At the intersection of art and mathematics


Photograph of Olafur Eliasson's Flower observatory courtesy Christopher Hartman, July 2014.

Photograph of Olafur Eliasson’s Flower observatory, 2004 courtesy Christopher Hartman, July 2014.

Mathematics and art at first seem worlds apart. But is it so? Might there be a relationship between these disciplines? And if so, can it be explored in the BMA’s collection? Are there works of art at the Museum that draw on mathematical ideas, processes, and overlapping notions of beauty?

A stroll through the BMA’s Contemporary Wing invites pause as I – do I dare – walk on top of Carl Andre’s Zinc-Magnesium Plain, 1969. I look down and take in the textures of the metal surfaces. I think about the shape of the squares and their imperfect alignment and how the grid that this zinc and magnesium surface represents extends out infinitely in all directions.

I look up and see an explosion of geometric shapes—this time in brilliant stainless steel. Olafur Eliasson’s Flower observatory 2004 bursts forth and lures a viewer inside and around the hulking form.  It is quite a complex structure. Each triangular spike that pierces the gallery air has curious openings of various sizes where the tips would be. I stretch up and try to see through them like tiny keyholes and spy intricate forms. I cross the threshold, feel the shadow of the large form darken the space and look up. It is a dazzling canopy of star-like shapes as if a new universe is unfolding. I am inside the observatory, observing, marvelling. I don’t rush this moment; the marvel has its pleasures.

As the wonder subsides, I catch myself thinking about shapes—the glittering diamonds and flower-like forms, the rhombuses, the pentagon that inscribes the invisible base of the sculpture, the hex screws that connect the steel planes. I wonder if this is what a mathematical imagination might feel and look like.

To try to understand these questions and ideas, I invited mathematician Susan Goldstine and architect Fred Scharmen to the Museum for a conversation about the intersection of mathematics and art in these pieces. Fred uses words like “striking and beautiful” to describe geometry and art.  Susan poignantly said that “the beauty of mathematics – and the mathematics of beauty – comes from the ways in which simple elements combine and intersect to form dazzling structures seemingly out of thin air.”

As soon as Susan walked under Flower observatory, she said that it was based on a rhombic triacontahedron – a convex polyhedron with 30 rhombic faces. I’d remembered reading that in my research but couldn’t see it. She helpfully explained it to me and offered to show me how to fold the shape with paper, so that I could understand it with my hands as well as with my mind’s eye.

This conversation about the relationship between art and mathematics will form the basis of the next Big Table Connections. Both Fred and Susan have a natural, deep connection to mathematical forms, and they will bring their knowledge to the BMA on Saturday August 2nd at 2 pm. We will also get the chance to fold rhombic triacontahedra and make mathematical drawings too. I hope you will join us! You can also join in the conversation online using the #BMABigTable hashtag on Twitter.

In the meantime, be sure to visit the Sondheim semi-finalist exhibition at MICA to see Fred’s large wall drawing inspired by his mathematical research. The exhibition is on view in the Decker, Meyerhoff, and Pinkard galleries at MICA through August 3rd.

One thought on “At the intersection of art and mathematics

  1. James W

    Just wondering. Are there any natural ocuring Rhombic Triacontahedron, any where in nature? Crystals, gems, elements? No one seems to have an answer. Maybe you can help. Thank you. Looking forward to a response. j.w.


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