Organizing the Exhibition: The Themes that Makeup Dimensionism
Vanja Malloy, Curator of American Art, Mead Art Museum
By the time the Dimensionist Manifesto was created in 1936, discussions of Einstein’s theory of relativity had appeared in poetry, magazines, journals, pulp fiction, and comics, as well as the visual arts. By the 1920s, the revolutionary astronomical implications of relativity had created an unprecedented interest in theoretical physics, which posited that space was warped by the gravitational pulls of cosmic bodies and introduced the theory of the expanding universe. By the early twentieth century, increasingly powerful telescopes were providing a plethora of new information, which led to the discovery of multiple galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Telescopic photographs continued to play a role in publicizing and popularizing radically new perceptions of the universe. Journals such as Scientific American published the photographs and used non-technical language to explain the theory of relativity and its impact on astronomy. The resulting accessibility of such complex topics also launched some unsettling philosophical debates. For instance, renewed discussions of determinism born out of the theory of relativity questioned the reality of free will, and the idea of an infinitely expanding universe altered humankind’s assumptions about their own importance. The same developments that made possible newly powerful telescopes also made possible the invention of newly powerful microscopes, allowing both scientists and nonscientists to connect the life cycle of the tiniest organisms to that of stars and planets that make up the sprawl of the universe.
By imagining worlds beyond what is visible to the naked eye, the macro- and micro-world extremes provided artists with the opportunity to imagine what those realms would look like. Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein draws on these various areas of inspiration in its organization, starting with the the 1936 Dimensionist Manifesto, and then branching off to explore the influence of the new scientific advances that inspired an age of wonderment in the early twentieth century. That is, the concept of the Theory of Relativity, the micro and macro realms, and the new physics of Quantum Theory.
Visitors entering the exhibition are greeted with an introduction to the Dimensionist Manifesto. The Manifesto is presented in its original French, alongside contemporary English translations offered in enlarged formats for easy reading as well as take-away leaflets printed on double-sided paper and folded in a manner reminiscent of the original. This first section introduces artists who signed the Manifesto and offers examples of many of their works. The idea was to draw out the wide breadth of interpretation in these artists’ works, showing how science united them but also manifested in vastly different ways in their art, reflecting different points of interest, comfort and background in the sciences.
The next theme is “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity,” which shows how the artists working in the early twentieth century responded to the changing understanding of the fourth dimension. Artists who had been born in the 1880s or earlier tended to retain their pre-Manifesto ideas of ether and spatial fourth-dimensions in their work, even into the 1930s, while younger artists tended to integrate into their works the new non-Euclidean geometries and concerns with space-time that emerged from Einstein’s relativity.
Then comes “Microcosm and Macrocosm,” which includes works that show astronomy becoming more prominent in the visual vocabulary of artists working in this time period. Many of these works were clearly inspired by the new telescope lenses and their photographic evidence of exponentially more stars and cosmic bodies than were previously believed to exist. Not only was the cosmos expanding, so was our visual conception of it. Cosmic bodies weren't still and unchanging after all: they have life cycles and are moving at extremely rapid rates in all possible directions. In other words, the universe was immeasurably large and dynamic, a giant conceptual shift that enlivened the works of artists who grappled with it. Meanwhile, some artists were blurring the distinction between abstraction and representation, inspired by new technologies that made microscopic and cellular organisms and particles visible in photographs and film. For instance, x-ray crystallography influenced Naum Gabo, whose wire creations evoke the beautiful, mathematical structures seen at the end of a microscope.
The show concludes with the a section on uncertainty and quantum theory, which operates at the smallest level. If Einstein's relativity promoted the idea of universal order through a law explaining the gravitational pull of planets and stars, quantum law is in many ways a direct opposite. It introduced the notion of chance into the vocabulary of science, prompting philosophical debates about causality and determinism and their implications for humanity.
Hopefully visitors walk away from Dimensionism with a new appreciation of how science shaped the early twentieth century. While Einstein’s famous theory of relativity gets most of the credit, it wasn’t the only important scientific development. Advances in biology, astronomy, chemistry, and physics showed us that in many cases our senses are deceptive, and that to more accurately represent reality we have to image it through the science of our times. While the means of creating art in this era was in many ways restricted to more traditional materials like paint or sculpture, albeit with some attempts to incorporate motors and light projections, its interesting to consider how artists continue to grapple with these ideas today through the new technologies offered by our time period such as virtual reality.
This exhibition is made possible with generous support from the Henry Luce Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art.