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MoMA to MoMath: a Mathematician’s Picks for Art in New York City

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I was in New York City earlier this month, and in addition to finally having an excuse to ride the Staten Island Ferry (I gave a talk there), I managed to make it to a few of the excellent museums in the city. I don’t go to art museums to try to find connections with math, but on this trip, they seemed to find me. If you’re interested in the intersection of art and math and can get to New York sometime soon, check them out. Thanks to the marvels of the Internet, you can also experience some of this art from the comfort of your own home, no matter where you live.

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978) Evening Dress, 1946 Black silk-rayon velvet, red silk satin, brown silk faille, black silk crepe The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta-Ramos, 1954 (2009.300.795) Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Karin Willis

Metropolitan Museum of Art

I only had a few minutes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so I made a beeline for Charles James: Beyond Fashion. James was a British-born American fashion designer who is best known for his sculptural ball gowns. Sewing is one of my hobbies, and I see it as a physical manifestation of my interest in geometry. Cloth is flat, and bodies are curved. Making flat cloth drape over a curved body in a pleasing manner is one of my favorite ways to play with geometry. And “playful” is a good adjective for many of James’s gowns. He was not trying to display anatomically correct human forms. He was creating fantasies, from exaggerated, stylized hips to “wings” of tulle in the back.

The exhibition plays up the more geometric and architectural sides of fashion design. The ball gowns stand in the exhibit’s main room, and each one has an informative display next to it. Some of them even show the construction of the gowns, using animation to show the transformation from rectangle of cloth into sumptuous draped garment. On some gowns, small video cameras take viewers on a tour of the garments’ impressive understructures. These are not wispy slips that glide over the wearer’s body. Gowns with this much structure and weight need boning and mountains of tulle to keep them in just the right shape. The second part of the exhibition, which is downstairs, displays some of James’s ready-to-wear clothing, including magnificent, remarkably modern-looking suits and coats. I love James’s aesthetic, and he was one heck of a geometer.

Timeliness: The exhibition closes August 10, 2014.
Online access: the exhibition has a very nice website with a few videos and several still images available. I especially recommend this video about the “hipster” evening dress on display (picture above).

Museum of Mathematics

An algorithmic sculpture made from pipe cleaners, on view at the Composite Visions exhibition by Trevor and Ryan Oakes at the Museum of Mathematics. Click the photo and scroll down the page for more information about the sculpture. Photo: Adriana Salerno.

The Museum of Mathematics had the good sense to open their first art exhibition in the Composite Gallery while I was in town, and I was pleased that I could attend the opening reception. (I ran into Adriana Salerno, another math blogger, while I was there. She wrote about the exhibition on her blog, PhD plus epsilon.) The exhibition, Compounding Visions, is devoted to the art of Trevor and Ryan Oakes, 32-year-old twins who have been interested in perspective and projection seemingly their entire lives. The focus of the exhibition is the twins’ technique for creating very realistic perspective drawings, which involves a concave drawing surface that mimics the inside of a sphere. Their exploration of perspective is reminiscent of those of Renaissance artists such as Albrecht Dürer.

A sculpture made of matches, on view at the Compounding Visions exhibition by Trevor and Ryan Oakes at the Museum of Mathematics. Photo: Adriana Salerno.

In addition to perspective drawings, there are several algorithmically constructed works, such as watercolor paintings that look like the sea, hyperbolic and polyhedral pipe cleaner sculptures, and matchstick domes and spirals.

All the works invite the viewer to move around and take them in from different angles and distances. but the most interactive piece is a wall hanging made of corrugated cardboard. The direction of the tunnels in the cardboard makes the hanging opaque when you look at it from the side and see-through when you look at it straight on. If you come with a friend, get them to stand on the tape “X” on the floor, and walk by the sculpture from the other side. If you’re like me and the other museum-goers who were there on opening night, you’ll be quite amused.

Timeliness: the exhibition closes July 21, 2014. There is a chat with the artists next Tuesday, May 27.
Online access: The website includes pdfs with information about the two algorithmic pipe cleaner sculptures.

Museum of Modern Art

The Museum of Modern Art has several exhibitions and works with both subtle and overt mathematical significance right now. Here, I’ve listen them in order by closing date.

Paul Gaugin: Metamorphoses

I was drawn to the oil transfer paintings in this exhibition. The technique, which Gaugin invented, consists of putting ink on one sheet of paper, putting another sheet of paper on top of it, and drawing with a pencil on the top sheet. Ink is transferred to the opposite side of the top sheet of paper, and the resulting image is reminiscent of the pencil drawing but smudged and slightly distorted due to the way the ink is transferred. From an article about the technique: “The exquisitely detailed pencil drawing, executed with clarity on the verso, undergoes a sort of metamorphosis to engender the mysterious print on the recto.”

Timeliness: The exhibition closes June 8, 2014.
Online access: The exhibition has a good website, including a nice article about the oil transfer technique.

There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4:33

Avant-garde composer John Cage’s most famous work is 4:33, in which the performer is instructed not to play for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. There Will Never Be Silence explores that piece and other minimal and conceptual compositions and artwork from Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Yoko Ono, La Monte Young, and others.

Many of the works in the exhibit explore themes of chance and (in)determinacy, but I was particularly interested in the pieces related to music notation. Conveying sound visually is to me an interesting mathematical problem. The music notation with which we are most familiar is incredibly efficient, but the exhibit includes different music notation ideas, including “Fontana Mix,” the squiggly score for one of Cage’s compositions.

Timeliness: The exhibition closes June 22, 2014. There are several upcoming events related to the exhibit.
Online access: Here.

Jasper Johns: Regets

Regrets is an exhibition about one image, realized and displayed in many different ways. The MoMA website writes,

“In June 2012, Johns encountered an old photograph of the artist Lucian Freud reproduced in an auction catalogue. In the picture, Freud sits on a bed, holding his right hand to his forehead in a gesture of weariness or despair. Johns was inspired not only by this scene but also by the damaged appearance of the photograph itself. In the months that followed, he carried the image through a succession of permutations using a variety of mediums and techniques.”

Timeliness: The exhibition closes September 1, 2014. There are gallery sessions about experimentation and chance in Regrets on June 4 and June 30.
Online access: Here.

Robert Heinecken: Object Matter

The most mathematical work in this exhibition is a slide show called Surrealism on TV. 216 slides of images from TV are loaded randomly into 3 slide projectors, and the projectors run, each at a variable speed. Hence the images that appear together at any one time are left to chance. Or are they? Are the projector speeds random, or do they have a cycle? After all, true randomness is devilishly difficult to create. If we watch long enough, will we discover that the images have a periodic pattern? Is Surrealism on TV actually completely predictable? Does it matter?

Also somewhat mathematical in the Heinecken exhibition: the “landscapes” made from cut up and reassembled photographs of nudes, including Kodak Safety Film/Figure Horizon; and The S.S. Copyright Copyright Project: “On Photography,” which creates pictures of Susan Sontag from photographs of the text of her book, On Photography.

Timeliness: The exhibition closes September 7, 2014.
Online access: Here.

Sol LeWitt: Wall drawings (permanent collection)

I first remember seeing Sol LeWitt’s work on the Wesleyan University math department wall. I know him for these wall drawings, which are created to his specifications directly on walls. The LeWitt pieces I’ve seen are always simple but interesting, and I’m a sucker for algorithmic and geometric art creation. Only two LeWitt pieces are on view at MoMA right now, and one of them is Wall Drawing #1144, Broken Bands of Color in Four Directions.

Timeliness: There are many of LeWitt’s works in the MoMA’s permanent collection.
Online access: Find LeWitt’s MoMA works online, including works in the collection that are not currently on view.

Have you seen any interesting mathematical art recently?

Evelyn Lamb About the Author: Evelyn Lamb is a postdoc at the University of Utah. She writes about mathematics and other cool stuff. Follow on Twitter @evelynjlamb.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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