Contemplating White Space
by Wendy Richmond
There’s a new exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York, Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim Museum Rotunda. When I read in the press release, “The Guggenheim invited approximately 200 artists, architects and designers to imagine their dream interventions in Frank Lloyd Wright's rotunda,” my first thought was, “Whatever you do, don’t fill it up!”
As professionals in the arts, we learn about the “void”—more typically called “white space”—in Art 101. Whether the subject is architecture, two-dimensional art, film, dance or theater, we know that designing the empty space is as important as designing the content that surrounds it. But it’s not easy to allow emptiness. You have to defend it. For those of you who are graphic designers, how many times have you argued with a client to allow those vast areas of blankness on the page? It seems, well, economically irresponsible to “waste” all that space! You have to convince your client that it is the white space that allows the content to be heard.
And you must also convince yourself. It takes confidence to allow empty space in your work. Whenever I exhibit my artwork, I feel pressure to ensure that the audience will be entertained. I want them to know that I have worked hard. I want them to see my depth and commitment. I want them to feel well-fed. So as I begin to select the material for the exhibition, I have a tendency to include it all, to fill up the room. But as my confidence grows, I remove the extraneous, and add more emptiness.
White space is there to allow the content to breathe. It is also there to allow the audience to participate. Jon Jerde, the well-known architect whose projects include the 1984 Olympics, said it well: “The structures are expensive, but the space between them is free.” Think beyond the physical structure itself, and consider the human activity that its spaces encourage. In a similar way, an artist can provide the space for a viewer to bring and insert his own thoughts and experiences. Because the space is as important as the content, it must be a conscious and integral part of the design.
In my teaching, I use the idea of white space as a metaphor. When I develop a syllabus, I also design the activities for which I will not be present. On the first day of class, I tell my students, “By the end of this course, I hope to be the least important person in this room.” I believe that in addition to providing the content, my role is to create an environment that contains an active void. I need to disappear enough for my students to jump in and fill the learning environment with their own excitement and discovery. Again, as in my artwork, it takes confidence to leave that space empty.
I have a friend who teaches memoir writing. In every session, each student reads a short piece of his own writing. In the first two classes, my friend makes notes as she listens, and then delivers a constructive critique. In the next class, she institutes a change. After each reading, instead of delivering her critique first, she waits for the participation of the other students. Inevitably, there is silence; an awkward void where there is no response.
Initially, my friend found it hard to remain quiet. She feels that it is her job to keep the class engaged, to be imparting knowledge. In other words, as she told me, she had to make sure they are getting their money’s worth. It required confidence to not fill the silence with her critique. She had to trust that this emptiness was essential; it allowed the students to develop their own responses. When her students began to talk, there was a new energy that continued not only during the coffee breaks, but between classes as well.
Of course, white space is not just about leaving blank spots. One has to establish content and structure in order to be successful in eliciting real participation, whether from a viewer or a student. One has to be vigilant, constantly paying attention to the shape of the void. But that’s the obvious part. The difficult part is having the confidence to hold back.
Whenever I visit the Guggenheim Museum, I am thrilled to look across the beautiful openness of the rotunda. In some past exhibitions, the rotunda has been filled with installations that seem to disregard the space, obstructing it rather than using it. I look forward to seeing the new exhibit, and the responses of the artists as they “contemplate the void.” Imagine the confidence it would take to fill that space—with nothing. CA
© 2010 W. Richmond
Editor’s note: Wendy’s new book Art without Compromise* is published by Allworth Press.