No visual artist has ever needed to be told by a scientist that the observation of a phenomenon changes its nature. The interdependence of the viewer and the object under scrutiny has long been understood by painters and sculptors. Yet it wasn’t until the early 20th century that physicists began to unravel the mystery of why this might be. For artists who had long grappled with questions of relativity and perspective, the puzzles of the microscopic and the invisible, the discoveries of Einstein, Heisenberg and other scientific pioneers must have been received as more than just intellectual curiosities. They were confirmations of long-held suspicions about the mutability and impermanence of the physical world.
Dimensionism, an avant-garde movement of the 1930s, is often considered an artistic response to scientific advances and the dizzying sense of velocity brought on by the pace of innovation. But as the lively, thought-provoking new show at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick demonstrates, it wasn’t quite that simple.
Many of the artworks on display in “Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein” do feel like expressions of anxiety engendered by scientific discoveries. Others are more like playful reflections, or riffs, or riddles. But the majority of the pieces in this show radiate a strange, serene joy — and a kind of satisfaction, too. These avant-garde artists weren’t merely inspired by scientists. Scientists were proving things that these artists already believed but could not put into words, or demonstrate with a formula. Physicists and experimental painters may have been using wildly different dialects, but they were speaking a common language.
Although Dimensionism isn’t well known, a surprising number of big names signed its 1936 manifesto or endorsed its message. Those included the Russian innerspace voyager Wassily Kandinsky, conceptual provocateur Marcel Duchamp, kineticist Alexander Calder, surrealist Yves Tanguy, and the painters Robert and Sonia Delaunay, whose fascination with geometry led to some of the most striking, colorful canvases produced in pre-war Paris. The “Dimensionism” show includes works by all these artists, and others like them, all grappling with ideas about space, time, perspective and cosmic phenomena. The show highlights the scientific and mathematical underpinnings of their artworks, but never in a way that feels dry or automatic. Indeed, the most striking thing about the 70-piece show — and, ironically, the part that feels most archaic — is its optimism.
The ideologue of the Dimensionists was Charles Sirató, a forward-looking, Einstein-loving Hungarian art critic and poet who believed that scientific discoveries had broken down the barriers of perceived reality. It was he who wrote the manifesto, and it’s his big umbrella that most of these works rest underneath. Sirató wanted to see art that reflected that disruption — art that captured the elasticity of time and space. His Dimensionist favorites made art meant to dislocate and unmoor the viewer: art meant to pull you off of the gallery floor and into its depths. His words feel eerily similar to those of mid-’90s techno-prophets convinced that the Internet would upend consciousness and transform humanity (or at least aesthetics) for the better. And yes, it hasn’t exactly worked out that way, for him or for us, but it’s hard to knock Sirató’s enthusiasm, or his taste in painters and sculptors.
Although the artists in the “Dimensionism” show seek to represent a world in flux, there’s always an anchor for the audience. This is abstract art, mostly, but there’s just enough figuration in these works to let the viewer know exactly what’s been stretched apart. Charles Howard’s “The Aimant” (French for magnet) is awhirl with antennas and vectors and bold fields of colors; it looks like the sky and the earth shuffled like a deck of cards. Kandinsky’s canvases feel like a peek through a microscope into a netherworld; Roberto Matta’s vertiginous Genesis suggests the galaxy-spewing effect of the Big Bang.
Photographers and graphic designers got in on the action, too — Herbert Matter’s boldly manipulated amoeba-like forms and Harold Edgerton’s dizzying images of liquid splashes and tennis players in mid-smash do feel like interventions in the static representation of time and space. They’re pushes against the restrictions of two-dimensional art — elbows thrown against the frame.
Some pieces in the show do directly reference scientists or scientific phenomena. The cheekiest is Isamu Noguchi’s “E=MC2,” a star-like papier-mâché sculpture that protrudes from the wall as if it was shot there by a cannon. It does suggest unexploded ordnance, which may be part of Noguchi’s point: world-changing ideas are potentially dangerous. In “Self-Portrait,” Helen Lundeberg takes the challenge of Dimensionism literally, depicting a poised brush, and her hand on a sphere in a canvas inside her canvas. Much of the first gallery of the show engages the 1925 total solar eclipse, an event that surely felt auspicious to an avant-garde hungry for signs of reversal and reordering. Calder, the exhibit suggests, was inspired by the transit of the moon across the sun to create his mobiles. The Delaunays, mesmerized as they were by light and color, attempted to capture both solar and electromagnetic waves in various works. Sonia Delaunay’s arresting canvases are studies in rhythm, color, and unimpeded movement. They fall on the eye like jazz brushes on a snare-head.
The chromatic and geometric experiments of the Delaunays point directly to a piece at the tail-end of the show: Dorothea Tanning’s “Midi et demi,” an ever-blooming chrysanthemum of a painting.
Although it was completed two decades after Sirató’s manifesto, it’s hard to imagine a better expression of the ideas he was driving toward. Here, the line has no tyranny: it’s bent, twisted and beckoning, pulling the viewer in closer and revealing its secrets slowly. This is a painting to be dissolved in. It respects no boundaries, and you wouldn’t want it to.
Better yet is a sculpture by an artist whose works I’ve rarely seen outside of textbooks: Russian constructivist Naum Gabo. It’s a person-sized latticework of metal cables stretched, as if by magnets, at its poles. “Vertical Construction No. 2 (The Waterfall)” does indeed achieve the quality of liquid, but it also pulls like a nylon. And like an office tower, it promises unknowable depths amidst the girders.
All these works are deeply respectful of science and mathematics, but none are overawed by either. Instead, they see physics as the cornerstone of a world transformed, remade in the name of clarity, with old forms swept away like so many cobwebs. These artists were participants in that endeavor — none more than Lázsló Moholy-Nagy, Sirató’s fellow Hungarian, and in outlook, the model Dimensionist. “Lightplay: Black-White-Gray,”a film by Moholy-Nagy, plunges the viewer into the shadowed interior of a machine. It feels precisely calibrated, impersonal, inevitable as the future.
The final gallery in the Zimmerli exhibition looks at the relationship between Dimensionism and Eastern European socialism and the application of the forward-looking aesthetic to utopian projects. Faith that machinery and technology point toward an egalitarian future might seem naïve a century later, but the purity of its expression has left us a lasting artistic legacy.
In 2019, it can be hard to find anyone with a good word for scientists. Our new understanding of time and space didn’t free us from the grim obligations of the here and now. Technology, we believe, has created a dystopia, and we look to the arts to spring us free from the cold digital world that the innovators have made. Just as Sirató’s faith in the transformative possibilities of physics was more than mere idealism, there’s certainly some truth to this critique. Nevertheless, it’s good to see a show that reminds us that the artistic imagination and the scientific imagination have always been closely related, and that scientists and artists are, and always have been, fellow travelers on a long journey into the unknown.
“Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein” will run at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick through Jan. 5. Visit zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.
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