Lecture on DEPTH

Flat images are a form of writing.  One reads and if one knows the language, the signs, one gets the picture.  “The boat rocked on the waves” is a wonder, placing the scene, even accompanying sounds, in our minds.  Now, you would think that pictorial painting would be universally understood, concerned as it is with at least some fidelity to appearance, but I’ve read that tribesmen with no contact with techno-society are bewildered even by photographs.  Intelligent as they may be within their culture, they do not see what we can’t help but see.  Or I should say read.  

Painting free of any fidelity to observation is more off-putting.  Even techno-citizens must learn a particular sign-language for indicating depth.  And as much as 2D images long for further dimension, strain against their dimensionless existence, their efforts to achieve depth can only be suggested, indicated, read.

Fortunately, the signs pick up on life-experience so that something interfering with the seeing of another thing is considered closer to the viewer, something getting smaller more distant, et cetera.  We bring the life-experience of circumnavigating reality to the canvas and Pollack for instance becomes an adventure in a space just this side of convincing.  Conceptually enormous.

Illusion is different.  One engages with apparent depth, easily mistaken for reality.  Illusion can offer depth-experiences impossible to reality.  Are they actual experiences?  Hearts quicken, juices flow; yes, I think so.  But one maintains a margin of disbelief, impossible for children, to hold on to one’s actual circumstances.

Stereo images, stereo sound, the move to virtual reality and the effect on everyone including children will change what humans are.  The present is quaint, as we’ll all soon see.

I’ve always been grateful for my studies with Hans Hofmann.  Hofmann alerted his students to negative space, the space we move through or see through before going up against objects, every bit as real and as necessary as objects.  The East seems to have had a better sense of this, Western minds seem only to notice things.  

Exciting to explore a cave, assuming a way out.  Holes, tunnels, openings, paths; air!  Paintings that seemed to offer air were important to Hofmann.  A clogged painting was unbreathable, not something one could dwell on or, imaginatively, within.

There was always a model.  He said that unless one returns to the considering of nature -places, persons- one’s composition becomes repetitious, devolves to a sort of signature and the eternal surprises of actuality keeps one compositionally inventive.  The model, however, was never to be seen or spoken about as a person; she was fleshy architecture, weights and extensions forming hollows and thrusts into space.  A balance was to be achieved that included pockets of air -so that the space between body parts, between body and chair; chair and surrounding space became of as much concern as the arrangement of the body.  And every charcoal mark was to refer to the entire format with balance maintained throughout so that at any stage one could leave it entire.  Done.

The word architectonic was in the air.  A portrait or a landscape or depiction of a bridge were essentially the same: meetings and inter-penetrations of positive and negative space, but with space the primary thing and specific identity of objects replaced by paint, by advancing and receding colors as they approached or retreated from the eye.  (One eye or two seeing the same thing in parallel, it didn’t matter; but later in my filmwork the two inches more or less between them would make all the difference -as it does! in our existence as bipeds -each of us twins, meeting in the middle, groping through the world and sometimes seeing where we’re going.)  Orange optically advances, it’s opposite on the color wheel -for paint, different from the color wheel for light- is blue.  Blue opens, recedes.  Those colors are the most extreme regarding recession/advance, red and green seem to land on the same plane and I never understood yellow and purple.

Hofmann was adamantly anti-illusion.  Reality was paint on canvas and you were not to forget it.  Yet he spoke of advance/recession all the time and isn’t that illusion?  The big moment in my studies with him was when he was making a round of easels and I heard his big laugh: “People think Mondrian is flat!”  I hadn't the nerve to ask what he meant but worked at the dilemma on my own -with lots of study of Mondrian.  Indeed, I got to see a Mondrian take place in depth but still don’t know if I talked myself into it.  His rectangles, of different sizes, could be seen to actively advance and recede, never staying still (as eyes shifted), with the shifts accelerating so that one could take the action only briefly.  But I’ve never come across written support for this phenomena and Hofmann’s gone. 

I was wound up and this affected my filmmaking, as you see in WINDOW, 1964, where lateral -sideways- camera movement combined with simultaneous zooming makes for a seeming movement through space.  No tripod! no inhuman fixed point of view.     SHOW FILM

So, crazy for negative space, I then came upon a placard on a store counter offering pairs of dinky plastic and cardboard spectacles with the legend SEE TV IN 3D, ONE DOLLAR. 

We had very few dollars.  I walked out of the store, turned, put down the dollar.  Flo looked at the specs and said, “More magic beans, Ken?

But the designer of the specs knew something.  They didn’t work well, reliably, but one day, watching a ticker-tape parade on tv, depth did appear.  Paper ribbons twirled down on Broadway each at another distance in space.  Taking apart the specs, one discovered dark plastic filters that could be positioned before either one or the other eye.  And that was all!  And then out of nowhere a friend gave me the book EYE AND BRAIN by H.L.Gregory and I learned of the Pulfrich Effect, also known as the Pendulum Effect.  Theorized (!) by Herr Pulfrich -who had lost sight of one eye in World War One and couldn’t see the effect himself- a dark filter before the eye absorbed light going to that eye but also slowed down light as it registered on the brain.  Hence, a fateful delay was introduced which in the case of watching a film meant that an eye not looking through the filter saw the light that was there, at that moment, while the light-cheated eye received the light that had been there a moment ago.  Watching a film it meant that one eye saw the frame onscreen while one eye saw the frame that was there a 24th of a second earlier.  Looking at a pendulum swinging left/right with this differential in sight the pendulum would be seen as swinging in a circle; shift the filter before the other eye and the circle would reverse.