PASADENA, Calif. — Much of modern art, like modern cinema, modern architecture, and modern warfare, plays out in large scale, taking up literal space in an effort to shift the conversation toward the modernist notion of progress and its celebration of human achievement. But today, in whatever era of aesthetics we’ll eventually settle on calling this period, some of the most globally impactful media play out in miniature, on tiny screens that we carry with us and consume on the train, toilet, or couches in front of televisions.

Modernism in Miniature, at the Norton Simon Museum, explores modern art through the lens of the tiny. At the entrance is Marcel Duchamp’s “Boîte-en-valise” (Box in a Suitcase, 1935–41), wherein 68 of his works are shrunk down into what he called a “portable museum.” Produced in a series of 24 editions, “Boîte-en-valise” became a retrospective of sorts, capturing the artist’s works while simultaneously functioning as something of a readymade of its own, with its resemblance to a traveling salesperson’s suitcase.

Marcel Duchamp, “Boîte-en-valise” (1935-41), cardboard box containing 68 miniature replicas and reproductions, Series D of 1961, Edition of 30, 16 x 14 3/4 x 3 1/2 inches 

Other tiny museums in the show include Joseph Cornell’s “Hôtel du Nord (Little Dürer)” (c. 1950), which contains reproductions of the works of German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer, and Kurt Schwitters’s “Lust Murder Box No. 2” (1920-22), an ornate box crafted by Albert Schulze (an expert at the wood technique “intarsia”) with nothing inside, serving as a commentary on the desire to catalogue and possess. Cornell took to calling his mini museums musées de poches, or pocket museums, adding a layer of whimsy to the project.

In the 1970 silkscreen “Roy Lichtenstein, ‘Picasso’s Woman with Flowered Hat,’ 1963,” Los Angeles artist Richard Pettibone created a miniature of a Lichtenstein print that was itself a re-creation of a Picasso from 1941. That many miniatures are themselves works about artworks seems a kind of commentary on collectibility — namely, who has access to art — alongside the opportunity that miniaturization affords in improving the ability to own, transport, and display art for a broader range of viewers. These works are the art world’s version of a dollhouse, in so many ways.

Lyonel Feininger, (top left) “Church with Six Stars” (1928), watercolor on woodcut on wove paper; (bottom left) “Church with Tall Tower” (1920), watercolor on woodcut on wove paper; (right) “Carnival” (1920), woodcut on Japanese laid paper

The show features miniatures from Picasso himself: five bronze sculptures of women (all simply titled “Woman” and numbered) are lined up and set against a lithograph titled “Collection of Small Pictures.” Both the print and the sculptures read as sketches rather than final pieces. They appear in visual dialogue against tiny heads by Expressionist Lyonel Feininger and his son, T. Lux Feininger. Feininger the elder, an active member of the Bauhaus movement, also took to making toys, and the heads look like toy versions of totemic sculptures.

Today, of course, we are accustomed to purchasing the very large in the form of the very small. Most major works, including many sculptures and architectural structures, now have miniature reproductions available in museum gift shops and Etsy stores, and artists regularly make smaller prints of their larger pieces. Part of the show’s value is seeing that some of the canonical artists of modernism made small works too, at once presaging and participating in smallness as both a form of and commentary on accessibility. 

All that said, the pocket museums on display would not actually fit inside a conventional pocket or even a large purse. This is, perhaps, part of the joke: these works are no more accessible than their larger cousins. Though smaller in size than the artists’ usual works, they gain their heft from their creators — artists with big names and big works out there that have had a big impact. Physical size is one thing, but outsize name recognition trumps all.

Left to right: Lyonel Feininger, “Head” (c. 1920), “Head” (1920), both oil paint on wood with metal ring; T. Lux Feininger, “Head” (1923), gouache and pencil on wood
Joseph Cornell, “Hôtel du Nord (Little Dürer)” (c. 1950), assemblage: painted box, metal ring and chain, wood blocks, printed paper, reproductions of Durer’s “Self-portrait at age 13,” Durer’s drawing of a rabbit, and a reproduction of an anonymous fifteenth century portrait of a child with clasped hands, 17 7/8 x 12 x 3 13/16 inches
Lee Miller, “Joseph Cornell with One of His Objects” (133), gelatin silver print
Claes Oldenburg, “Fireplug Souvenir, Chicago” (August 1968), hydrocal plaster, painted red, Edition of 100, No. 61, 8 x 7 1/4 x 6 inches

Modernism in Miniature continues at the Norton Simon Museum (411 West Colorado, Blvd., Pasadena, California) through January 9, 2023. The exhibition was organized by Frances Lazare.  

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice.