Artists Do the Math


The division of art and text was, from the start, artificial; the technology of the printing press limited the art it could reproduce. Present-day media is restoring that relationship: art and text, back together, as it should be.  The more difficult re-integration is art and science. The Romantics saw no distinction: scientists wrote poetry; poets contributed and borrowed from science. Today, the rift is vast.



In 2007, a “rehanging” of the confederate flag sparked protests in Florida. The artist, John Sims, has more recently sought to establish an aesthetic that integrates social change with mathematics. To that end, he has curated a nine-part series at the Bowery Poetry Club, titled, “Rhythm of Structure: Mathematics, Art and Poetic Reflection.” Nine shows, spanning September 2009 to August 2010, pair artists in “duets.” The events are subdivided into three groups of three: geometric, then conceptual, then sociological. The current show, sixth in the series, pairs Adrian Piper and Sol LeWitt.  Installations by the two artists share a wall in the theater of the club.

Piper’s installation, Vanishing Point #1 (2010), is a six-foot-square cut into the sheetrock to reveal the wood beams and brick behind the wall. Nearby and scaled identically, Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #163 (1973–2010) renders a black outlined square sub-sectioned with two additional red lines. The juxtaposition taunts viewers with geometric similarities that seem to mean more-some esoteric algorithm or algebraic term beyond our understanding, or a numerological constant.

For the opening of the installation, Mark Strand, former Poet Laureate (1990–91) and longtime art critic, contributed with a reading of half a dozen poems. His two-part poem “Elevator,” related most directly to the present installation. In the poem, a man goes down into a basement, and, when asked if he’s going up or down, replies: “I’m going down. I won’t be going up.” In the second part of the poem, the process repeats. The themes of the poem are dual: hell and laughter; life and machine; the past and present. The stark geometry of the poem, divided as it is into two equal parts, alludes to the structural frame. The indication by Strand, and by the larger curatorial effort, is that art and science share an underlying structure—that under it all, behind the wall, the creative and critical processes are the commensurable.

Developed for the location and the opening of the show, Piper’s performance piece, One 16 Minute-Long, Thickly Textured Straight Line Running Parallel with the Bowery Poetry Project Floor, quietly insisted on the art/science correlative.  Twenty-eight performers positioned throughout the reading room hummed together in Middle C, for 16 minutes. The note was chosen because it falls between the two staves of musical notation, and, respectively, between bass and soprano. Because of its presumed centrality, Middle C is often employed in scientific investigations that require a tone. Piper’s performance was contemplative, and not terribly exciting, but ultimately made its point that math and science are as much a part of creativity as rhapsody and beauty, and if we limit ourselves, we are inadequate in our educations and ambitions.