M A D I S O N _G R A Y | deep_SIGHT
"Seeing is in some respect an art, which must be learnt." _William Herschel

Space-Defining Form
"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." _Joseph Albers
SIGNIFICANTSPACE: Turning a negative into a positive in the landscapes (and walls) of modern art
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
2. Center: Richard Diebenkorn, "Seated Figure with Hat," 1967. Oil on canvas. 60 x 60 in. Rubin collection, New York
3. Right: Richard Diebenkorn, "Ocean Park No. 54," 1972. Oil on canvas. 100 x 81 in. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
NEGATIVE AND POSITIVE attributes 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 painters.
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.
They 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.
One 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.
How important 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).
The 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.
Nor, 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 the next.
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 Mont Sainte-Victoire---is a beautiful, poignant event. In various ways, Diebenkorn clearly signals that within the painting's square field of visual activity the woman is no more artistically significant than the scumbled-yellow abstract space-forms that embrace her.
This 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 painted surface---and the illusion of three-dimensional depth.
In 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.
To me, Diebenkorn's Ocean Park paintings represent walls (i.e., vertical surfaces/building elevations, composed of transparent, translucent, and opaque materials) as well as landscapes (i.e., 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.
See also PICASSO LESSONS: The Sixth Woman of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
Which underscores the essence of Significant Space: the product of a design in which FORM functions not only as SPACE-OCCUPIER, but also as SPACE-DEFINER.

MADISON GRAY | _09.07.2000
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