visual field

“Fields are also usually not limited, and they give the appearance of sections cut from something infinitely larger.” – Donald Judd, Specific Objects

Understood as the woodland’s opposite, “field” derives from the Old English feld, meaning “plain, open land.”[1] A field’s most essential quality is an immense openness; and paradoxically, despite the infinite details which may be present in a field – blades of grass, burrowing creatures, rustling leaves and decaying matter – a field appears plain, perhaps even sparse or minimal. To view a field is to simultaneously see something and nothing at all; emptiness, absence, paradoxically fills the very space of vision. A field may be, on some literal level, bound by some frame – a fence, a wall, a structure – but, mediated by perception, a framed field may yet appear endless; the material from which the image is “cut” is not quite conceivable. A visual field is therefore simultaneously structured and formless; it supports an image bound by the frame of perception – a finicky, dynamic, and embodied frame. The visual field, most basically, might be understood as the arrangement of stuff in one’s field of vision, a swatch of the very fabric of experience, a making a microcosm (which is still an unattainable macrocosm) out of a macrocosm.

Periphery forms the out-of-focus fringes of the field of vision, and therefore the visual field is perhaps not something entirely optical, but rather more haptic, allowing for an image to forever be in-the-making.[2] The very notion of the field as “cut from something larger” implies a tactile understanding of the visual. To consider Donald Judd’s statement in a literal way would mean to imagine shears slicing through the material of experience, creating fragments which perhaps can then be imagininatively collaged, or montaged into an understanding of some totality – simultaneously intimate and immense, to use Gaston Bachelard’s language. Laura U. Marks, in The Skin of the Film, expands upon Alois Riegl’s definition of the haptic, a lens through which the the visual field shall here be felt out: “The works I propose to call haptic invite a look that moves on the surface plane of the screen for some time before the viewer realizes what he or she is beholding. Such images only resolve into figuration only gradually.[3] The visual field, eternally incomplete as a result of human perception, is inherently haptic; it cannot resolve a totality into figuration. The participant in the activity of her own vision feels out the visual field before her as much as she sees it; in fact, seeing in order to define – literally in “high definition,” so to speak – is not entirely possible. It is therefore perhaps less pertinent to define what a visual field is, but, rather what it does, following in the emphatically random (which is paradoxically to say – wholly preconceived) strategy of Georges Bataille in Documents: “A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks”[4]. Visual field proves a particularly apt term for Bataille’s preferred method of definition because it has no particular “meaning”; the visual field can never be pinned down and framed, so to speak, as it is an operation of live perception.[5]

Art historically speaking, the notion of a visual field has always existed, but its abstractness perhaps made most literal in the pursuits of modernism (certainly Renaissance perspective also addresses a field of vision from a particular point; rather, I am speaking of the field as a sort of “subject” matter in itself). The emergence of color fields in painting, pioneered by such artists as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, would explore just what the term “color field” implies – color (usually “pure” or primary color, emphasizing the aforementioned “plain”-ness as a quality of the term) spread over a field. Barnett Newman’s series, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue (fig. 1) provides poignant examples of the sheer scale of color field paintings, looming both above and around the viewer in a vast expanse of a singular color; like the field of vision generally, it is an expanse vertically and horizontally surrounding the viewer. But more precisely, this “field” is a delineated, fixed stretch of canvas, therefore giving the impression of a larger expanse rather than existing as that incomprehensible expanse. As Donald Judd would suggest, fields “give the appearance of sections cut from something infinitely larger”[6]; but such painted fields give that and exactly that – an appearance, a closed, contained image of openness. Despite his insistence that fields “are also usually not limited,”[7] by nature of their being framed (in some way or another), they themselves are not limitless. Rather, the viewer’s perception of them can be, considering the confrontation of the color field in one’s own field of vision. Color field paintings thereby confront the impossibility of framing reality, as objects of vision themselves; they are openness idealized and not realized, whereas the visual field is openness in the actual.

If the visual field is dependent upon embodied perception, then there follows the question of the apparatus – the seeing eyes’ produced visual field versus that of the photographic or filmic apparatus; is the filmic image a visual field? Camera movement, portraying a certain embodied-ness to the camera, may lend itself to the viewer’s identification with the image on screen, for instance. However, the image projected is not the visual field, but the camera’s observation; the viewer’s visual field would include the excesses beyond the frame, the peripheral. The framed photographic image provides views without periphery; periphery, and therefore the visual field, lies in the cinematic experience of the frame. Likewise, the digital image, framed by the outer limits of a screen, is still part of a greater frame of perception as an object of vision within a field. To field the question of the field is to ask how to grasp, not only with one’s sight, but also with one’s very optical limitations, a totality that cannot be apprehended.

— Laura Brooke Hillegas

[1] “Field.” Online Etymology Dictionary.

[2] Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film, 162-163.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Georges Bataille. “L’Informe” (“Formless”), in Documents.

[5] Likewise, Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss would suggest that Bataille’s notion of formless is an operation, not a quality, in Formless: A User’s Guide.

[6] Donald Judd, “Specific Objects.”

[7] Ibid.

Works Cited

Bataille, Georges. “L’Informe,” Documents, in Undercover Surrealism: Georges Bataille     and Documents. MIT Press ed. London: Hayward Gallery, 2006.

“Field.” Online Etymology Dictionary <>

Judd, Donald. Specific Objects.

Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the     Senses. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.