Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Testing a Hypothesis about Good Composition

Art Soldier offered a terrific review of the Rauschenberg exhibition at the Met the other day (what is it about that exhibition that's bringing out the best sort of art writing?...see Jerry Saltz's breath-taking review here as well...I really must get up there this weekend)...and focused on one of my favorite topics in discussing art: composition. From AS's review:

Rauschenberg is a master of composition (perhaps the best of the 20th Century).

His work is not about color, line, etc., etc., -- it's all about composition. He is one of the few modernists (I'll get to that in a second) to retain such a serious respect for the almost traditionally classical skill of composition. What at first appears like slapdash collage is actually the result of a precise and sophisticatedly brilliant eye. I find comments like Peter Scheldahl's in the New Yorker to be besides the point:

"Rauschenberg's "combines" ... are works in progress, permanently."

This is a misconception about abstract paintings, also often applied to De Kooning's work, that suggests that the work is unresolved, caught in a state of incompleteness (as opposed to representational memesis, I suppose, which has a clear stopping point), or possibly even 'allover' in composition (although in Scheldahl's case I think he meant it as a sort of complement, as the blurb of a review was highly laudatory). Nothing could be further from the truth. Anything added or taken away would ruin the effect, then they would be 'in progress' and would look unfinished....

That last idea (that in a very good composition anything taken away or added will ruin the overall effect) has always captured my imagination. At least since one of my mentors drilled it into my head early on. He considered Richard Diebenkorn the 20th Century's greatest master of composition and we'd spend hours looking at RD's works contemplating how they would fall apart if this or that element were missing or moved. I've always taken this on faith and repeated it many times myself...but I'm growing a bit more skeptical as I age and, well....

I don't know why exactly (I know it's downright brainless, if not sacrilegious in some ways), but Art Soldier's post put this bug in my brain that won't go away and so I've relented to it. Below are three sets of images by Richard Diebenkorn. I've chosen three black and white etchings to avoid complicating this experiment with color. In each set, one is untouched, and in the other something has been moved. The changes are subtle (at least to me they are), but my question to you is "Can you tell which one is wrong?" Please forgive me if some obnoxious art teacher you've had already subjected you to this silliness, but I'm still curious, so I'll press on. Can you spot (without downloading the image and looking at it magnified in Photoshop), which one I've changed based more or less on the "ruined" composition? I've always been convinced anyone with a well enough trained eye can, and no one will be happier than me (having told countless people that it's true over the years) if everyone spots every fake, but it's early...I'm uncaffienated...and this still seems an interesting enough test to push forward (are those enough caveats for you?). If nothing else, perhaps this will lead to a discussion about what makes for good (or bad) composition and whether that's at all relative.

Example ONE:

Example TWO:

Example THREE:


Anonymous training VS taste ??? said...

left - figure more activated and picture plane vertically more activated also

left - cross marks seem to be subject and pushing the top cross T to left makes it easier to cross the picture plane

bottom - right to left movement is better supported by 3 ovals in horizontal

1/25/2006 09:39:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

hmmm...if I didn't know better, I'd say you were the mentor I was referring to, training.

just to be clear though as you suggesting that left, left, and bottom are the wrong one or the right one? Either way, your second answer confuses me, could you spell that out a bit?

1/25/2006 09:54:00 AM  
Anonymous George said...

#1, RD...EW
#2, EW...RD
#3, EW...RD

1/25/2006 10:04:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


if I'm intepreting the first answer correctly, we already have a difference of opinion...interesting.

1/25/2006 10:14:00 AM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...

Excellent experiment Edward!

As someone who just looks at pictures, here's my response (I don't care which one RD actually created).

#1 - Both images work the exact same for me. It took me a long while to even pick up the change.

#2 - The image with the cross in the corner feels much more balanced to my eye. Shifting it center fails to activate my eye.

#3 - Neither image works for me. The three ovals are too high in the composition for my tastes. If I had to pick one as a lesser of two evils I'd go with the top image. It has a bit more excitement to it.

Honestly none of the images do anything for me. I wouldn't give them more than 5-10 seconds in a museum.

Composition though is definitely a critical skill as evidenced by image #2.

1/25/2006 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Dear Edward,

This is a great experiment!

I think it would be interesting to also place extreme closeups of a work by Jackson Pollock and a more ab-ex drip painting work by Koko the gorilla artist next to each other and challenge people to properly indentify which one is which!


P.S. I'm especially a big fan of Koko's Emotional Representations - Hate and Anger are my favorites -

1/25/2006 10:37:00 AM  
Anonymous George said...

I had them backwards...
#1, RD on right
#2, RD on left
#3, RD at top

1/25/2006 10:38:00 AM  
Anonymous George said...

"I think it would be interesting to also place extreme closeups of a work by Jackson Pollock and a more ab-ex drip painting work by Koko the gorilla artist next to each other and challenge people to properly indentify which one is which!"

Silly, up close all drips might look the same, what matters is where they go.

1/25/2006 10:44:00 AM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

E_: How hysterical and fascinatingly neurotic!! Thanks for the plug though. I'm not going to embarrass myself by guessing (although I have some inklings). J.B.'s suggestion of the gorilla paintings reminds of the website that challenges the viewer to choose between 'masterpiece' or 'crap.' Unfortunately I can't remember the site, but it's more difficult than you would think!

1/25/2006 10:46:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

How hysterical and fascinatingly neurotic!!

Better "neur" than "psych," I always say...not that I'm implying you're either, AS. ;-)

Thanks for inspiring the post!

I don't think it's important to guess either...just to see if the experiment sparks any new thoughts about the importance (or lack thereof) of composition. Although I must say, the guesses so far have been impressive.

1/25/2006 10:51:00 AM  
Anonymous w.w. said...

i think the power of RR's compositions is rooted in the exact opposite of this theory. rather than the composition being potentially ruined by adding or removing an element, it's his absolute confidence (and willingness to admit, I guess) that the variations are endless that makes the work so compelling. in that respect I agree with schjeldahl that RR's works are perpetually in progress.

for me, RR's "finishes" are more like TA-DAA! check this out! than VOILA! c'est fini!

1/25/2006 11:02:00 AM  
Anonymous training vs taste ??? said...

left, left, bottom are my preferred compositions

regarding second one, much of the drawing is about crossing of line (whether perspectival at bottom and the x or t's at the top. given that, it seems to make more sense that one also crossed the picture plane and by placing the x to the far right, the eyes are forced to cross the picture plane

i don't think there are right or wrong answers here (or most anywhere), but i think that LOOKING allows for many possibilities and ways to analytically support these possibilities

1/25/2006 11:05:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


thanks for the explanation. I get it now. I want to let others guess if they want to before I reveal which ones I changed, but you're offering some excellent food for thought here.

1/25/2006 11:17:00 AM  
Anonymous unosocko marko said...

I am an adjunct art instructor who teaches 2D design so here goes.

I base my opinions not on whether or not it is the "right" one or RDs over your alteration, but on its sense of unity. SO I am assuming "unity" is the goal here, and am judging based upon formalist concerns (principles of design, gestalt issues, etc).

Ex one:
The right one seems more unified as the position of the hat helps to lead the eye in a continuation of a circular or ovoid path thru the picture plane. overall the one on the right seems more stable and centered, although the slight tilt of the hat omn the left adds interest and varity (see how this works?)

Ex 2:
THis is a tuffy. In terms of the entire picture plane, the left picture seems more balanced with the cross element on the top right providing some counter balancing visual weight to what is going on on the left side, This is important because not only is there more going on on the left side but there is also a huge triangle pointing(leading our eye to that section, so counterbalance is needed.

Ex 3
The alligned ovals in the bottom one help to create an implied triangular shape that is a repetition of the bottom triangle. It also helps in terms of balancing the picture by proving a distinct visual bridge between the right and left sides of the plane and helps emphasize the thrust towards the left that the arrow is indicating. So, I say bottoms up! My students would also say something naughty about this one no doubt!

1/25/2006 11:26:00 AM  
Anonymous bw said...

I found Waldo! Oh, wait. Wrong blog.

Seriously, I saw all the changes between the two and once you find them it does make them read differently, but I ended up not greatly preferring one over the other. I think in terms of composition there are infintie ways the pieces can work together, there's no one right or wrong way to do it, especially when the changes are as subtle as these (although some arrangements can certainly lend themselves to be more pleasing than others.)

1/25/2006 11:31:00 AM  
Anonymous George said...

Rauschenberg and Jean-Michel Basquiat both had an intuitive sense of placement. The ability to put something down and make it stick.

1/25/2006 11:32:00 AM  
Anonymous 1sark said...

take back On #1
on second look the tilt of the hat on the left pic repeats the general position of the shoulders and hips of the figure, stablizing the figure- its a matter of relating the hat to the figure or to the chair or both equally. Its a dang crapshoot!

1/25/2006 11:42:00 AM  
Anonymous art dweeb said...

are the "correct" ones

I happen to be in a compositional dilemma right now! His Ocean Park series has amazing compositions.

1/25/2006 12:07:00 PM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Dear George,

"Silly, up close all drips might look the same, what matters is where they go."

Those who refuse to become artlogical will be left behind on the waste heap of primitive culture.

Translated into FEDERAL RESERVE NOTE speak, what the above means is that I was fortunate to have bought 8 of Koko's paintings way back in the day when you could pick them up for a song. I'm planning on funding my retirement off this monkey! I don't care where the drips go as long as Koko's auction prices keep rising! And with the positive trend with respect to Koko's prices I might even be able to exchange in the near future an original Koko for an original Pollock.

I'll then mount a exhibition of my last original Koko and my only original Pollock side by side in a museum and let the public decide who's the greater artist. Note I said "public", not art critics or art historians. I think it's a safe bet who the public will choose. That verdict will only continue to exert upward pressure on the value of Koko's paintings, at which point I will donate my last original Koko to the museum (after negotiating a board position on the musuem for the donation), take a really nice tax write-off for the donation that I will use to subsidize additional purchases of original Pollocks that I've market manipulated on the downslide in value, and then use my influence on the board of the musuem to restore the glory to Pollock so as to re-inflate the value of my collection that I purchased at below market values due to the market manipulation that I created by advancing the superior aesthetics of Koko over Pollock. :)


1/25/2006 12:07:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Example #1:
The right is original.

Example #2:

Example #3:
Top is original.

Since these guesses differ from some of the earlier ones, I assume I'm wrong on at least one, but whatever...

I used to think "good" composition was empirical, a concept both teachable and learnable, and, despite my belief that the classical/traditional approach to art education is stronger than the iCulture, postmodern equivalent, it seems clear that even the best craftsman, once freed from economic impetus, will run with his or her tools in any number of directions. As a result, "correct" or "good" color/compositional balance varies as much as individual taste.

Now let's all share a group hug and chant together. ;)

1/25/2006 12:07:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

Worthless stocks fluctuate wildly in price, and people trade them profitably. PT Barnum and Jesse Livermore both made a fine living betting against the sucker. Good luck with your investment.

1/25/2006 12:18:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

As a result, "correct" or "good" color/compositional balance varies as much as individual taste.

I agree to a point. Generally when something about a work distracts me, but I can't immediately tell what, looking more closely at composition often reveals the irritant (or---to put it more open-mindedly---challenge).

1/25/2006 12:22:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

Ed, "...looking more closely at composition often reveals...." Good point and I think somewhat descriptive of RD's working process, put something down and then move it around. I don't buy in to the idea that there is a fixed 'good composition', like others I believe it's subjective. Moreover, "perfectly balanced" will often leave no way out and the picture just locks up, the carpet makers knew about this.

1/25/2006 12:37:00 PM  
Anonymous pc said...

Example 1, RD on left
2, RD on right
3, RD on right

With my guess in, I feel like I can say I think it's impossible to discuss composition without the other elements, context, ideas, color, material, etc. I was interested to note that some people couldn't find the differences very easily (same for me). The work seemed to retain their essence, even their compositional strength, even after alterations. But the experiment isn't quite fair perhaps, because I think you'd see the alterations immediately if the original were changed. But I think that might be because of other things, mostly the artist's touch versus the retoucher's, bolstering my feeling that you can't just take composition in isolation. I also agree with ww on Raushenberg's composition.

1/25/2006 12:38:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


for #3, do you mean top or bottom?

Not that we're keep score, or anything...just curious.

1/25/2006 12:44:00 PM  
Anonymous pc said...

Edward, I thought the bottom was rd. Not that I care if I'm right!

1/25/2006 12:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Mike @ ModernArtObsession said...

Ed..Great Post..
The Rauschenberg Exhibition Rocks! Not to be missed.. But take your passport.. "those people" on the UES can be pretty scary!

Hmmm.. I love a contest..
I think the RD originals are..
1. Left
2. Right
3. Bottom

But then again..what do I know.. I'm not an artistic genius.. just a dumb collector/blogger.

So Ed what do the winners get??

1/25/2006 01:14:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

So Ed what do the winners get??

You're so competitive Mike. ;-)

Having said that, I can't wait for your next contest! I just hope it's easier.

1/25/2006 01:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Amos Newcombe said...

Not an artist, no training, but ...

1) The one on the left just looks a little too stable to me. The torso leans to the (viewer's) left so the hat brim should not just be perpendicular as on the left, but tilted just a little the other way. Verdict: RD on right.

2) Here the more stable one seems to be on the right,and yet I like it better. Much stronger effect, of course.

But now, after staring at it for five minutes, I've changed my mind. Verdict: RD on left.

3) The line created by the three small ovals on the bottom version, together with that thing on the right, seems to balance the diagonal below in a way that the top composition does not, for me. And I'd fit right into unosocko marko's class. Verdict: RD on bottom.

1/25/2006 02:47:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

I think that this is really Ed's way of justifying the fact that when I click on the comment box it goes all the way down to the comment and I have to scroll all the way up to begin reading the conversation.

Then again, maybe that's on purpose, Ed is trying to get us to give our own opinion before readiing/reacting to those of others. That seems good, but could get repetitive, or maybe not. Aaaaaannnnnnyyyywaaaaaaayy,

1) Original is on the left and the change is the movement of the face toward the viewer's right. I would say that physiology would have us support the hand that is most supporting the head with the more stable leg (figure's right) hence the slight tilt to the figure's right and the viewer's comfort with same. Plus, figure on the left apears to be posing while figure on the right appears to be reacting to something.

2) Original is again on the left. The + has been moved to the left in the right example and the negative space in the upper right corner bugs me a bit.

3) Original on the top with the change being the movement of the middle "dot" to be close to parallel with the left and right "dots". Again, that little extra negative space bugs me as above.

I've got to run, but I'll be back to read the thread later and see how wrong I am ;)

1/25/2006 02:48:00 PM  
Anonymous jec said...

Does the fact that everyone is answering differently change your theory, Ed?

My guesses: R, L, B (though I'm influenced in #1 by the fact that she looks like she has a crick in her neck in the left-hand version)

I think that there are some elements in some compositions which cannot be moved without ruining the work. But I think that in most art, this is probably not the case. There are probably at least 2 possible perfect spots for each element, likely more.

Is it like the question of whether or not there is only one true love per person per lifetime??

By the way, I see that there's another person signing with "jc" here, so now I'm "jec"

1/25/2006 02:52:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Does the fact that everyone is answering differently change your theory, Ed?

In some ways, yes, it does. Of course, none of the changes were dramatic, so a better test might me to remove or add something. (Hmmm, another test idea, perhaps).

I figure I'll post which ones were changed tomorrow morning to allow folks who only read blogs late at night a chance to guess.

1/25/2006 02:59:00 PM  
Blogger Edna said...

Night-blogger chivalry.

Edward_, you have to promise not to tweak the results in order to support your original theory : )

I like the group hug idea.

Ciao babies!

1/25/2006 03:04:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

not married to my original theory at all, Edna. As I noted in the post, as I age I grow more skeptical about such assertions...hence the experiment.

Of course, there's nothing scientific about it, but I've already found reason to reassess the theory.

1/25/2006 03:11:00 PM  
Anonymous unosocko marlpus said...

ah, I see ed just flip-flopped the face in the first one. This leads me to think that the original is in fact on the left because the face looks awkward in the right one (the glasses seem out of sorts) I know this has nothing to do with composition as much as anatomy. But I really like doing some detective work!

1/25/2006 03:29:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

1.) original on left, the angle of the mouth works best.
2.) original on left the cross is balanced.
3.) is a guess, the bottom is the original.
The necessity is more obvious to me when balancing color, as in a Matisse or a Paul Resika, or as you mentioned Diebenkorn
This reminds me of taking an annalogy test, to me all the answers seem correct.

1/25/2006 03:45:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

1. Left
2. Right
3. Bottom

1/25/2006 03:52:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

just so everyone knows, Bambino had no inside information here. He could have bribed me (***censored***), but didn't. ;-)

None of which is to say he's got the right answers...

1/25/2006 04:12:00 PM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Dear George,

"Worthless stocks fluctuate wildly in price, and people trade them profitably. PT Barnum and Jesse Livermore both made a fine living betting against the sucker. Good luck with your investment."

Amen to that! I'm hoping that Edward will provide a post one day that will open up an opportunity for me to reveal my master plan to manipulate the downward spiral of Damien Hirst's works so that I can pick them up for a song like I did KoKo's. The plan involves a conspiracy with StarKist Tuna and a large Japanese Sushi consortium. I don't want to give too much away at this time, but I have big dining plans for that shark!


1/25/2006 04:15:00 PM  
Blogger Edna said...

You're a wacky dude, james dub bailey.

1/25/2006 05:34:00 PM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Dear Edna,

As we fast approach the end of the first month of 2006, I find myself spiritually reflecting by the light of my Hoodoo candle from my beloved New Orleans on the good things that have happened so far this year. And without a doubt one of those good things is to have discovered your blog through Edward’s. I’m honored to feature you on my blogroll.

Unfortunately, my hard core right wing conservative Republican born-again Pentecostal Christian cutting-edge Mississippi blues art faith precludes a belief in the concept of reincarnation – however, if Shiva herself sees fit to one day bitch slap my faith into another dimension, I want you to know that it would be my sincere desire to come back to this planet as an ANONYMOUS FEMALE ARTIST (A.K.A. MILITANT ART BITCH) member of your team. You are keeping the fire to the feet of the art world. God bless you for it. Together, you and I could jointly Kill Bill (the Devil behind the racism and sexism of the art world) with unrelenting applications of the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique to the dark soulless heart of the Evil One.


1/25/2006 10:57:00 PM  
Anonymous heather lowe said...

1st image Diebenkorn is on the right. The figure on the left too brooding.

2nd image Diebenkorn is on the left. The cross establishes the horizon.

The last image isn't coming in for me.

This is difficult because the images are so interesting beside one another and they have a definite influence on one another.
The pair becomes something entirely unique, in my opinion.

Anyway, that is my guess.

1/25/2006 11:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Auvi said...

1__ Left
2__ Left
3__ Top

...I can't justify my choices --- just a purely intuitive response.

I guess the underlying assumption is that Diebenkorn is better than Edward, everywhere, all the time. Maybe that's not true.

1/25/2006 11:53:00 PM  
Blogger C said...

I think people tend to confuse symmetry with composition. My guess is:

1. left
2. right
3. bottom

1/26/2006 05:44:00 AM  
Blogger Edna said...

Ah, my hero, J. W. B.

But I don't want to kill anyone, maybe just trip someone and laugh a little afterward.

Let's go to Area 51 in a blue Hyundai Excel.


1/26/2006 07:57:00 AM  
Anonymous Nolan said...

I'm gonna say the real ones are left, left, and bottom. Great post though! I've always been extremely skeptical of the "perfect composition" claim.


1/26/2006 09:13:00 AM  
Blogger carla said...

RD is:


1/26/2006 09:41:00 AM  

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