Poetry of Paper haiku station with visitors

Visitors reflecting on negative space in the exhibition

In negative space
One can find the meaning of
Almost everything.

For the last ten weeks, I’ve been reading haiku written by our visitors about drawings on view in the exhibition I curated here at the Getty, called The Poetry of Paper. I asked our visitors to follow my example and use only 17 syllables to describe how empty passages between drawn lines contain meaning. In the gallery there’s a box for haiku submissions, and every week I select 10 haiku to be posted on our Education Department’s Pinterest page.

When the exhibition opened, I wasn’t sure that our visitors would find this exercise compelling. It turns out they did. On average, I’ve received 700 haiku a week, and 155,000 people have come to see the show so far. Although not all of our visitors wrote haiku about the use of negative space in the two drawings I set up on the table—which was the task I set out for them—plenty of them have.

Stack of haikus

The skyscraper of haiku submissions!

When I organize an exhibition of drawings from our permanent collection, most of my time is usually spent researching and planning so that the artwork can go on display. After the drawings are up on the walls, my interaction with the visitors is limited to occasional public tours. For The Poetry of Paper, I decided to make this process more interactive, more dynamic. I wanted to know if what I found fascinating about our drawings was also of interest to our visitors. Does this art of suggestion speak to them? Do they like to write about art as much as they like to look at it? What did they have to say about the empty passages?

Boats on Shore and in Water / Jan de Bisschop

Boats on Shore and in Water, 1648–1652, Jan de Bisschop. J. Paul Getty Museum

What I learned is that visitors have powerful and often highly personal connections with art. I was amazed, for example, to see how a drawing of boats by a 17th-century Dutch amateur, Jan de Bisschop, struck a chord with 21st-century loneliness:

A lonely shoreline
Boats sleep awash in shadow
Waiting for travel

Deserted boat looms
Emptiness pursues
White space invades

Beached on sandy shore
In suggested water friends float
Hope to sail again

The beauty lies in
The vast open areas
Of this empty life

De Bisschop’s Boats on the Shore and in Water is a sheet that we purchased two years ago from a private collector in the Netherlands. Before that it was owned by an important German scholar of Dutch art. It’s safe to say that this drawing, previously known by only a few specialists, has become the focus of thousands now that it’s on display at the Getty Center. Two-thirds of de Bisschop’s drawing is comprised of blank paper, and this reserve of paper is masterfully employed to suggest sky, bank, and water. Boats on the Shore and in Water is drawn by an artist that 99 percent of our visitors have never heard of, and whose name is difficult to pronounce. Yet this depiction of 17th-century Dutch boats speaks to people. To our visitors, this drawing, with its broad expanse of negative space, evokes a sense of desolation, sadness, quietude, and journeys unfulfilled. Who would have thought that so much could be conveyed with so little?

The empty space here
Is bound to be filled in by
An ocean of thought

Visitors writing haikus

All haikus in this post by anonymous visitors to the Getty Center. Thank you.