Art Term Tuesday: Space

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

Unlike outer space, the final frontier, the concept of space as it relates to art is well-trodden territory. Space, as an element of design like line and shape, is the area around, within, and between objects. In the physical world, we tend to think of space as only existing where nothing else is; but, on a picture plane or as a sculpture, artworks are composed of both positive and negative space (the physical objects versus the emptiness around them). The classic optical illusion that can either be two faces in profile or a chalice plays on our perception of positive and negative space. If the entirety of an artwork is made of space, why define it at all? Like the other design elements, having a designated term helps us talk about the work and understand the decisions made by the artist. In what different ways do artists consider space in their work?

In realistic paintings and drawings, artists strive to create the illusion of space on a flat surface. This can be achieved by overlapping, placement (objects that are higher appear further away), and the use of atmospheric or linear perspective (systems for depicting a realistic sense of depth). In Homer Davisson’s Autumn Landscape, below, the road becomes narrower as it recedes into the distance; and the trees become less detailed, lower in contrast, and shift towards blue, following the rules of perspective that help create a believable space. Davisson carefully considered the negative space too, as the glimpses of sky around and through the trees form shapes that are just as interesting as those found in the leaves.

Homer G. Davisson, American, 1866-1957. Autumn Landscape. Oil on canvas, late 19th-early 20th century. Gift of Mrs. Homer G. Davisson, 1965.24. Image courtesy of FMWoA.

Realistic works, through cropping and other design choices, can also play with space and use it for expressive purposes. For example, although William Forsyth’s In the Little Room (below) conveys both an indoor space and the view out the window, because that view is composed of mostly solid color in the form of another house, the space is flattened. The brown wall in the lower right, although it is a solid form, becomes negative space because of its even color and relative lack of brushstrokes, giving our eyes a resting place. Forsyth’s use of space might allude to the internal state of his sitter as she gazes out the window: is she feeling as enclosed and trapped as her view?

William Forsyth, American, 1854-1935. In the Little Room. Oil on canvas, ca. 1896. Gift of Miles J. and Lorraine H. Davis, 1991.26. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

By nature, abstract works don’t depict a recognizable view, but they use space too! Find the positive and negative space in Sam Francis’ Coral Lyre Nine, the splatter-y work in the installation view below.

Installation view of A Century of Making Meaning. Photo courtesy of FMWoA.

This one is easy: the negative space is the white of the paper, while the positive space is made up of the brightly colored shapes and splatters. What is unusual, though, is that Francis has pushed the positive space to the edges of the composition and kept the center mostly open. It might be trickier to distinguish the two in Felrath HinesTrellis, below.

Felrath Hines, American, 1913-1993. Trellis. Oil on linen, 1986. Gift of the artist’s wife, 2009.06. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Hines didn’t leave any bare canvas to help us, and the entire work is painted with flat, even tones, making it difficult to distinguish positive from negative–maybe there isn’t any negative space! The overlapping shapes in the center create a sense of shallow depth, in a way, creating an imaginary space. Dark colors tend to visually recede, but here, Hines has placed the darkest color on top, further confusing our sense of this abstract space. 

Sculptors must consider how their work will physically occupy and interact with a space. Take, for instance, the kinetic work in the gallery view above. Composed simply of circles, the spaces created and viewed through the sculpture as it twirls are what makes it most interesting. Depending on the installation site, negative space can give our eyes some breathing room, like it often does in a two-dimensional work, while reframing the surrounding environment. Imagine if John Newman’s Sidesplitter, below, were a solid form with no internal negative space. It would be visually (and physically) much heavier, without the same sense of dancing movement.

John Newman, American, b. 1952. Sidesplitter. Cast and fabricated aluminum, 1986. Gift of Stephen and Barbara McMurray, 2015.21. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Large-scale sculptures not only occupy space in different ways but affect how their viewers interact with it, too! Martin Blank’s Repose in Amber, our largest sculpture, is composed of five separate islands that we can walk around and between, creating its own environment. Originally conceived for a different space, Blank reconfigured it to wind down and engage the space of our long hallway. Important, too, is the negative space around the individual glass elements: these shapes change as we move to different viewpoints, but always echo the organic nature of the positive forms; because the work is translucent glass, the space under it is transformed by the colored light that shines through it.

Martin Blank, American, b. 1962. Repose in Amber. Hand-sculpted glass on steel, 2004. Image courtesy of FWMoA.
Repose in Amber video tour courtesy of FMWoA.

So the next time you visit the museum, consider the space both around and within the artwork! Is it deep or shallow? Positive or negative? How do these decisions and distinctions impact the overall feel of the work and our interaction with it?

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