Nothing is Something: The Importance of Negative Space (Part 3)

This is the third and final post in a series about negative space in artwork. The first post discussed negative space in two-dimensional artwork. The second post discussed negative space in architecture. You can read the posts here and here. As I mentioned in those previous discussions, negative space is the “empty” space in an artwork. It’s the space between and around objects and shapes. It is not, however, merely what is left over after the composition has been organized. Negative space is an important part of a composition and should not be treated casually.

Sculptors use negative space in a variety of ways. Sometimes they create forms that enclose space. At other times they carefully place objects in relationship to each other or in a particular spot in a larger space. In each of these instances the empty spaces within the object or the spaces outside and around the object are considered negative space.

Here are two sculptors whose use of negative space is at the extremes of how artists generally use it. One creates work that almost defies viewers to identify the negative space in their work. The other presents negative space as primary subject matter.

Janet Echelon is an American sculptor who works with teams of fabricators and planners to create large-scale diaphanous forms that seem to float in the air. The forms are large enough that they compete visually with the architecture and public spaces where they are installed. Although they are huge and engineered for durability, Echelon’s sculptures look very much like fragments of cloth blowing in the wind or like giant soap bubbles. The porous surfaces with their constantly folding and refolding netted fabric blur our sense of what is interior and what is exterior. It is difficult to clearly identify traditional negative space. The best we can do is note the objects’ general shape and location in a large public space.

Sculpture by Janet Echelman in Amstel

This form was suspended above the Amstel River in downtown Amsterdam. Colored spotlights controlled by computers illuminated the form and created constantly shifting planes in the fabric and the reflections in the river below. As with many of Echelon’s pieces, shadows and reflections are integral components of the work.

Sculpture by Janet Echelman installed at San Francisco International Airport

Here are two of the three forms that make up a permanent installation at the San Francisco International Airport. The suspended forms are complemented by embedded lines in the terrazzo floor simulating shadow patterns that would occur during the Summer Solstice if the ceiling were transparent. The forms are constantly changed by computer controlled fans and lights.

Rachel Whiteread is an English artist known for her sculptures that capture the negative spaces of common objects and buildings. She makes concrete or resin casts of the interiors of rooms, stairwells and hallways. She also casts the space inside, or beneath, pieces of furniture. Whiteread’s sculptures are comprised solely of negative space. The positive objects that once contained or produced the negative space have been removed, leaving only a suggestion that they even existed.

Sculpture cast of the negative space around a chair by Rachel Whiteread

The image above is a cast of the negative space under a simple straight backed wooden chair. You can see indentations left from the frame of the seat as well as the legs and the rungs supporting the chair legs.

Sculpture by Rachel Whiteread of the negative space around a house

This sculpture titled House is a cast of the interior empty spaces of an entire Victorian era house in East London. Partially as a result of this ambitious project, Whiteread was awarded the Turner Prize for best young British artist. She was the first woman to receive that award.

This entry was posted in Artists and Designers, Elements and Principles and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *