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Richard Diebenkorn and Agnes Martin: Negative Space–Synthesis of Method and Regional Influence

Richard Diebenkorn, "Untitled" (1951). Oil on Canvas.

Richard Diebenkorn, “Untitled” (1951). Oil on Canvas.


Agnes Martin. “Untitled” (1954). Oil on board.

Comparative Analysis, September, 2013.

Richard Diebenkorn and Agnes Martin:

Negative Space—Synthesis of Method and Regional Influence

The vitality of negative space features prominently in the work of Richard Diebenkorn and Agnes Martin—and the art of generating negative space seems paradoxical, impossible. Yet the sensitivity required to develop direct passages of breathing room is pronounced in their late Modernist works, whose monolithic, active, expressive structures celebrate the void and command presence. The striking suggestion of scale and space is still vibrantly relevant, reminding the 21st century museum-goer that there are points of visual punctuation, invitations to enter space that mutate landscape and morph biology in pure abstraction. By analyzing Diebenkorn’s Untitled (1951) and Martin’s Untitled (1954), we gain insight into a sense of space-place that draws on regional influence, exerting a balance of precision and looseness rooted in Modernist sensibilities. By focusing on their use of negative space and its relationship to the geography of New Mexico, formal and interpretive analyses reveal the essential nature of these developmental pieces. Similarities allow a valuable understanding of the relationship between artist, influence and method. We can see how pivot point development allowed each to paint works in the same decade, in connected locations, which explored spatial placement as part of a total experience and approach—opening doors for future progress.

Descending into the half-dimmed main gallery at the University of New Mexico Art Museum, viewers are confronted by a wall of large-scale works, looming heavily on the right. The viewer is consumed by a dominating oil on canvas: Diebenkorn’s Untitled (1951), whose bold, essential shapes demand attention. The vertical 55” x 35” piece is fiercely illuminated, accentuating its high-contrast, sizzling desert palette and the massive, wavy-edged geometrics whose blurred silhouettes create movement across the two-dimensional surface. The painting is imposing, monolithic, with a sense of breadth implied by the force of its heavily saturated negative spaces. Instantly recognizable as Abstract Expressionist, its passages exist as loosely defined, off-kilter moments and shaded, almost three-dimensional environmental divisions.

THIS IS AN EXCERPT of the paper. To read the entire essay, please download a fancy PDF version from my Papers page.