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 for space and time.
This chain of scientific breakthroughs inspired the day’s artists too. Cubists such as Picasso and Duchamp, thrilled by the new math of the fourth dimension, distilled art to geometric schemes. Surrealism gave us Dali’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 new show at the Mead Art Museum, is an act of unveiling, homage and rescue.
It has also elevated the museum’s profile because “Dimensionism” is the Mead’s first-ever traveling show. The exhibit debuted at BAMPFA (the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive) and will later head to the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers. The middle run, at the Mead, goes from March 28 to July 28. A book on the exhibit, written by its Mead-based curator, is now out from MIT Press.
The show—which is supported by the Henry Luce Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art—features 70 works, mostly from the 1930s and 1940s, which explore this historic, explosive nexus of art and science.
There are famous names presented (Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder) and lesser-knowns that hit refresh on the canon. These include those from some historically underrepresented groups, such as American female painters Adeline Kent and Helen Lundeberg and the Hungarian trans male artist Anton Prinner.
You might say that Vanja Malloy, the Mead’s curator of American art, was born to create this show. She has science street cred, for starters: her father is a physics professor and she began as a pre-med at Duke. But she ended up an art history major and, later, did her dissertation on American sculptor Alexander Calder.
As Malloy researched, “I discovered a lot of interesting statements by Calder about the cosmos, about how his work was a product of his time.” 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, Wassily Kandinsky, Francis Picabia—and Calder himself.
“I remember being just 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 signees 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 here in the U.S.
As Malloy began to seek 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 adapters. Whoever exhibited the “dimensionist spirit” was welcome.
And so she added other artists reacting to the era’s science. Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth were drawn to innovations in crystallography, for instance. Robert Delaunay tried to give visual form to radio waves. Kandinsky found inspiration under the microscope, whereas Wolfgang Paalen’s work queried quantum theory.
Alongside the artworks, the show includes copies of the manifesto, relevant film footage, plus magazine articles and books that influenced the Dimensionists.
“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.”