Standing Back

Josh Grant
3 min readJun 7, 2024


A photo of a piece of art on a concrete floor surrounded by a low stanchion barrier made of four silver polls connected by strings in a square shape
Image of a museum stanchion (

A few months ago, I had the privilege of spending the day at the National Gallery of Canada and seeing the impressive collection of art housed there. In particular, one gallery contained a stunning curation of some Abstract Expressionist work. This particular gallery had a high vaulted ceiling similar to that of a European Christian church, containing works by Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newmann, and others.

Two pieces in particular in this gallery are Voice of Fire (1967) and White Flower I, (1985), by Barnett Newman and Agnes Martin, respectively. Both are large paintings: Voice of Fire measures 543.6 cm by 243.8 cm (214 in by 96 in) while White Flower I measures 183 cm by 183 cm (72 in by 72 in). Both are also composed with acrylic paint.

However, there is one difference between both these paintings I noticed: Voice of Fire was installed with a low stanchion 18 inches from the painting, preventing viewers from looking at the painting any closer. White Flower I did not have any stanchion, supposing that viewers could stand mere millimetres from the painting if they desired.

This difference is small and subtle, but also transforms the entire experience of how paintings of these scale can be perceived.

Consider this discussion of Barnett Newman’s painting Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950–51). Here we see that Newman invited viewers to look at this painting from up to 18 inches close. From a distance back, perhaps a few metres, the scale of this painting becomes apparent, since it takes up almost a whole wall. Up close in the centre, the viewer sees only one bright colour of orange. Perception and reaction depend greatly on where the viewer is positioned relative to the painting.

I do believe this is also the case with Voice of Fire. When I walked into the gallery, Voice of Fire stood out as taller and brighter than the other artwork located nearby. Standing closer, you get a sense of the height, and see the tone of the colours. Standing 18 inches gives you a different perception of the painting than from across the room.

White Flower I, in characteristic Martin style, provides different experiences from different distances. Far away, this painting is pale with some toned horizontal lines of different widths. As I moved closer, you see there is colour in the painting brushed by hand. Getting up close to the painting you can almost see individual brush strokes against dead straight lines. Perhaps Martin wanted viewers to see the painting at various distances, including extremely close.

Filling your entire field of vision with a single colour or a single image provokes deep reactions. It’s not something we typically see or sense. As well, seeing a painting from across the room means we don’t see details we might see 18 inches close or closer. Even a small stanchion decision can affect our relationship to a painting.



Josh Grant

I’m a software professional, and these are my more personal thoughts.