A modern sculpture of a many-sided multi-colored column

Colonne (1932)
This bronze polychrome sculpture is the work of Anton Prinner. Its vibrant, irregular and angular sides play with the concept of dimensional expansion.

The early 20th century was a sensational time for being able to see and name, finally, much that had been hidden before.

The x-ray machine was invented in 1895, for instance, making the body dramatically more visible. Freud was kicking down the door to our subconscious. After 1915, Einstein’s theory of relativity blew up old concepts of space and time.

This chain of scientific breakthroughs inspired the day’s artists too. Cubists such as Picasso, thrilled by the new math of the fourth dimension, distilled art to geometric schemes. Surrealism gave us Dalí’s melting clock. There was Dadaism, Futurism.

Another art movement burst on the scene then, too—though this “ism” never quite made the cut.

It was called Dimensionism, and it was also eclectic and fresh. Yet adverse circumstances—especially World War II—conspired to push it into obscurity.

Which is why Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein, a spring and summer exhibition at the Mead Art Museum, is an act of unveiling, homage and rescue.

It has also elevated the national profile of the museum, because Dimensionism is the Mead’s first-ever traveling show. It debuted at UC Berkeley, and will later head to Rutgers. The middle run, at the Mead, goes until July 28. A book on the exhibit, written by its Mead-based curator, is now out from MIT Press.

The exhibition—supported by the Henry Luce Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art—features 70 works, mostly from the 1930s and 1940s, that explore this historic, explosive nexus of art and science.

A painting of a woman who is painting an alien landscape
Self Portrait (1944): Helen Lundeberg was drawn to Dimensionism but, in the Depression, the Works Progress Administration employed her to paint murals of California history. The band Sonic Youth released a 2006 song called “Helen Lundeberg.”

There are famous names presented, like Kandinsky and Picasso, and lesser-knowns who refreshed the canon. Some came from historically underrepresented groups, such as American female painters Adaline Kent and Helen Lundeberg and Hungarian-French trans male artist Anton Prinner.

Vanja Malloy, the Mead’s curator of American art (since named director and chief curator of the Syracuse University Art Galleries), created the show. She started out as a pre-med at Duke, ended up an art history major and, later, did her dissertation on American sculptor Alexander Calder. One day in 2010, laboring in the basement library of London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, she stumbled on a mention of something called “The Dimensionist Manifesto.” It dated from 1936, and was signed by 25 artists and writers, including Robert Delaunay, Marcel Duchamp, Kandinsky, Francis Picabia—and Calder himself.

“I remember being in disbelief, when I saw his name there, because I’d never read anything about this manifesto in any text on Calder,” says Malloy.

The manifesto’s author was an avant-garde Hungarian poet named Charles Sirató, who’d befriended many of those signers at the Café du Dôme in Paris. In the text, Sirató lauded the “recent technical givens of our age,” especially Einstein’s theories.

“We must accept—contrary to the classical conception—that Space and Time are no longer separate categories,” he wrote. “And thus all the old limits and boundaries of the arts disappear. This new ideology has elicited a veritable earthquake and subsequent landslide in the conventional artistic system.” The newfound artistic movement, he said, would be called “Dimensionism.”

The manifesto ran in an art journal, and Sirató hoped to stoke publicity, organize exhibits. But the space-time continuum was not in his favor: his health collapsed and, as war loomed, artists began leaving Europe. A subset settled in Roxbury, Conn., including Calder and Yves Tanguy, who re-seeded the ideas in the U.S. As she sought out pieces for the show, she looked for works from the manifesto’s signatories. But Sirató didn’t feel that Dimensionism was limited to these early adopters. Whoever exhibited the “dimensionist spirit” was welcome.

And so Malloy added other artists reacting to the era’s science. Barbara Hepworth was drawn to innovations in crystallography, for instance. Delaunay tried to give visual form to radio waves. Wolfgang Paalen’s work queried quantum theory.

Dimensionism rediscovers a time when artists opened themselves to all dimensions, no matter how new or inscrutable. “The micro, the macro, everything’s so different from what people had imagined,” says Malloy. “And artists were engaging with these dimensions, reading and thinking about them philosophically, mystically, scientifically—and responding to all of it with their work.”

Photos of artworks: Maria Stenzel

Works from Dimensionism

An abstract painting of a calder mobile

Sketch for Lobster Trap and Fish Tail (1937)

When photos of the solar eclipse proved that stars are not static but kinetic, Alexander Calder decided to add actual movement to his art, at first powering his sculptures with motors, and later stringing them so that air currents supplied random motion. The finished Lobster Trap and Fish Tail, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, spans more than 9 feet.


An abstract painting of a swirling color

Capricious Forms (1937)

Many Dimensionist artists were influenced by ever-more-detailed microscopic and telescopic images. Wassily Kandinsky’s curvilinear, biomorphic shapes here seem to signify the cellular structures and amorphous forms of single-celled organisms.

A painting of a multi-colored ball in bright light

Nuclear II (1946)

Atomic power had an ambiguous reputation when László Moholy-Nagy created this work, which carries no imagery of the decimated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. He was in a hopeful place when he painted it, as radiation treatments had put his cancer in remission.