WHEN SIZE IS SCALE // Levi Sherman

15 Aug 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

The tension between size and scale has energized debates in the field of sculpture, but artists’ books have not benefited from a similar examination. Worse, artists’ books have inherited a tangled mess of definitions and conventions from both art and books. In fact, I would argue that artists’ books are so laden with references that size is never just size; it is always scale. The unique ways that size and scale operate in artists’ books has yet to be fully formulated, and this absence limits scholarship and criticism in the field. I cannot provide that new formula here, but I do hope to identify some considerations for artists’ books and demonstrate the limitations of approaches borrowed from other categories of art and books.

While scale is fluid and subjective, size is a literal, measurable attribute. Yet artists’ books complicate even size. For example, unlike most art, a book’s dimensions are variable. A codex doubles in width when opened, and other structures undergo even more dramatic transformations as they are read. Additionally, books are three-dimensional but also time-based. A long book might be a small one, and vice versa. Some terms borrowed from bibliography – like folio, quarto, octavo – are too loose for contemporary books since they are a matter of format, not size. Other terms are too rigid. For example, distinctions based purely on dimensions, such as the Miniature Book Society’s, ignore the fact that not everything small is a miniature and not all miniatures are small. In other words, miniature is a matter of scale, not size.

So, if the book world cannot offer what we need, what about the art world? The sculptor Robert Morris said, “the awareness of scale is a function of the comparison made between that constant, one’s own body size, and the object. Space between the subject and object is implied in such a comparison.” [1] This relational understanding is key for artists’ books since the embodied connection between the subject and object is even stronger in reading than viewing. Morris was reacting against a Modernist conception of sculpture as autonomous, of scaleless objects that existed in relation to themselves rather than their context. Yet even compared to site-specific sculpture, artists’ books are far more determined by their context since they exist in relation to a relatively narrow historical tradition. The difference in size (and scale) between the world’s smallest and largest books pales in comparison to the oeuvre of many sculptors.

Of course, a difference in scale need not entail a difference in size. Consider two 2 × 3-inch books, one set in 12-point type, the other in 4-point type. Though either would qualify for the Miniature Book Society, I would argue that the book with 12-point type is not necessarily a miniature. Type size is an interesting case since it relates to the subject (the reader) in terms of legibility and to other objects (typographic conventions), but scale often relates to specific objects rather than generalized conventions. For example, Richard Long’s A Walk Past Standing Stones playfully miniaturizes stone stelae in a structure that lets them stand upright like their full-size counterparts. The book is small, but its conventional typography makes it clear that while the stelae are miniature, the book isn’t.

Whether subject or object, the relationships above are all external – the book and something outside the book. What makes books so complex, however, is that they also enact relationships within themselves, including relations of scale. Artists are drawn to the book form for its ability to juxtapose elements and create tension between a part and the whole it belongs to. This relationality further places books in the realm of scale rather than size, amplified against the backdrop of external references, whether they are inherent like human hands, a matter of convention like trade paperbacks, or particular like the standing stones of Penwith Peninsula. 

Scale may seem too simple to warrant theoretical or critical attention, but it is especially important in a medium where size is so predetermined. A critic who calls a book intimate just because it is small is not unlike a realtor who calls a studio apartment “cozy.” To move beyond euphemisms and fully understand the intersubjective relationship between a book and its reader, we must attend the inter-objective relationships within and beyond the book.

[1] Robert Morris, “Objecthood and Reductivism,” in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.), Art In Theory: 1900–1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford 1992, p. 831.

Levi Sherman is a PhD student in Art History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the founder of Artists’ Book Reviews.

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