"Seeing is in some respect an art, which
must be learnt." _William Herschel
the only entirely new and probably the most important aspect of today's language
of forms is the fact that 'negative' elements (the remainder, intermediate, and
subtractive quantities) are made active." _Joseph Albers
Turning a negative into a positive in the landscapes (and
walls) of modern art
DESIGNING THE VISUAL FIELD---THE ARCHITECTURE OF FORM & SPACE: 1.
Left: Paul Cézanne, "Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibemus Quarry,"
1897. Oil on canvas. 25 ˝ x 32 in. The Baltimore Museum of Art
Center: Richard Diebenkorn, "Seated Figure with Hat," 1967. Oil on canvas.
60 x 60 in. Rubin collection, New York
Right: Richard Diebenkorn, "Ocean Park No. 54," 1972. Oil on canvas.
100 x 81 in. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
POSITIVEattributes of matter at
the atomic level preoccupied advanced physicists at the start of the last century.
J.J. Thomson discovered the electron in 1897. Ernest Rutherford named the proton
in 1919. During the same time frame, negative-positive issues
involving the visual structure of human-scale space and form preoccupied avant-garde
Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Braque---these
and other artists participated in the invention of what British critic Clive Bell,
in his classic 1913 book Art, famously described as "Significant
Form." They didn't try to record a camera-accurate view of the exterior world.
They regarded form as having aesthetic value and meaning---significance---in
its own right, independent of nature.
treated space the same way. In addition to research into Significant
Form, painters explored what I call Significant Space.
Modern, abstract art in large measure emerged from these complementary concepts.
of the most important expressions of modern Significant Space involves negative
space. When we look at objects (figures) against a background, the space
around the objects is the leftover, or negative, element. Modern artists began
to design this space. They treated space as form. They gave it a figural identity
equal in compositional value to positive objects. In other words, they treated
the solids and voids as interdependent abstract
elements of the visual field.
was this? Painter Joseph Albers summed it up this way: "Perhaps the only
entirely new and probably the most important aspect of today's language of forms
is the fact that 'negative' elements (the remainder, intermediate, and subtractive
quantities) are made active" ("Creative Education," Sixth International
Congress for Drawing, Art Education, and Applied Art, Prague, 1928).
fountainhead of this idea, which is important in modern architecture and sculpture,
too, was Cézanne. This painting (above, left), for example, produced the same
year as Thomson's discovery of the electron, is nominally about the mountain and
the quarry (Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen
from the Bibemus Quarry). But the sky is no less a
major actor in the play. The sky is the largest shape in the composition, and
it is treated as calculated negative space. Its shape and contour are just as
important as the mountain with which it is interlocked. And Cézanne crafts their
mutual outline with self-conscious élan: He juxtaposes the resolute razor-sharp
edge of the left side to the meandering jagged edge of the right. Though sky conventionally
defines the background, or field, against which one sees solid
objects, here sky is treated as a carefully designed figure.
After all (Cézanne wants to remind us), mountain and sky are both just paint---two-dimensional
shapes on a flat surface. Neither one is more solid (or void) than the other.
therefore, is either one truly behind or in front of the other. Ultimately, they
are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle---equally
important and coplanar. By treating them this way---and
the quarry, too---Cézanne
causes the into-the-picture space between the mountain, sky,
and foreground foliage to fluctuate. The space appears shallow one moment, deep
Cézanne-like negative space,
as filtered principally through the work of Matisse, was a central concern of
Richard Diebenkorn 70 years later in his painting Seated Figure with Hat
(above, center). The background is not an afterthought. It is just as figural
as the seated "figure" of the painting's title. The woman is even shifted
to one side. The negative space occupies center stage. The shared undulating contour
of the background and the woman, running diagonally from the her knee, along her
lap, and up over her hat---an
echo of the contour of the right side of
a beautiful, poignant event. In various ways, Diebenkorn
clearly signals that within the painting's squarefield
of visual activity the woman is no more artistically significant than
the scumbled-yellow abstract space-forms that embrace her.
raises a related issue. Does the negative space comprise a wall
against which the woman is sitting? Or is she sitting in the foreground of a sun-drenched
landscape that extends to the horizon line at the top of the
painting? In the first case, the into-the-picture space is vertically stratified
and very shallow. In the second, it is horizontally recessional and very deep.
This ambiguity underscores the tension, as in the Cézanne, between the "truth"
of the two-dimensionality of the canvas---a
the illusion of three-dimensional depth.
the brilliant Ocean Park series that he began the next year, and continued to
pursue into the 1980s, Diebenkorn removed the anthropomorphic figure. As in this
representative painting, Ocean Park
No. 54 (above, right), he treated space and space-forms
as the active essence of his art. He crafted an abstract, rectilinear
architecture of ambiguity and equilibrium between
figure and field, solid and void, orthogonal structure and diagonal inflection---between
flat surface and infinite depth. His magnificent paintings of Significant Space
distill the lessons of Cézanne's French mountains and skies and transpose them
to the luminous Pacific beachfront of Southern California.
me, Diebenkorn's Ocean Park paintings represent walls
(i.e., vertical surfaces/building elevations,
composed of transparent, translucent, and opaque materials) as well as
aerial maps/site plans).
I see these walls and landscapes as light-reflective, electromagnetic
aesthetic fields that are at the same time highly charged
and neutral. And I think Diebenkorn's exquisite works resonate
with instruction for advanced painters and architects today. What he created has
surely become a fountainhead for architect/painter JEF7REY HILDNER.