the height of the Op art movement of the '60s. Helen Frankenthaler's Mirror (1969), a vertical abstract in acrylic that's easily ten feet tall, is a stunning reminder of how color-field painting, like abstract expressionism before it, was so dependent on enormity of scale for its impact.

I've harped on the logistics of shows before, because I firmly believe that how art is presented can enhance as well as detract from the art itself. "Scale Matters" is a perfect example of the latter. Fortunately, much of the work here is strong enough to compensate for the indifference with which this exhibition seems to have been thrown together. We can only hope this is a rare lapse for a museum of the Norton's stature.

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