Author Archives: Jessica Braiterman

About Jessica Braiterman

Jessica develops family and community programs at the BMA and especially enjoys the ever-popular Free Family Sunday workshop. A native Baltimorean, Jessica loves exploring the colorful city and surrounding woodlands with her young daughter and husband.

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.

Light Play–Musing on Dan Flavin’s Untitled (To Barnett Newman for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”)

Visitors observing Dan Flavin’s Untitled (To Barnett Newman for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf").

Visitors observing Dan Flavin’s Untitled (To Barnett Newman for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”).

The tower of fluorescent lights looms large at a tight triangular junction where the old building meets the new. On a quiet day at the museum, you can literally hear it hum.

Flavin’s signature use of ordinary fluorescent tubes gives the work both a straightforward familiarity and a strange magic. Up close, you can see the screws, the wires, the ordinariness of the fixtures. But stay a while—the colors start to work on your eyes. The red, yellow, and blue bulbs mix—sunset raspberry and a delicate melon sorbet splash on the walls. The entire room is noticeably flooded with a lavender glow.

The sensory experience beckons. I slowly look up and linger longer than usual on the exit sign which glows a gorgeous green. I look left and notice a dramatic yellow cast in the adjacent gallery which my intellect knows is a crisp white. My eyes have shifted. The world has become a complex tapestry of colored light. Experiencing Flavin’s piece is also about following the light out into the space occupied by the light. It is expansive and also quite mysterious.

One of the pleasures of sitting with light art is all the questions surrounding light—how does Flavin’s skillful work with light seduce the senses and alter one’s perception? What is causing my eyes to see a white room as yellow? Why does colored light create such suggestive moods and alter the character of space?

It is these questions and more that we’ll explore in the BMA’s Big Table Connections program on Saturday July 5, when light artist and lighting designer Glenn Shrum joins us for a session on Dan Flavin’s piece and the inner workings of light.

Shrum is the owner and founder of Flux Studio. He is an active member of the international lighting design and lighting education community and Assistant Professor of Lighting Design at Parsons The New School for Design. We invited him to lead a session of the BMA’s Big Table Connections program. Thankfully, Glenn very generously agreed. In June, he came to the museum for a fascinating planning session and developed a clever in-gallery project with his colored light tables. Participants will get to try their hand at color mixing with light. How might you mix light and reshape space. What marvelous effects will you generate? Be sure to bring your cameras or devices to document your experiments.

What do you think? Have you experienced Flavin’s work? How did it impact your senses? What other special experiences with light have you had?

The BMA’s Big Table Connections program is a great opportunity to unpack complex ideas in contemporary art from multiple perspectives. This year we have been presenting sessions on Minimalism and its offshoots. We could not finish the season in August without looking closely at the work of Dan Flavin in our Contemporary Wing.

Join us on Saturday, July 5 at 2 p.m., to hear Glenn discuss light art and lighting design, and provide valuable context for Flavin’s work. After Glenn’s talk, we’ll move into the galleries and try our hand at mixing colored light. Hope to see you there!