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CULTURE: Look on the Not-so Bright Side - An Exploration of Negative Space

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Art by Isabelle Lu

Take a look at some of Yoko Ono’s most famous works: her cutesy Wish Tree, violent Cut Piece, and iconic Ceiling Painting/Yes Painting which famously caught John Lennon’s eye. Ono's work was never meant to simply be gazed upon. Ceiling Painting, for example, required the bespectacled Beatle to scale a ladder and hold a spyglass up to read a tiny “YES.”

“YES” was an unexpected affirmation that he had done something right; an optimistic message among the “anti everything,” Dada-inspired conceptual art Lennon had previously encountered. Ono’s work since the sixties has been consistently and delightfully bare: whiteness blanketing a small image or cluster of words, blank exhibits inviting audience graffiti—it is through interaction with her art that Ono hopes to spark inspiration and dialogue.

"Cut Piece" (1964) saw viewers snip away at Ono's clothing.

Minimalism was a response to World War II and the colorful expressionism that followed it. One movement unleashed the humanness repressed by war, while the other expressed pain through scarcity—nothingness. Plain geometrics, unpainted surfaces, and smooth lines, minimalism echoed the call to live simply, considering the tragedy of everything lost during this era.

Yet, the emptiness invited something to be found.

Mark Rothko's work in 1944 (above) versus 1957 (below).
Minimalism branched off of abstract expressionism in the 1960s.

Minimalism was no new concept, outside of the western world, at least. Though this movement in particular was born out of World War II, the concept of ‘less’ has been around for much longer. Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Judeo-Christianity—just about every religion in the world encourages a modest life and to share what one has with others, a contradictory symbiotic relationship in which one has more when the other has less, but both parties benefit. Despite Ono spending much of her life in New York City, it’s worth noting her Japanese heritage, which has a term loosely reserved for the concept of negative space: ma.

A “promise waiting to be fulfilled,” ma is known more familiarly as the space inside a pot which makes the pot. Pausing after a bow, eating just enough, making time to reflect—ma means living modestly and leaving room to grow, which at first glance, might not be apparent in Ono’s avant garde performance-conceptualism or spontaneous bohemian adventures. Look closer, however, (perhaps through a spyglass) to see the ma Ono leaves between herself and her viewer. A nail waiting to be hammered, a white boat waiting to for blue paint to be slathered on— it’s this same contradiction of doing "more-with-less" purveyed in the work of Edward Tufte (a legendary statistician and professor at Yale) and of course, the all-American, lost-generation Ernest Hemingway.

Tufte’s polymorphous, Adonis-engineered sculptures just happen to be constructed by a a pioneer of data visualization. The layered free-standing stainless steel, unrefined rock, and blank space mean a change in perspective lend a change in figure.

And that’s not even considering the versatility of shadows yet.

Negative space studies by Edward Tufte (2010)

Tufte and his art (a stint that existed publicly for a mere 3.5 years, sigh... ) are notoriously dynamic, and it takes a bit of creativity from the audience to push the extent of just how dynamic the art can be. At times crude, and in others, sophisticated, contemporary art has continued to value the conceptual over the aesthetic. True art inspires creativity and conversation, sharing a bit of the artist’s eccentricity or bright ideas with everyone else.

And Hemingway, known for his economical style, demonstrates how minimalism has extended to literature as well, similar to Cormac McCarthy and (my personal favorite) Sandra Cisneros. In “Hills Like White Elephants,” Hemingway eschews character names or context, leaving a skeletal short story composed of dialogue and little else. Symbolism, in the title for example, is all the profundity the writer offers parsimoniously. On the other hand, Cisneros, best known for The House on Mango Street, relies less on symbolism and more on the frank narratives of her impoverished, far from glossy, settings. Suffice to say, the work of either author is far from Tolstoy’s mythical 800-page Anna Karenina; these minimalists touch our pages lightly yet deliberately with unsophisticated, unembellished language.

Literary minimalism focuses on creating an economy of words, but literally omitting parts of a story can also force a reader’s interaction as well. When discussing his 2019 story With the Beatles (yet another favorite of mine!) Haruki Murakami said, “I tend to be drawn to what’s missing… Something that should be there isn’t, someone who should be there isn’t. And that’s when the story begins.”

A writer like Cisneros strips her prose down to its barebones, with no speculation or stream of consciousness—simply, “here is the story and make of it what you will."

But Murakami’s stories are winding, long-winded, and sometimes directionless. Still, in “With the Beatles,” he takes, even steals, from the reader someone who is supposed to drive the story, the very subject of the story herself, and in her absence, the natural questions and curiosities that arise are answered only when readers reflect on their own love, loss, and life.

Negative space is occupied by a multitude of meanings and applications, and rightly so. Across media (hi, literary minimalism), and even within the same medium (if you're reading this Professor Tufte, I heart you), this space is diverse and ever-changing. It’s the curiosity that is left between creator and audience, and in this space is where conversation has room to grow.


Julia Do is the critical writing director and former journalism editor at The Incandescent Review. A Vietnamese American writer from Orange County, she is a California Arts Scholar and the editor in chief at her city's youth magazine. Her work is published or forthcoming in Hobart Pulp, Blue Marble Review, The Daphne Review, and Canvas Literary Journal.

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