Modernism in Miniature

Revolutionary manifestoes, huge canvases and heroic proclamations have set a standard for monumental works of modern art. Yet, many modernists engaged quite a different impulse. Modernism in Miniature features works by artists who have employed the miniature—with its reduction of scale and emphasis on detail—as a witting challenge to the equivalence between ambition and immensity.

Spanning German Expressionism to American Pop art, this exhibition explores the critical and affective potential of small works of art. Diminutive prints and wooden toys by Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee and Alexei Jawlensky invite physical and emotional proximity as viewers come close to appreciate their dramatized detail. Small boxes by Joseph Cornell and Kurt Schwitters probe the relationship between miniaturized spaces and the urge to collect and display, enclose and possess.

Marcel Duchamp positions the miniature as a tool of critique in his portable “mini-museum.” His Boite-En-Valise combines small-scale reproductions of his early paintings and found objects in a playful gesture that rejects conventional structures of value and ownership. John Chamberlain and Claes Oldenburg similarly use reduction to reference their own artistic practices in works that compress the gestural vigor of their gargantuan sculptures. Viewers familiar with the larger works experience a sense of surprise and delight at these tiny forms.

Together, this little collection—presented in the Museum’s most intimate gallery—reveals a counter-history of 20th-century art. Against the demands imposed by increasing monumentality, this is a tradition of whimsy, play and intimacy at the heart of modernism.