Quarantine: Gestalt Exercises #3: Attending and Concentrating

Giorgio Morandi, “Still Life” (1956)

“For a brief period pay attention to some visual object for example, a chair. As you look at it, notice how it clarifies itself by dimming out the space and objects around it.” *

(If you have not read the first two installments and practiced Gestalt Exercise #1: Feeling the Actual and Gestalt Exercise #2: Opposing Forces, read them here

Gestalt Exercise #3 introduces the concept of Figure/Ground. It is much easier to experience than to describe. The Figure is what you pay attention to, the Ground is everything else. Though I am concentrating on the visual, it applies to every way in which we perceive the world though our senses—and we only perceive the world through our senses, of course.
The popular idea that a recognizable object or a human being is the figure and the rest of the painting is the background has nothing to do with the concept of Figure/Ground.

Let’s say the Morandi pictured above hangs on my living room wall (nice thought.) When I look at the painting, everything else in my field of vision, the room, the wall, etc. is the Ground and the painting is the Figure. If I look at the apricot rectangle or all three rectangles together, it or they become the Figure and the rest of the painting becomes the Ground. Whatever thing or combination of things in relation to each other that draws my attention including the space around the objects becomes the Figure.
If while I am looking at the painting, the phone rings, my ear itches, or a bat flies into the room (as has happened to me!), any of these events can become the Figure. Theoretically I could ignore the ear or the phone but never the bat. The rest of everything would be the “dimmed out space and objects,” i.e. the Ground—as the authors suggest.


Which leads directly to the second part of Gestalt Exercise 3.

“Let your attention shift from one object to another, noticing Figure and Ground in the object and in your emotions. Verbalize your emotions each time as “I like this or “I dislike this.” *

You may say that a Morandi does not evoke emotions. But isn’t his work all about relationships? The chalky light rectangles may become an “impenetrable face to the world.” The white bottle might seem “trapped,” the group as a whole “a tight-knit family” or a “claustrophobic” one. The emotions that you ascribe to them are all your own. The fluidity of his Figure /Ground relationships facilitates a play of feelings.

Installation View of Hamburger Bahnhof; Pictured: Andy Warhol, “Portrait of Chairman Mao”

When I first saw Warhol’s Mao in Berlin, I was stunned by it. On the next visit—Nothing.
Warhol, as always, presents an image drained of meaning, with no figure/ground fluidity, and thus no continuing visual or emotional interest. For example, Mao is neither pro- nor anti- Communist.


(By the way, the museum seems to have realized that the Mao is dull and tried to help it out, once by painting the wall red and then by wallpapering polka dot heads behind it. Someday they will sell it.)


Warhol’s achievement lies in his rigidity—he offers one emotion—the feeling of being cool enough to recognize the irony and that it is a Warhol. Perhaps the reason I hate him so much is that I am that cool and hate myself for it. Well—also that so many artists and art lovers have embraced a knowing ironic distance as the only proper way to make and view art. They don’t seem to be aware of how limiting  this approach is—how much is missing.

Vermeer, “Girl with the Pearl Earring”

The importance of the Figure/Ground relationship is not limited to still life painting.
Take the Girl with the Pearl Earring, Vermeer has painted a beautiful black velvet background and transformed it into a dynamic space by having the girl’s body turn into it—and then she looks back and touches my heart.
The internal geometry can also become the figure, for example the shape made by the glints of light on the girl’s lips, the pearl and the whites of her eyes.

Rachel Youens, “Stand” (2016), oil on canvas, 20” x 40”

Rachel Youens is a master of extremely fluid Figure/Ground relationships. She paints a chaotic still life with objects some of which are hard to recognize and others that are broken up. The two central vases, for example, are divided in half by shadow and light. The central vase in a neutral quiet color divides the whole painting in half.  Objects flow out of the painting—it is a cross section of the visual world. In a very unusual way, the emphasis is on the Ground. The Figures—individual objects, relations of objects and geometries—flow in and out of my attention and I cannot ascribe specific emotions to them. But the painting as a whole intrigues me, somehow I want to continue looking at it, it gives me a feeling of Care itself, that perhaps a gentle quiet looking might…

Oh, I don’t know. I can’t describe it.


The exercises are from:

*Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality
by Frederick Salomon Perls, Ralph Hefferline, Paul Goodman

To read the Gestalt Exercise#1 and Gestalt Exercise #2 read them here.

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