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Archive for the ‘Negative space’ Category

We have this painting at the National Gallery in Washington.

You may not believe this was painted in 1612. Surrounded by its Italian Renaissance neighbors, it stands out.  It is stunning.

What makes this image so distinct?

-the woman is fully clothed

-her clothing is not opulent

-she is not presenting herself

-she is turning her back to us

-she is absorbed in her music

-she has an interior life

-she is not a symbol or a saint

-this is not an illustration of Christian or Greek mythology

-this is a person

-there is no message, no moral, no lesson

 

Not only that, the composition is asymmetrical.  How did he get away with this?  In 1612!  In Rom!

The image engages us the way modern art engages us.

-the painter places the human figure off center

-half of the painting is a void, with the table cloth minimally suggested

-the foreshortened violin on the table points at us, as if to address us: hey you, you’re part of this.

 

When you walk through a museum you can spot a Gentileschi from a long distance.  He painted women unlike any of his contemporaries did.

 

Except his daughter, Artemisia Gentileschi, who was his student.

 

Orazio Gentileschi, 1563 Tuscany – 1639 London

Lute Player, 56-1/2 x 50-3/4, Natl Gal of Art, Washington DC, 1612-15

 

Find more of his paintings at:

https://www.google.com/search?sxsrf=ALeKk0364ow8HhwjPjQNrj7ifLsXwv-tZQ:1609707412251&source=univ&tbm=isch&q=orazio+gentileschi&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjX_f6z04DuAhVDPq0KHcHsArgQiR56BAgcEAI&biw=1274&bih=836#imgrc=nd4inKpPywjfBM

 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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I came across this drawing recently and can’t get it out of my mind.

It’s small, 12x9in. Pastel on paper. 1951

All I can think of doing to it is flip it horizontally and, behold, it doesn’t work in this view.

What we have here is a non-representational image of such internal tension that it cannot be altered.

It looks like nothing.  Nothing?

When I look at this drawing–the original, on top– I want to project a vertical structure or a tree trunk between the red and black lines.  But that vanishes immediately. What’s left is the quick markmaking, apparently unconscious, and the dominance of “negative space.”

The choice of deep yellow paper is uncanny.  Imagine the paper gray or green or blue.  No go.

Clifford Still is known for his huge paintings, as seen in the Clifford Still Museum in Denver.

This painting, PH812, also from 1951, measures 115 x 104 inches.

https://www.google.com/search?sxsrf=ALeKk00_5B1hIExLDZoTfK3KAWVvje7PqQ:1607908360102&source=univ&tbm=isch&q=clyfford+still&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjgh4q1pcztAhVBeawKHQQ7A9MQiR56BAgnEAI&biw=1462&bih=836

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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The back-lighting stopped me in my tracks.  The shadow was as dark as the tree trunk itself. They looked continuous as if they were of the same substance. The lawn looked as if it had been spray painted DA-glo.  Mind you, this photo is not tweaked.  My phone camera saw this strange light effect.  Drama like this is momentary. Click.

I immediately zoomed in.  No distraction, no nice residential context with a house.  What we get now is…

…a repetition of forms.  On the right, spiky triangles.  On the left, and spilling onto the big triangle, you see amorphous meanderings.

Do we still have trees, lawn and late afternoon lighting?  Yes, we’re still reminded of how wonderful these real lawns in our neighborhoods are.

We also have just the opposite:  flat patterns on a flat surface confined in a rectangular frame.

Now it may dawn on you that you’re having an art experience.  “Art does not stand for something outside itself” –Fairfield Porter, remember.

You can focus on the picture surface or what it represents, but not both at the same time — as Gombrich said in Art and Illusion.

But you can practice toggling back and forth between the two ways of seeing.  Practice that!

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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You’re walking in late afternoon when the shadows are very long. You notice that shadows can take strange, aggressive shapes on an expanse of lawn.  Click. In the picture the shadow looks even stranger than it did in reality.  Why is that?

Walk on. At an intersection you see shadows on the distant lawn. Click.

But you took a wide angle, getting the street into the frame of your camera.  It’s merely a documentation of this corner of an unremarkable street.

You raise your arms and you zoom in on the distant lawn.  Click.  Now you have an image of triangular shapes on a green surface with some rectangle in the upper part of the frame.  This is getting interesting. But you still have the street in there.

Now crop the reference to the street because it’s too much context, which makes the image point to something outside itself.

Why is this interesting?  Because now you have an image that can be seen two ways: one, as a reference to a green lawn with triangular shadows cast by neighboring buildings and two, as a pattern of geometrical forms that refer to nothing outside of themselves.

If you want to see this duality even more clearly, take out the color.

Now you have an arrangement of shapes that “does not stand for something outside itself.”  Is this art?  Hmmm, maybe.

On second look, yes.  Notice how the image has a unifying texture: the bricks of the wall have specks of black shadows that echo the specks of leaves on the lawn.  This unifying texture has nothing to do with what’s being represented.  “Art does not stand for something outside itself,” as Fairfield Porter would put it.

You can frame this, hang it on a wall, glance at it in passing and momentarily inhabit the realm of form, which is pure feeling.  Like music.

 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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If you plowed through those two pages from Fairfield Porter (in the last post), you noticed that his thinking has peaks of clarity and ruts of generalizations.

He says, the new American painting is “more accurately called non-objective than abstract.” That’s a peak. It’s a good distinction.  Whenever we hear painting described as “abstract” we should translate that as “non-objective.”  Thank you, Fairfield.

Then, on the second page, we have “art does not stand for something outside itself.”  That’s another peak.  Oh, thank you, thank you, Mr. Porter!!!!

The rest of that page is erudite theorizing that must have pleased his publisher.  This new non-objective art was shocking enough; the critical language had to break it gently to the public.    After all, everybody assumed that art had to represent something. It was a cultural given that it would be absurd to look at art that was so presumptuous as to stand on its own.  It took a while for the shock of the new to wear off.  But the shock did gradually dampen down and now Artspeak unabashedly talks about art as it is.

Here’s a review, chosen randomly, from last September’s Art in America.

The whole review describes the physical materials and how they were placed in the exhibit space. There’s no mention of symbolism, historical references or why anybody should go see this.

Yes, indeed, art does not stand for something outside itself, as Fairfield Porter said sixty years ago.  But I wonder if he would find this installation too challenging to look at. Too absurd?  Too hard to pay attention to?

Paying attention!  That’s the key. Paying attention to what’s actually in front of you is not so easy.

In the next few posts, let’s zoom in on this problem of paying attention. How hard can that be!? For example, if I say this image is art, can I say it does not stand for something outside itself?  That is, how hard can it be to pay attention to this image–as image?

 

 

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/10/27/artspeak-then/

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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At first glance you may see a slap dash watercolor sketch, maybe a preparation for a painting.

Look again.  Take time to look.  Stay with it.

Two things will happen. One, you notice that he works with a very limited palette: blue, green and sepia with a touch of yellow.  Two, the white of the paper showing through serves to define shapes.

To see how brilliant this painting is, let’s mess with it.  Let’s imagine some passer-by looked over his shoulder and suggested he “cheer it up” by adding some bright colors.  Why not put in some flowers?  Like this…

Doesn’t work.  It’s a contemporary cliché to say bright colors cheer things up.  “ Brighten things up,” we say.  By demanding attention, bright colors spoil the overall effect and break up the composition.

Now, what about the composition.  It’s quite rigorous, actually.

Far from being a surface of daubs, this painting hangs together by calculated geometry.

Go back to the top and look at Sargent’s painting again.  Squint a little and eliminate the two figures and their straight-edged objects: books, easel, stool, and palette.  Now the waterfall and the foliage are hardly discernible and the painting really is a mess of daubs.

Watercolor is the most demanding painting medium.  You have to plan way ahead because corrections will gum up your surface.  To make the painting luminous—the desired effect—the white of the paper has to stay pristine.  Meaning, no corrections!

And negative space!  Notice how the painter’s right shoulder is indicated indirectly, by having the background push against its contour.  Ditto the book of the friend.  Find other examples.

This painting , btw, is from 1914.

John Singer Sargent,  1856-1925

Related posts about Sargent:

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2011/07/22/john-singer-sargents-hands/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/the-pleasure-of-plein-air-painting-and-john-singer-sargent-again/

 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

www.katherinehilden.com

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PinesLake1

If the concept of negative space eludes you or you don’t quite see what the big deal about it is, consider this painting.  Notice how the lake pushes against the pine trees.  I don’t mean the actual lake, of course.  I mean the surface on the painting that represents the lake.

Notice how this technique flattens the 3-dimensional landscape into a 2-dimensional surface.  That sounds so banal, doesn’t it, and the word “flatten” sounds so blah.

But the visual thrill of this technique is undeniable.  Even after you have it figured out, your mind loves playing this game:  now it’s foreground, now it’s background.

PinesLake2

Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) excelled at this.  I’m grateful to him for making the modern way of seeing so accessible.

Why am I bringing up Fairfield Porter now?  Because of a bit of junk mail.  When I got the L.L.Bean catalog in the mail yesterday, I immediately thought of Porter.  At first glance I thought L.L.Bean, an East coast company,  was using one of his paintings on their cover. Was this a passage from a Fairfield Porter landscape?

LLBeanCatalog

Porter was born in Winnetka, Illinois.  He moved to the East coast to attend Harvard, then stayed and became a celebrated East coast painter. His influence in this painting on the catalog cover is undeniable.

Could the artist be from the East coast?  I looked for the fine print on the inside cover.  Yes.  The artist is Anne Ireland and the L.L.Bean cover painting, inspired by the Maine coast, is titled “Changing Weather.”

Moral of the story: 1) see if you can switch negative space to positive and 2) notice how interesting your junk mail is.

 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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Hoya1

Same plant.  More daring.

I call this view of the plant more daring because it’s not centered.

When the object of your gaze is not centered, you’re likely think it is…

not traditional

unbalanced

incomplete

unexpected

surprising

edgy

engaging

modern

Which of these stands out because it contains all the others?

If you say “modern” you might be running a gallery or ready to start one.

If you say “engaging”  your insight goes to the heart of the matter. Because the drawing is incomplete, unbalanced, surprising, etc, you sit up and pay attention. The viewer is challenged to participate in completing the view of the plant.  The art experience becomes a conversation.  That’s how we as moderns relate to art.

This drawing also says “incomplete.”  We see it as a work in progress.  That’s how we experience conversations when we’re in them.

For that reason we want to see the marks on paper as just that, marks on paper.  We can see that more marks may come.  Therefore we want to see the paper as paper with all the sense of potential that that implies: show the unmarked edges when you mat it.   See above.

The sharp edge of the mat, announcing this drawing is finished, conveys a misleading  feeling.  Do you agree?

Hoya1CleanMat

See also:

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/07/16/just-a-plant/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/07/14/and-now-a-message-from-the-mat/

Drawing by Sunja Kim.  Graphite on paper, 18”x 12”

 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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Hoya2

You have a plant in your house.  Draw it.

It’s so ordinary.  And so interesting.

The light reflects differently from the leaves. Some leaves appear very dark; some almost vanish in the intense light.

Pay attention to the spaces between the leaves:  the distinction between positive and negative space evaporates.

You’re seeing shapes. Sit still in your quarantine room and see this play of shapes in front of you. Dark, light, dark, light.

Never seen anything like it before. No idea what this thing is called. Words fail you. Who needs words.  You are drawing.

Could it be, that intense focus is our greatest pleasure?

Hoya2

Drawing by Mary Shieldsmith.  Graphite on paper, 18” x 12”

 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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You’re visiting your dear friend Chelsea for tea and catching up.  Her house is as interesting and welcoming as always. You love the nuanced color combinations, the witty juxtaposition of antiques and glass-with-chrome and the good jazz coming from the far corner of the bookcase.  Then you notice a new art work.  It’s a still life nicely framed with a generous museum-grade 4” mat.

Two possibilities:

One, you’re taken aback, you don’t know what to say and you try not to stare. You think something has happened to dear Chelsea. She seems like her old self, speaks in complete sentences, with her usual intelligent sense of humor, shows interest in your life, remembers everything and converses as gracefully as always.  But what’s up with that drawing there?  It’s not finished!!!  How could she!  What kind of person frames an unfinished drawing!!  How irresponsible! Uncivilized! Disrespectful!  Better watch her closely.  Has she been drinking? Was she on something all these years you’ve known her and now suddenly she’s gone cold turkey?

Two, you’re thrilled, excited, inspired, uplifted and liberated by this incompletion. You and Chelsea smile quietly. No need for verbalizations, for explanations, for theories or for questions.  It’s all there. Conversation flows, cups tip and click.

Later, alone at home on your computer, you review the last few posts of the artamaze blog. You scroll down at the other drawings of this kitchen still life with peaches, pears and cup.  At the sight of every one of these drawings you jump up and shout out loud, “FRAME THAT!”

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/12/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-1/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/13/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-2/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/14/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-3/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/15/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-4/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/16/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-5/

 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

http://www.katherinehilden.com

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http://katherinehilden.wordpress.com

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