The next big thing

“What is the maximum architecture can do?” Rem Koolhaas asked at the end of the 20th century. “Architects are in the position of Frankenstein’s creators [sic]: instigators of a partly successful experiment whose results are running amok ... There is no theory of Bigness, we don’t know what to do with it, we don’t know where to put it, we don’t know when to use it, we don’t know how to plan it. Big mistakes are our only connection to Bigness.”

Where architects lead, artists follow. It is getting difficult, anyway, to distinguish between the two. This summer, Anish Kapoor turns architect/engineer with his 130-metre Olympic tower “Orbit”; Antony Gormley transforms medieval San Gimignano with monumental iron blocks and luminous matrices in “Vessel”, an architectural installation that spans the entire Tuscan town; photographer/sculptor Thomas Demand will show a massive installation at the Venice Architecture Biennale; and Joana Vasconcelos’s interventions – a three-metre pair of silver stilettos made from saucepans in the Hall of Mirrors and marble lions wrapped in crochet – have just opened at Versailles.

Wherever you look, bigness is the keynote of 21st-century art: in the scale of works, the ever-expanding galleries selling them, the globally franchised museums displaying them, the private buyers amassing unwieldy collections at insanely escalating prices. In the past two decades the clamour for size has changed how art is made, shown, perceived and acquired. Why?

Artists have giant egos and have always craved large walls and ceilings – from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel to Joan Miró’s murals for Paris’s Unesco headquarters. But artists today have two overwhelming reasons to think big. First, they must compete with more visual stimuli – spectacular films, internet overload, mobile phone snapshots – than ever before. Second, trophy museum architecture – inaugurated by Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997, continued by buildings including Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern (2000), IM Pei’s Doha Museum of Islamic Art (2008), Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi in Rome (2010) – is producing an insatiable demand for artworks able to respond to unprecedentedly vast spaces.

Who, apart from Richard Serra, is up to the job? As the Unilever Commission for Tate’s Turbine Hall and its Paris copycat, the Grand Palais’s Monumenta, have proved, awesome spaces reward theatricality and instant impact. And while the most imaginative artists respond in enthralling ways – Juan Muñoz’s “Double Bind”, Olafur Eliasson’s “Weather Project” – many others simply make a work larger than, conceptually or aesthetically, it need be: Tacita Dean’s “Film”, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s “TH2058”, Rachel Whiteread’s “Embankment”.

‘Mary Poppins’ (2010) by Joana Vasconcelos at the Palace of Versailles

The art of spectacle is the dominant genre of the age. Such installations are democratic, user-friendly, pull in the crowds – and there is no contemporary museum that does not want them. Worldwide, their prevalence has created a homogenised presentation of contemporary art favouring a conceptual, cerebral sensibility over an expressive, personal one, and the inflation of a few brand-name reputations.

Tate Britain’s current display of its latest, devastatingly trite, outsize purchases is a classic case. Karla Black’s “At Fault”, a painting in cellophane, bath salts and powder, fills one entire room. Another is devoted to Ian Kiaer’s “Ulchiro Project”, an inflatable model made from Korean bin liners and an aluminium frame alluding, according to Kiaer’s gallery Alison Jacques, “to building façades and advertising mechanisms”.

Amid this urge to gigantism, the time-honoured experience of art as an intimate, meditative encounter between a painting and viewer is disappearing. For painting to stand its ground in the media circus, it must adapt to the art of spectacle – as David Hockney did brilliantly in his Royal Academy show this year. The largest painting was 10 metres wide; “The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate” was depicted in not one but 52 works; a specially installed cinema drew attention to overlaps between technologies of the camera – in fact nine cameras – and the brush, and how iPad paintings could, like photographs, be scaled up for maximum wall power. The show is now at Bilbao’s Guggenheim: a rare contemporary painting exhibition to rise to Gehry’s spaces.

The triumph of spectacle has not been lost on dealers, who have embraced it with the zeal and ruthlessness of empire-builders. Bloated by a global financial market awash with fresh billionaire buyers who are impulsive, untaught, concerned with status rather than connoisseurship, this part of the art world, as collector David Roberts put it to me recently, “is all about, ‘how big is yours?’”

With global scope and hype, the dullest, slightest work is dressed up as monumental and significant. Earlier this year Larry Gagosian showed Damien Hirst’s exquisitely tedious “The Complete Spot Paintings” simultaneously, worldwide, in his 11 galleries. Jay Jopling, launching in Hong Kong, responded by exhibiting a similarly overweight, vapid series, Gilbert and George’s 292 “London Pictures”, in his four White Cube galleries.

One of these, White Cube Bermondsey, inaugurated last autumn, is at 58,000 sq ft the largest private gallery in Europe: larger than many regional museums. Its first solo presentation was devoted to Anselm Kiefer. Foot by foot, its closest rival will be Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, whose new premises, a 50,000 sq ft former ironware factory, opens in October – with a Kiefer show. The same month, Gagosian launches his second Paris space – with a Kiefer show.

This is boring. Kiefer is serious and inventive, and has rewritten the language of history painting. Works from his Bermondsey exhibition sold to museums on several continents; it has been followed by a display at White Cube Hong Kong. But no artist can produce new work to fill four substantial galleries in less than a year without compromising on quality or risking repetition. Kiefer tends to bombast at the best of times: are his competing dealers really doing him a favour?

‘Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom’ (2012) by Anselm Kiefer at White Cube Hong Kong

Ropac says: “We created this new space, which will give the artists the opportunity to realise their vision without the usual restrictions of space. The space presents the ideal conditions for Anselm Kiefer to produce monumental works.” Gagosian has made similar claims: “I built my gallery in Chelsea with Richard [Serra] in mind, to keep him excited and engaged. I bought the building because his work demanded it.”

Yet these buildings trumpet, above all, a dealer’s clout. Sometimes that power is harnessed magnificently to support great work – Gagosian launched every one of his European galleries with new paintings by Cy Twombly until the artist died last year. “I’m sure he sort of groaned when he heard I was opening in Paris,” Gagosian told me in 2010, but the dealer’s repeated calls for large-scale new work contributed to one of the most important late oeuvres of recent times – as acknowledged now in Tate Liverpool’s show Turner Monet Twombly.

Not every artist, though, works best at the scale demanded by these lavish spaces. Hauser and Wirth’s stunning 15,000 sq ft Savile Row gallery, designed by Annabelle Selldorf, looked for all the world like a classy small museum when it opened in 2010 with a Louise Bourgeois exhibition. Delicate, subtle talents, however, such as Michael Raedecker’s, are swamped. I loved Raedecker’s paintings displayed at Hauser and Wirth’s more modest Piccadilly gallery in 2007, but this year’s Savile Row exhibition – significantly called Volume – illustrated the losses when a painter feels compelled to work at a big scale to suit a big space.

Contemporary art is a juggernaut and an increasingly closed system, practically and conceptually, controlled by a few public institutions, mega-dealers and art fairs – Frieze, Art Basel. What sort of courage must it now take for an artist to embark on a career as a solitary painter of small-scale images, or as a figurative sculptor? A few such artists – Katy Moran, Thomas Houseago – have done so, and have been endorsed by the market without their originality being sacrificed, but they are unusual. Every age has its artistic challenges: ours is to look beyond gigantism.

What to do with it

Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Weather Project’ in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2003

The sheer quantity of space needed to keep large works is quite a problem. Vast sculptural installations such as those in the Grand Palais are dismantled after a few months, and usually go into store. Museums find space a challenge; contemporary sculptors are often faced with the task of storing thousands of tons of work, while most of their collectors can only keep their purchases in storage – or open a gallery space in which to display it. It’s surely no coincidence that the phenomenon of the outdoor sculpture park has seen such growth, from Storm King in upper New York state to the grounds of British stately homes. “There’s one sure way to get rich in today’s art market,” quipped one dealer at a recent art fair – “and that’s to be the guy that we pay to store the stuff.”

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