Mark Adams (1925 – 2006) designed such things as large-scale tapestries and the magnificent stained glass windows of Temple Beth El in San Francisco, but his smaller works have a wonderful, intimate appeal arising from his decisiveness in choosing which of the visual elements before him to pursue, and his clarity in executing them.
“Alcatraz” is divided into three bands–sky, mountains, and water–with the island settled in the middle. The bands are simple in shape, but with a variety of texture and color that keeps them interesting and even a little surprising. The island is handled similarly, but with a full range of tones, and more variety of color, starting with warm off-whites on the left to that bold, flat blue on the right. The whole is so clear and undisguised in its design that it seems simple, but the more you look the more complexity you find.
We get the same decisiveness in “Lily in Shadow”, although here the smaller size and single dominant object allows a very austere handling–just the texture of the paper–without monotony. But the lily and the background are full of shapes, and the shapes, while simple-seeming, aren’t simple. Follow the outlines and the fall of light over the lily.
It’s generally the case that works of art are centered on action, and the surrounding space, however interesting it may be, is in a supporting capacity. Sometimes, though, the subject is the space itself. The focus is not so much on people and objects as on the space where they occur.
Manet’s “Rue Mosnier”, for example, is full of active elements, but they don’t jump out at you. To get the piece you have to look around and discover the details–the building fronts, the flags, the figures here and there, the carriage, the light at the end of the block, hinting at the next street. The subject here is the whole scene.
In Maier’s photograph the kids are lively and interesting, but the subject is the environment that the kids inhabit–the concrete steps, the bricks, the blockyness of the space.
In Cartier-Bresson’s photo it’s the falling ground–like Maier’s photo seen from above.
These pieces are so engaging because they aren’t formal representations of action drawn up for us to study and admire; they are spaces such as we see in our own lives, with significant bits here and there if only we make the effort to notice and appreciate them.