During the middle to late 20th century, space in the visual arts was often imbued with spirituality or religion. For Le Corbusier, “ineffable space” is a sacred union between “deserving” followers and the master artist. With Rothko and Stella, it can be noted that space is an essential link from their painting to religious art, if not religion itself. However, at present there is little religious content to the term. There is Pollyannaish talk that we are in a great moment for painting. Certainly there is more effort, affection, and thought directed toward painting than ever. But the result is stacks of handsomely crafted objects and cartoonish canvases running the gamut of jokey to sincere instead of paintings that push for new ways to consider seeing, making and understanding.
Space is only one convention within the lexicon of how painting is conceived today, and its reconsideration isn’t by itself a solution to how painting can develop a more engaging connection to the world. But the intelligence of painting is constricted when a convention is unquestioned and assumed to be natural, real or eternal. Painting and its associated varieties of picture-making are far older and more real than conceptions and prescriptions for space. Fashions change. Painting endures.
In our culture we find “space” everywhere. It is prevalent as a type of background noise in our speech and writing. Space is taught in geometry, physics, architecture, and even in psychology, with terms like “personal space” and “psychological space.” The (often subliminal) purpose of adding space to terms that stand-alone is to make those terms more passive, and to give the term’s user distance from the subject. With the addition of “space” to “psychological,” consider that “psychology” suffices as a term on its own with no inherent need for the addition of space. Combining the terms adds the toughening effect of physics to the softer science of psychology. At the same time, adding space to the monolithic sounding "psychological" makes it warmer and fuzzier. Often the term space is used as an easygoing generality. For example, “narrow gap,” “narrow corridor,” or “narrow room” are all more specific than “narrow space.” With respect to storage, the term “storage space” does little more to describe the location than simply add a syllable. Other than “outer space” or “rental space,” the term is employed more often than necessary—more for effect (or affect) than for precision.
I have long held that artists can whip up a complaint for any occasion—it is perhaps the favorite sport of painters, and we gain mysterious comfort from it. Over the last decade I have become increasingly conscious of the vacuity of the term space. There are miles of art journalism where space is used to lend gravitas to minor, even silly, pictorial effects. I’ve taught in an assortment of art schools and I often hear some variation of “I’m trying to bring more space into the painting,” or “you need to give your painting more convincing space.” At this point I become the old crank and say (with complete honesty), “I don’t know what you mean by space—I don’t believe in space—please use another term.” As the student or group humors me—eliminating the term tightens the discussion—a fog of passivity lifts, and I see these painters start to think about what they commit to when they paint a picture.
Discussions about “painters’ use of space” may serve as a way of speaking about the general “feel” of a picture, its atmosphere, use of perspective or presentation of overlapping planes. These are all more precise descriptions than resorting to the grand and nebulous term space. But more insidiously, injecting space into the discussion serves to smuggle in what has become a conservative dogma of picture-making into painting. There is nothing necessarily wrong with a conservative style of painting whether it is figurative—making paintings that imitate looking through window glass—or conservative abstraction—a type of painting that imitates those effects. But this is not true for all painting.
Today pictures proliferate on surfaces intimate and large, immaterial and physical. We can virtually enter pictures animated with time and illusions of three dimensions. Increasingly, pictures are the coin of human communication. It is a creative moment in which information is substituted for experience, and image for material. Painting has a long history of picture-making that can provide a unique platform to engage present visual culture. For painting to take up this challenge it is fundamental that the history of its terms be understood and honored. Is it worth asking how essential the term space is to the history of visual art?