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The Epistemic Conjunctions Between Art and Science

Notes: Buildings, Movies and Brains. From the symposium organized by Barbara Drucker, Chair of UCLA school of Fine Arts, and Warren Neidich, co-founder artbrain.org

Two images from Leonardo da Vinci: the brain and the genital urinary tract. Pen and ink drawing on the right, and sections of the head on the left hand side.

What I want to do is to use my 15 minutes here to add art to the movies and buildings of our event’s title. And, I want to offer a quick sketch of half a dozen or so relational positions between art and science. After which, if I have time, I’ll add just a few words about one instance of the effort to reflect on the representation of thought itself.

Let me start, firstly, with what we can call the epistemic conjunctions between art and science. The forms of deep historical argument mobilized under this relational heading suggest that both art and science participate in, and are constructed by, larger social and economic forces, the structures of which they in both some sense reflect. Examples of such structural congruence have been developed Michel Serres, for example, in relation to the paintings of Turner and the technological effects of the Industrial Revolution, as well as by Linda Dalrymple Henderson who reads the new counter perspectival forms of the Cubist movement, particularly those developed around 1911 in so-called “Analytic Cubism” in relation to the contemporary science of relativity and to popular and quasi-scientific discussions of the 4th dimension. I’m showing here two images from this high moment of Analytic Cubism from around 1911.

On the right hand side, Georges Braque’s “Clarinet and Bottle of Run on a Mantelpiece” (1911); on the left hand side Picasso’s iconic image from this period, “Ma Jolie,” or “Woman with a Zither/Guitar” (1911-1912).
Secondly the modern movement in art develops in part as a series of self-conscious representational strategies delivered though the use of the sciences and pseudo-sciences of color, optics and perception. This interest has remained remarkably consistent we can say from Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Futurism and some aspects of abstraction to the work of, for example, Robert Irwin and other Minimalists; and it has continued right up to the new media techno-formalism of John Simon.

I’m showing here on the right an early engraving by Christoph Scheiner from 1611, “The Observation of Sun Spots,” and on the left Robert Delauney’s “Sun Disks” of 1912-1913. Here, left and right, Gino Severini, “Centrifugal Expansion of Light” from 1914 with a detail of it’s post-Pointillist technique on the left hand side. And Umberto Boccioni’s “Riot in the Galleria” from 1910.

Now, in earlier works in this sequence, pictorial techniques are used to simulate blur, simultaneity, and movement. The use of pure dots by the Neo-Impressionists and their followers relocated the mix of color from its traditional place on the palette to effect an optical mix in vision itself. But there was, and I want to insist early on in this tradition, a destiny within what we can call “Buccaneering Chromaticism,” that tended towards the cultivation of pure form and issued in either non-iconic abstraction or decorative opticality (as we can see, for example, in Andre Derain’s high Fauvist work painted in 1905, “Mountains at Collioure”).

In the later works in the tradition, related techniques are used but the generation of optical difference, or the borderlines of perceptual difference itself have now become the subject matter—as opposed to a motif apprehended under certain conditions of vision.

The theorization of light and color by artists offers of course one of the most consistent addresses in the art world to a subject also researched by science. Yet the dominant view of color consistently evoked in the art studio relied, I want to contend, on one version or another of the abstractionist psychologising associated with Wassily Kandinsky’s theory of innate emotivism. According to Kandinsky, combinations of colors and forms could trigger specific psychological moods that were sufficiently universal to constitute a general language.

Two images from Kandinsky, on the right, a detail from “With Black Arch” (1912); and, on the left, a page from Kandinsky’s dictionary of linear forms called “Point and Line to Plane” which he published from the Bauhaus around 1926.

This publication, a very astonishing one in many senses, purports to decode all forms of linear combination, and to offer them psychological or emotive correlates.

In the work of Jasper Johns the representation of color is subject to ironic and quizzical reexamination.

This is “Diver” from 1962.

The work’s play with the location and labeling of color draws in part on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s witty and astringently relativist remarks on color in which he disputes with the common attribution of psychological effects to color that received its most elaborate early formulations on the writings of Goethe.

Now, thirdly, photography itself is of course a science-driven technique anchored in the chemical registration of light, so it is surely appropriate to note that photography as a technology has been delivered to art, or redefined in relation to it, under at least three mechanisms of exchange. Firstly, photography became art by virtue of its simulation of arts’ vanguard effects in the rise of the first wave of art photography in the last years of the 19th century. Photography here is turned towards techniques of Impressionist-like rendering—blur, mist, and range of almost sfumato effects. Secondly, photography participated in the elemental modernist experiments with form and material taken on by the historical avant-garde in the 1910s and 1920s. I’ll show you just a few of these.

On the left, Man Ray’s “La Marquise Casati” (1922); on the right images/photographic images by Rodchenko that I took at an exhibition in Moscow a decade or so ago, and once more on the right Laszlo Maholy-Nagy’s“Self-Portrait,” a photograph with collage from 1926.

Thirdly, under this third heading, we can note a shift in the postmodern period that dates to photography’s annexation by the art world as a renovated form of document, record, or information in conceptual art and then to a new predominance for it as a kind of theatrically inscriptive proposition in the work of, for example, Cindy Sherman or Jeff Wall among many others.

Now in all three instances of aesthetic transfer, if I can call it that, photography is offered a quality that supplements its imaginary condition as truth, record or evidence – the platform it was often assumed to share with scientific inquiry. This is a very reductive diagram, of course, but we might also suggest that photography has been released from the protocols of chemistry and thus returned from science and art to information and technology in its digital state.

Fourthly, of many other possible convergences between art and science, let me speak briefly to just one: the sustained relation to the sciences of the interior imaging of the body, most notably xerography, and the artistic envisioning of somatic interiority. This is one area of association between art and science on which considerable research has already been done, most notably by Bettyann Kevles in her book “Naked to the Bone: Medical Imaging in the Twentieth Century” (Rutgers UP, 1997). In this study, Kevles traces the social and scientific history of the x-ray and points to numerous moments in early twentieth century avant-garde art in which the astonishing drama of the transparent body was carried into representation in works by Picasso, Duchamp, Picabia, Frieda Kahlo, among others; as well as in the politically provocative see-through photography of John Heartfield. I’ll show you a couple of images here.

On the right an image, titled as you can see, by John Heartfield. And on the left I’m just showing you a slide of a cerebral axial tomography.

Fifthly: new materiality. In many ways the deployment of technological products, new steels, plastics, fluorescent lights, etc. as materials for the new sculpture of and Minimalist objects of the 1960s is in continuity with the logic of the previous tendencies I’ve outlined, as was the pairing of artists with industrial companies in the ardent technology experiments the last years of that decade centered mostly in this city [Los Angeles]. In all or most of these examples, science is backlit as an offstage production history remaindered behind its products and commodities whose newness or difference become primary signifiers for the avant-gardist work.

Sixthly, science has appeared as a motif in art in a long lineage of images ranging from such famous examples as Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp” (1632) to, for example, the project “Adventures in Technos Dystopia” begun in the mid-1980s by the Hungarian-American artist Orshi Drozdik. Such works range from a simple, or beguilingly simple, illustrational relation to science, to emblematic and allegorical engagements with scientific precepts such as (just to cite a well known example) Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1971), in which the site-specific building of a spiral in the Great Salt Lake in Utah alludes to the scientific theory of entropy. Let me offer a couple of other examples. Joseph Kosuth’s “Tenth Investigation: Proposition #4” (1974) apes the layout of philosophical and social scientific discourse. Very differently, this detail of a work by the Los Angeles artist Mike Kelley from his project “Monkey Island” is called “Symmetrical Sets: Compound Eye” (1981-83, acrylic on paper). In this image Kelley uses scientific motifs, such as the compound eye of the insect, turning them into ramifying elements in a cascade of morphological references. Medical imagery is important, even dominant in this category, and once again postmodern interventions such as Orlan’s self-surgeries, as we see here in the slide on the right, move us from an iconography or thematic of science to a problematic conjunction between the medical event and art as performance.

The line between representation, event and performance is complicated by a relatively small number of recent art works that offer explicit celebrations or critiques of science and its method.

Here are are two slides … and I show you two more … by the artist I already mentioned, Orshi Drozdik, from “Adventures in Technodystopia.” And on the other side of this equation (it was difficult to fine an example, in fact), this is Roy Lichtenstein “Peace through Chemistry” (1970, color lithograph).

I’m not quite sure whether this is ironic or not, or how its irony is managed—maybe someone can help us out. Then again, it may NOT be ironic, which is quite frightening. In the work of Hannah Darboven, numerical systems, seriality, sequence, numbers, and alphabetic writing are all subject to an elaborately corrosive counter-systemization in the form of purportedly absurdist diagrams.

I show you just two works from Darboven’s earlier projects, on the right “Drawing Scheme for a Type-Written Book” (1972, it was shown in Documenta 5); and on the left “The Year 1968, One Page, January 23rd 1968.”

My seventh and final category, I’ll just call “pure illusion.”

This is Jeff Gambill’s “The Origin of the Milky Way” (1989)

Darboven’s sly, and obsessive deconstruction of order leads us, then, to a final relation between art and science, this time based on pure illusion, obfuscation and the cultivation of counter-scientific mysticism. If art is not the opposite of science, as I want quite passionately to believe, what is? One location, perhaps, for the antithesis to the logical archaeology of scientific precept might be found in the baroque transcendence flaunted by fin de siècle intuitivism, a moment in which thought is figured as an emanation in the form of personal pattern.

I’m showing here right and left two works by Annie Besant and Leadbeater from their famous book “Thought Forms.” What you’re looking at on the right is the “thought form” of a definite action, that’s that little pink thing, and then following that is the “thought form” for something that they call with quite delicious obscurity “On the First Night”—it’s that rippling form. And then on the left hand screen is “Sudden Fright.” All of these come from “Thought Forms” which was published around 1905.

Something of this inscriptive automatism perseveres in modern art, emerging again in Surrealist theory, and in what some critics hailed was the calligraphy of self-signing seismographs in Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.

I’ve put up Jackson Pollock’s “#1”(1948).
pollock-number-one-1948I won’t have time to introduce my conclusion, so I’ll leave you with two “images of thought.”

Auguste Rodin, “The Thinker”(1880)

Cody Choi’s installation.”The Thinker” (1996; Deitch Projects, NY)

John Welchman, PhD., Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History/Theory at UCSD