Decoding Artspeak: Figure and Ground

“Nothing can become intelligible unless seen against a background, a horizon, a surrounding field, a periphery. A figure without limits is unthinkable.”—Jan Bouman

Many writers have noted the cryptic, jargony doublespeak so often used to talk about art; some have even delved into its wordy vocabulary and constructions, mining and analyzing linguistic data from gallery press releases. Here at Artsy, we’re attempting to demystify some of the more useful terms that art criticism has generated, beginning with the expression figure and ground.

Rooted in early-20th-century German Gestalt psychology, figure and ground refers to a theory of the mind’s organizing tendencies, in particular the way the human brain perceives physical form, distinguishing an object or form from its context or surroundings—a figure from its background. The term probably first appeared in relation to art in modernist discourse, though its conceptual origins can be traced back much further. 

Aristotle differentiated between form and matter, citing the example of a bronze statue of a horse in which the matter is bronze and form is the sculpture. It was in the 20th century, though, that the Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin famously experimented with figure-ground perception, using optical illusions in the form of black-and-white images to gauge how humans perceive negative and positive space and form.

Movements throughout the 20th century have examined, accentuated, or subverted the figure-ground relationship in two-dimensional works. The Cubists and Futurists, who were concerned with portraying speed and multiple viewpoints, fractured the picture plane into fragments, flattening space so that figure and ground became indistinguishable. 

The Constructivists and, later, the Minimalists depicted perfect geometric forms in space, emphasized through sharp contrasts between object and background, while the Light and Space movement and the Op Artists—influenced by Rubin’s experiments—distorted the relationship, creating ambiguous perceptions of depth through painting all-over geometric shapes, or figures composed of light. Today artists continue to play with the figure-ground relationship, such as Barbara Kasten, who creates illusory spaces by photographing staged abstract forms and environments cast in studio lighting.

— Tess Thackara