I recently had the opportunity to take a group of students on a tour of the galleries. Our task was to examine the ways in which various sculptors—all using square or rectangular forms—delineate space. This seems like a simple undertaking; after all, sculpture relies upon the ubiquitous nature of space. But in our quest to examine how artists form and demarcate space, we began to understand the special nature of that which is enclosed in the interior of the sculpture. As we reveled in the sometimes intricate, sometimes straightforward shapes outlined by various sculptural materials, it became evident that the entry provided into that space necessitated both our reasoning skills and imagination.
For instance, when exploring the carefully notched, square cutouts of Jackie Windsor's Green Piece (1967), students instinctively grasped the inherent mystery of the work. Windsor's weathered, mint-green wood panels come together to form a cube that cheekily invites investigation. As we spent energy doubling our bodies over so as to visually access the five square-shaped holes the artist carved on each (visible) side of the piece, we became aware of our sense of ambivalence regarding the interior of the sculpture. Was the cube empty or full? Is there ever a way to know for certain? Is it important to reach a conclusion?
The quiet, invitational gesture—Windsor has pointed to the notion that we would do best to look into the dark space of the piece—is a powerful one. By enclosing and concealing space, the artist allows us to activate our imaginations. We are never quite sure what lies concealed, but that doubt is what fuels our looking.
While the students all had different ideas about what Windsor's cube contained, a sense of unified understanding developed as we engaged with works like Larry Bell's Untitled from Terminal Series (1968) and Donald Judd's Untitled (1967). In both these pieces, the artists chose (to varying levels) transparent materials that allow light to move through the space enclosed by the work; this light then becomes a medium integral to the piece. As a group, we came to the consensus that the legibility of the contents of both artists' box-shaped works emphasized the tenuousness confinement of space. If one side of the Bell were to be removed, would the cube-shaped space within the piece dissolve? Likewise, the group discussed Judd’s careful placement of his stainless steel boxes and the exceptionally articulated spaces between them. In an activity—where we paired up to use our bodies to test the notion that when two masses pull away from one another, there is a point where the space between them loses its definition—the importance of Judd's seemingly simple decisions on placement became crystal clear. This clarity offered students an acute awareness of the choices they make in their own creations and a new appreciation of space.