The early 20th century was a time of tremendous innovation in physics, mathematics, chemistry, and biology. Responding to this, a group of influential artists that included Sonia Delauney, Robert Delauney, Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Duchamp, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Hans Arp, and Alexander Calder added their names to the Dimensionist Manifesto. That was Hungarian poet Charles Sirato’s 1936 screed calling for an artistic response to groundbreaking scientific discoveries that changed human understanding of the universe.
“Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein,” on view at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick through January 5, traces the influence of early 20th-century scientific discoveries on some of the era’s most celebrated artists.
Organized at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College the nationally touring exhibition includes 75 works in painting, sculpture, prints, and photographs, along with poetry and ephemera, by more than 36 artists. Zimmerli director Thomas Sokolowski sees the exhibition as an opportunity for the right and left sides of the brains to overlap.
“The influence of science on some of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century has been largely overlooked,” says curator Vanja Malloy. “While much has been written about the impact of social and political movements on artists, especially in the tumultuous period between the two World Wars, this exhibition is an important opportunity to reconsider art and artists we think we know in a fresh historical framework. When we see their art through the lens of the scientific discoveries that were reshaping popular understanding of the universe around them, their visual interests and impulses can take on a different meaning.”
By the 1930s developments in astronomy indicated that cosmic space was much more vast than previously believed. Science fiction authors explored this in books illustrated with cosmic imagery showing the vastness of outer space, in turn becoming a source of inspiration for artists.
One of the scientific discoveries to inspire artists was Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, first published in 1915 and partially confirmed by an astronomically significant solar eclipse in 1919, which allowed Einstein and his colleagues to measure the “bending” of light around the sun.
Just as our understanding of the universe was expanding with the theory of relativity, Sirato’s Manifesto argued that art, too, must expand. Space and time were no longer separate categories, according to Einstein’s theory, nor should they be in art.
“Dimensionism is a general movement of the arts,” the manifesto begins. “Its unconscious origins reaching back to cubism and futurism, it has been continuously elaborated and developed since then by all the peoples of Western civilization. Today the essence and theory of this great movement bursts with absolute self-evidence…The absolute need to evolve, an irreducible instinct, has sent the avant-garde on their way toward the unknown, leaving dead forms and exhausted essences as prey for less demanding artists.” (Copies of the entire manifesto are available at the Zimmerli.)
Curator Malloy became interested in Dimensionism when writing her dissertation, “Rethinking Alexander Calder: Astronomy, Relativity, and Psychology.” She is a scholar of science as well as art. Malloy, formerly curator of American art at Amherst’s Mead Art Museum, is now director and chief curator of Syracuse University Art Galleries.
“Imagine a place in which time is not constant, cosmic space is warped (or non-Euclidean), and it’s infinitely expanding,” Malloy writes in the exhibition catalog. This is “not the fictional backdrop to an immersive science fiction novel, but the realities of our universe as we learned them in the early 20th century.” She sets out to situate modern art in this context.
The exhibition begins with a work by Joseph Cornell, known for his “Cornell boxes” made with celestial orbs. His collage here has circles suggestive of planets and lines that suggest sightlines for viewing the heavenly orbs. Cornell included footage of the 1919 solar eclipse in his 1936 film “Rose Hobart” (not on view here, though it can be seen online).
A self-taught artist, Cornell lived in the basement of his family’s home in Queens, New York, and never traveled outside the city, but his imagination extended to the heavens. Cornell was an avid viewer and collector of films, and his homage to the actress Rose Hobart was his first attempt at making a film. The artist cut apart the 1931 B-movie “East of Borneo,” in which Hobart stars as a woman searching for her alcoholic husband in a remote jungle. Cornell edited clips featuring Hobart along with other films, including footage of people watching the eclipse and the eclipse itself, and a slow-motion view of a sphere falling into a pool of water and setting off ripples.
Marcel Duchamp’s “Rotoreliefs” (optical discs), from 1935, look like record players with optical illusions spinning. These off-center spiral designs, also responding to the eclipse, can throw off a viewer’s equilibrium. “While his Rotoreliefs satisfy the Manifesto’s desire for kinetic artwork, and allude to Einstein’s relativity through the title ‘Eclipse Totale’ for one of the discs, they also draw on Duchamp’s fourth dimension,” according to the exhibition label.
In geometric abstractions, Ukrainian-born French artist Sonia Delauney — the first living female artist to have an exhibition at the Louvre, in 1964 — conveys her view of another dimension. With her husband Robert, whom she called a poet who wrote with color, she developed the concept of “Simultane” (Orphism), noted for its use of strong colors and geometric shapes. They were interested in how light can dissolve form and create the impression of color in motion.
The Delauneys were also interested in electricity in the form of vibrating electromagnetic waves, as well as an unseen realm revealed through science and technology. (Special note: Sonia Delauney is lovingly portrayed, surrounded by her work, in a large color lithograph, “Lost and Found” by noted feminist artist Miriam Schapiro, in the Zimmerli’s upstairs exhibition “Home is Where . . .” — a compelling companion to Delauney’s work in “Dimensionism.”)
When dada-ist and surrealist Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky) was living in Ridgefield, New Jersey, with his first wife, Belgian-born Adon Lacroix, the two collaborated on a series of visual poems. One here describes the sad end of a passionate love affair and corresponds to their divorce. Lacroix served as subject for some of his early paintings, before Man Ray moved to Paris and joined Marcel Duchamp in making readymades and kinetic art, and became a pioneering photographer. (Incidentally, Man Ray was the uncle of the late Princeton-based photographer Naomi Savage and an influence on her.)
Inspired by Francis Picabia’s work from the dada period that combined images and words, Sirato sought the creation of a new art form, “cosmic art,” which he defined as “the vaporization of sculpture: ‘matter music.’” Isamu Noguchi’s “Lunar Infant” (1944) moves into this category. It is suspended in crisscrossing black metal rectangles, lit from within and creating an interesting shadow, and suggests an object not restricted by traditional modes of representation.
As scientists developed more powerful lenses for telescopes and microscopes, new vistas of planetary, cellular, and aquatic life became visible, launching a spate of photographs of these realms appearing in books, newspapers, and magazines. Artists such as Arp and Kandinsky, thus inspired, envisioned the tiniest of life forms and connected them to the stars and the planets, creating their magnificent biomorphic works. Their paintings evoke the microscopic realm while also suggesting the cosmos.
In her 1944 self-portrait Helen Lundeberg depicts herself at work painting a cosmic landscape. She seems to hold a planet that appears in the two-dimensional painting as a three-dimensional object in her hand, as if questioning dimensions in space. The painting may be familiar to Zimmerli visitors; donated to the museum by the Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg Feitelson Foundation in 1982, it returned after nearly a year on tour.
Lundeberg was among the few women painters in the United States to combine surrealism and science in her paintings during the 1930s and 1940s. She was a co-founder of post-surrealism, whose goal was to guide the viewer through the artwork using a system of codes that revealed an underlying deeper meaning. Her “Biological Fantasy” is another intriguing work, conflating biomorphic forms with interplanetary figures.
Noguchi’s sculpture — and there is a generous helping of it here — also suggests a cosmic realm into which biomorphic forms are fixed into spatial relations with one another through string. He learned about the theory of general relativity through his friend, architect/inventor/science enthusiast Buckminster Fuller. In 1936 when Noguchi needed clarification about the meaning behind Einstein’s equation E=MC2, Fuller telegraphed an elaborate explanation.
And speaking of friends and neighbors, noted surrealist Yves Tanguy (featured in the exhibition) was the latter to Calder — the two Connecticut residents shared an interest in backyard astronomy. Calder responded to the concept of a universe in constant motion by creating artwork in motion, an important transition in his career. Also featured are works by Henry Moore, Picasso, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Joan Miro, and others.
There is a work by surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning, from what she termed her “Insomniacs,” created in an automatic manner by painting directly on the canvas without preparatory sketches, in which recognizable faces and shapes suggest body parts in this dreamlike creation. Tanning has become recognized as one of the most original and provocative painters of the 20th century, whose renown was often eclipsed by that of her famous husband, Max Ernst. Tanning was also a novelist, film collaborator, and theater designer finally getting her due, with a major retrospective last year at the Reina Sofia in Madrid.
The Zimmerli’s Donna Gustafson, curator of American Art, has selected works by Jean Arp, Peter Busa, Robert Delauney, Adeline Kent, Gerome Kamrowski, and Man Ray from the museum’s own collection to augment the traveling exhibition. And an auxiliary exhibition of Hungarian modernist works highlights the Manifesto’s Sirato, his roots in the Hungarian avant-garde, and his evolution from a poet to a theorist who embraced all the arts and envisioned a radical new coalition of creative thinkers. All labels have been printed in English and Spanish, and bilingual tours are available.
Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein, Zimmerli Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. On view through January 5. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., and the first Tuesdays of the month, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Free. zimmerli.rutgers.edu
Saturday, November 16, 12:30 to 3:30 p.m., “Light Fantastic,” workshop, led by artist and educator Wes Sherman, explores light as a subject and a material for making art. $45. Register at bit.ly/zamfall19 or call 848-932-6787.