M A D I S O N _G R A Y | deep_SIGHT

 

"One learns to look behind the facade, to grasp the root of things. One learns to recognize the hidden currents, the prehistory of the visible.
One learns to dig below the surface of things, to uncover, to find causes, to analyze." ---Paul Klee
 
"Through the channel of my painting I arrived at my architecture." ---Le Corbusier
 
1907|PICASSO LESSONS
It is only 93 years since Picasso's Demoiselles. Though technically not the first Cubist painting (that honor is accorded to Braque a year later), it marks unequivocally the decisive, explosive move in the emancipation of form and the emergence of abstraction. It is the icon of modernism. There are still lessons to be learned. I'm working on a few in anticipation of the centenary in 2 0 0 7...
 
_Les Demoiselles d'Avignon: The 6th Woman and Transfigurative Space
We can only imagine the impact this larger-than-life painting had on contemporary viewers 93 years ago---its attack on the very foundation of painting's presumed visual raison d'etre is so original that the disturbance must have been visceral. Braque was one of the first to see it. It altered the genetic code of his plastic intelligence forever. I suspect that for many today, certainly for these eyes, it has lost none of its power to challenge, interrogate or instruct.
 
It is typically discussed by art historians in terms of content: a brothel---as I see it, 5 prostitutes, an enigmatic room, the ephemeral fabrics of curtains, clothes, and wallpaper, table, tablecloth, still-life (fruit), possibly a chair. In terms of influences: Egyptian profile-art (the woman at the left), African tribal masks (the two right figures) and the indigenous painterly influence of Picasso's fellow Spaniard, El Greco (e.g., the vertical elongation of the women). Or in terms of representational devices: the owl-like head swivel of the seated woman on the right (an early, literal example of "simultaneity"), the planar flattening of the noses of the two woman second and third from the left, and the elemental vocabulary of geometric formal integers that comprise the iconoclastic aesthetic system (lozenges/ovals, trapezoids, triangles, wedges, diamonds and amalgamations of these).
 
Rarely does the discussion extend to the spatial qualifications of the painting: the assertive spatial contraction within a dynamic, fluctuating and indeterminate z-axial picture space, signified in part by aggressive dismembering and foregrounding of body parts (such as the left hand of the woman on the left; the left leg of the second woman from the left; the head of the seated-woman on the right), which contribute to spatial contradictions, autonomies, contingencies and ruptures as violent and independent-minded as the angular anatomical translations themselves. This describes an inherently architectural condition of the painting---space---and the breaking of the conventions we associate with everyday space.
 
Braque called everyday space (the space we associate with perspectival reality) visual space. He called the collapsed and contradictory painterly space that Picasso suggests here tactile space. "Visual space separates objects from one another. Tactile space separates us from objects," he wrote. When paint is in the service of situating its subject as much within the realistic boundaries of the two-dimensional x-y plane as within the illusional boundaries defined by the z-axis, tactile space is the result. In other words, tactile space is the "real" space between us and the surface of the painting itself. Perception of this space is heightened when the illusion of perspectival visual space is reduced. Ultimately, then, the interplay of form and space in the Demoiselles contributes to a game of affirmation and denial vis a vis the illusion of perspectival space versus the reality of the flatness of the painting canvas itself. Folded fabrics (i.e., surfaces), folded forms, and folded space are rendered with beguiling equivalence---oscillating between solidity and impermanence.
 
How does this relate to architecture? I start with two basic premises: 1) the overlap of painting and architecture is form and space. These are the two sine qua non that neither can avoid addressing -- no matter how mundanely or unreflectively; 2) as English painter and critic Patrick Heron said, ""The visual life which we lead through our eyes merely by having them open is the subject of painting." I maintain that the visual is the ineluctable subject of architecture, as well. To whatever degree an architecture addresses a complex matrix of invisible/visible ideas---intellectual, philosophical, functional---it's manifestation is ultimately and irreducibly visual. Painting teaches visual lessons about form and space. It teaches how to see. How to decipher visual systems. It teaches the conventions for organizing the "figure|field" relationships (left/right, up/down, front/back and so forth) that comprise visual structures.
 
The following diagrams, for example, help to clarify the overlapping readings of the Demoiselle's simple organizational structure. Within the optical distraction of the painting's tempestuous activity, there is the surprising stabilizing condition of its conventional, almost neo-classical, order. Competing readings play symmetry against asymmetry, not unlike the syncopated complexities and upbeats of music or dance. (And is that not what one may discern within the temperamental structure of this painting, the spirit of music and dance?)
 
1. Diptych (1:1): Two women on either side of the woman in the center. Columnar, caught between a diagonal stance and assertive frontality, the center woman divides the canvas essentially in half. Thus, in the context of a work of startling invention, we find the ultimate convention: a solid object in the middle of a painting (a figure in the center of a field). (I call it "target-art," because it implicitly defines a spatial field in a manner analogous to that celebrated by an archer, for whom hitting the bull's eye is the thing. Cubism did little to disrupt this convention.) Due to the placement of this woman, as well as to the handling of other aspects of the painting, lateral centripetal forces prevail---that is, the principal orthogonal visual rays, though distracted at times to the periphery, tend inward towards the center;
 
...or, towards a shifted center, slightly to the right, in keeping with the diagonal forces that lead the eye to the right into the z-axis of the visual space. With linear precision, Picasso gives visible evidence to these two invisible vertical axes by a series of contour breaks, contiguities, intersections and edges along their length. Note also the exactitude with respect to the horizontal centerline. The principal diagonals of the x-y plane (shown in the diagram) clearly inform the geometrization of the canvas, both in terms of formal inflections and figural positioning. Moreover, they establish diagonal centrifugal forces, in tension with the centripetal lateral forces.
 
2. Triptych (1:1:1) Reading from left to right: one woman + two women + two women. The canvas is divided into dynamically counterbalanced thirds. This second set of diagonals also clearly contributes to delineational rigor.
 
3. Split-screen 1 (2:1) Another reading of sub-division into thirds, this time 2/3 against 1/3. Three women, left, are played against two woman, right. The attention shifts to the second woman from the left, the center figure of the trio. We focus on her aggressively frontality.
 
This sub-frame or variation of split-screen 1, employing the contours of the left trio of women themselves as boundaries, shows the second woman from the left to be even more precisely the emphatic "central" focus of the painting at this moment in time. Note how her right upper arm becomes for a moment spatially dislocated, advancing enigmatically into the foreground. (This is true also of her "dismembered" left leg, as mentioned above.)
 
4. Split-screen 2 (1:3) The left woman, embedded in the terra cotta wall, is isolated from/played against the other four. She is "inside," they are "outside"---or the reverse. Jagged, simultaneously layered and flat, this woman and her interlocked background give authority and presence to the periphery. Picasso has established a rectilinear architectonic datum or edge---a condition that would inform Mondrian's paintings beginning in 1916. The canvas is effectively divided into four vertical parts. The right vertical line proves to be as practical as the other two. Again the diagonals are organizationally meaningful. And the vertical sub-division second from the right invites contemplation...
 
In all these readings, there is the problem of the center, Through a choreography of displacements, Picasso affects a calculated and highly refined conflict of centers and sub-centers, and charges the painting with an interplay of competing lateral, diagonal, centripetal and centrifugal forces. The following two diagrams show other geometric systems of organization that also help to rigorously determine the spatial location of the 5 women and their compositional interconnections. Three primary forms, parallelogram, ellipse, and lozenge determine the major interrelated three- and two-dimensional relationships and their inherent tensions. Picasso has left clear traces of their presence, like the light pencil guidelines of an architect's plan that are not erased, They provide spatial amplitude and give force to the principal progression of depth, which extends diagonally along the implied z-axis from bottom left to upper right. Their invisible geometries establish an intricate force-field and symbolize the competing aesthetic systems, one built on angles and the other on curves.
 
If these 5 women, geometrically arranged, each assuming center stage for a time and commanding our attention, are the ostensible visual subject matter of the painting, then an equally significant visual counter-subject matter can also be identified, I believe, if the inquiry is extended. As the right diagram above shows, a point of crucial intersection, and consequently a significant visual focus, is the small white diamond (marked in the black and white diagram below) just below the center woman's left breast. This in turn helps shift our attention to the entire right contour of the center woman (her left side), and the idiosyncratic vertical spatial interval---the blue void---to the right that this contour helps to define.
 
The principal rip in the homogeneous fabric of the painting's spatial constriction is here, at the third-point from the right, where the illusion of deep space is simultaneously affirmed and denied. On the one hand, space can be inferred as extending into the atmospheric blue (and clouds) of day. It is the deepest space in the painting. The three women to the left lead the eye along the diagonal into the z-axis of the painting, and the gaze is released through the gash in the fabric to the landscape beyond. It is a window to the world outside. The standing woman at the right, positioned the deepest of the five, together with the seated woman in front of her (looking simultaneously back at us and out the "window"), assist in ushering our gaze on out through this irregular aperture. They contribute to the impression that a significant void is being allowed to open into and out of the cramped tent-like quarters of the brothel. As if a waft of wind breezes through to refresh the scene and expand the otherwise compressed foreground and middleground. On the other hand, no sooner does one construe it in this way than the space immediately jumps forward---advancing in solid mirror-like fragments to occupy a z-axis space between the two right woman, if not advancing to the ultimate foreground, and thus insisting on the tactile space of the painting. That is, it suddenly becomes an advancing reflective solid as opposed to a retreating atmospheric void. Its spatial position and material substance is equivocal.
 
On either hand, however, this vertical slot represents the principal Negative Space of the painting. The principal figural void. That is, it is as figurally intentional as the woman themselves. I call it The 6th Woman of the Demoiselles. And it is involved in a tension-filled space-form game of contiguity with the three woman who surround and define it. The relationship with the center woman, especially, reinforces the fundamental thesis of displacement that underlies this painting, on many levels, intellectual as well as visual. The positive form of this curvilinear woman and the negative space of the angular fractured blue void (her negative counterpart) compete not only for the center, and the center of attention, they compete for the inherent soul of the painting, as well: is it about the women, or about the Cezanne-like "solid space" that defines and is defined by the women? Ultimately, Picasso implies, I believe, that it is about both. And through the mental game of inversion, one is entitled, even asked or required, to see the two phenomena as interchangeable and reciprocal. Picasso extends his dialectical game, a game of equivocality and oppositions, through color: the blue of the atmospheric void functions as the approximate complement of the terra cotta opaque wall at the left. Together, these two non-anthropomorphic fragments (assisted by the attenuated right edge) function as principal vertical stabilizers and supplemental dialogists of the significant field, simultaneously serene and hyper-charged.
 
In perhaps the ultimate move of spatial abstraction in this painting, Picasso links the blue void of the background with the table and fruit of the foreground (bottom edge). Sometimes narrow, sometimes wide---sometimes window, sometimes table with fruit---this remarkable figural gash and visual caesura winds its way from top to bottom of the painting on the slight x-y oblique.
 
It thereby physically isolates the three woman on the left from the two on the right, dramatically collapses the picture space from front to back, underscoring the reality of the painting's two-dimensionality, and creates the presence of a turbulent, unmistakable...
non-residual space between.
 
Finally, perhaps the standing woman on the right may be associated with this sine qua non spatial disruption, as well. She is clearly on the outside looking in, a mediator between background and foreground. Thus, the outside-inside "gash" is enlarged. She disappears...
 
Tthe folded forms and folded spaces that comprise the quasi-homogeneous fabric of the Demoiselles contribute, ultimately, to the assertion of the fundamental paradox of modernism and abstraction, a paradox that involves the calculated interdependence, if not ambiguity, between figure and field. The paradox involves this: the simultaneous assertion of the autonomy of form and the destruction of the autonomy of the object.. On the one hand, form is emancipated and finds autonomy vis a vis representational reality. On the other hand, the object is contingent: It is no more, nor less, important than the negative space it forms, and together they are locked---figure and field---in a complex, equivocal formal/spatial matrix.
 
Complexity, density, and equivocality continued to escalate for about four years after the Demoiselles, in the Analytical Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque. For example, were it not for the title, we might not know that Picasso's 1911 painting, below left, is a portrait: "The Poet." Perhaps we might regard it as The 6th Woman of the Demoiselles, privileged, complexified and sprung to life.

 
ADDENDUM 1
 
Negative space was obviously on the mind of Richard Diebenkorn in this painting, "Seated Figure with Hat," 1967. The yellow fragments that bracket the back and front of the woman (left and right) are just as intentionalized and figural as the body of the woman herself. This allows an inverted reading wherein the viewer can see yellow field fragments as solid and the woman as void, thereby yielding permanence and equivocality to the positive/negative construction. Though the periphery of Picasso's "The Poet" is weak, whereas the Diebenkorn shows a heightened concern with the edges, each painting in its own way diagrams the intercontingency of a principal figure and its field. (See my essay Significant Space.)


ADDENDUM 2
 
"Through the channel of my painting I arrived at my architecture." --- Le Corbusier
 
As an architect, the Interconnected, practical lessons from Picasso and other painters help me design walls, and systems of walls, ceilings, and floors (the primary constituents of the horizontal and vertical architectural fields). These painting lessons provide a basis for an advanced understanding of the fundamental, and potentially deep, issues involved in organizing space-form constructs. From where/why/how to position a window in an exterior wall, where/why/how (and what color) to position a light switch plate on an interior wall, to where/why/how to position a building on a lot and determine the building's relationship to the landscape.
 
 
 
Take for example the development of this architectural plan in 1996. I composed it on the basis of my analysis of the Demoiselles. The plan needs development, but it hints at the possibilities...
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2000|MADISON GRAY

e-mail MadisonGray@thearchitectpainter.com

_5.21.2000

 

............ .....................................transfiguring the space between...........

"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." _Josef Albers
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