Composition is the arrangement of elements within a work of art

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  • Frank Stella, 'Hyena Stomp' 1962

    Frank Stella
    Hyena Stomp 1962
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1956 x 1956 mm frame: 1982 x 1981 x 91 mm
    Purchased 1965 ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002

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  • George Stubbs, 'Mares and Foals in a River Landscape' circa 1763-8

    George Stubbs
    Mares and Foals in a River Landscape circa 1763-8
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1016 x 1619 mm frame: 1229 x 1815 x 64 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Pilgrim Trust 1959

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  • Jackson Pollock, 'Number 23' 1948

    Jackson Pollock
    Number 23 1948
    Enamel on gesso on paper
    support: 575 x 784 mm frame: 651 x 861 x 42 mm
    Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery (purchased out of funds provided by Mr and Mrs H.J. Heinz II and H.J. Heinz Co. Ltd) 1960 ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002

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Although in a general sense any piece of music or writing, painting or sculpture, can be referred to as a composition, the term usually refers to the arrangement of elements within a work of art. An artist arranges the different elements of an artwork so as to bring them into a relationship satisfactory to them and, it is hoped, the viewer.

In the classical tradition, triangular or pyramidal compositions were used because they created a sense of balance and harmony by arranging the figures into a stable overall geometric structure. This can be seen for example in the roughly conical grouping of the animals in George Stubbs’s Mares and Foals.

The idea of composition as the adjustment of the relationships of the elements of the work within the border of the canvas, remained unchallenged through the upheavals of the early modern movements such as cubism and abstract art.

Then in the late 1940s the American abstract expressionist painter, Jackson Pollock, introduced what came to be called allover composition, and the traditional concept became known as relational composition. However, Pollock still generally seems to be composing within the canvas. But at the same time, the abstract expressionist Barnett Newman began making paintings in which large blocks of colour ran from top to bottom of the canvas. These were relational to the extent that the proportions of the colours were adjusted against each other, but they were compositionally radical in that the blocks of colour simply ran off the top and bottom edges of the canvas, which Newman deliberately left unframed. It was Frank Stella in the late 1950s who achieved a composition that was both all over and broke out of the confines of the canvas.