Ideas and the space between
Last Wednesday morning, I had the pleasure of speaking with Andrea Heiss' Carnegie Arts Writing class at the Missouri School of Journalism. I talked a bit about what's happened since graduating last May, and how art and design make up a significant part of my life. We talked about freelancing, curating and going to exhibitions, and somewhere in my ramblings, I set myself up for a difficult question.
Andrea, one of the best professors I've ever had and someone with whom I'm very happy to have stayed in touch, asked what I saw when I looked at art.
As someone who wants to write about art and design, I've thought about this question a lot, but never really outside of the space where I am seeing art/design. It's kind of a personal thing to talk about because everyone's experience is different.
When I look at art, I want to see the work in a way that allows me to remember it from every angle, distance and perspective. If it is a painting, I want to stand five feet away; and then with my nose practically against the canvas; and then I want to see it from across the room. If it is a sculpture, I want to remember it from a 360-degree point of view (I very much dislike any exhibit that inhibits the ability of someone to walk completely around a three-dimensional work of art). If it is a building, or an entire exhibition, I want to see things from birds-eye view. By mapping out the exhibit through memory, notes and art, I create a strange sort of out-of-body experience for remembering how I encountered a narrative or display. I try to bring a mind full of these memories back to my computer when I write. But, many times, when it comes down to it, I forget all about the maps and models I created for myself. And instead, what I think of immediately when I write or think about a work is the space; especially, white and negative space.
In Andrea's class, I equated this type of thinking to musical rests. When I was learning a difficult passage, my cello instructor told me not to think of the notes. Instead, she said, focus on the rests. The rests are what make this music. For me, this notion works quite well for finding meaning in a work of art. My eyes are naturally drawn to the white or negative space. You could use this ideology to think about the work of Franz Kline. Is the work about his thick, black dramatic brushstrokes, or is it about everything that surrounds them?
You also don't have to consciously view a work of art to take part in this idea. How do you get from one piece to the next? One moves through negative space, and many people — architects, designers, artists and curators — might have a say in the way you get to the next work and the feelings that meander, roll, stroll, or run invokes.
I thought more about this conversation on Saturday, as I walked through the Naguchi Gallery of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. Six-Foot Energy Void is equally about the slab of Swedish granite from which the work is carved and the emptiness the work creates. The same is true for Henry Moore's Large Torso, which is also at the Nelson. The negative space makes the sculpture, and the sculpture makes the negative space. Or, to quote a Buddhist sutra, "Form is emptiness and emptiness if form."
Except, there is nothing "empty" about these negative areas; they are kinetic and dynamic. Because the Moore is part of the sculpture garden, it becomes a great example for how easy it is to see how negative space can enhance or actually be the work of art. Time of day, time of season, state of mind all change what you see. For me, that is what makes sculpture so special. The negative space makes it impossible for you to experience it the same way every time.