Testing a Hypothesis about Good Composition
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....
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....
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.