Columbia College, Chicago (March–April, 2010)
In the beginning of the end was the Word, i.e., Conceptual Art. And people kept remembering that Clement Greenberg said, “Let there be Flatness,” and there was Formalism ad nauseum. And Robert Smithson chanted, “Let there be Decay,” and so Matter dissolved into Dust. And Picasso, taking a chance, plugged in, and sang, “Let there be a million little things that may be divided, and may they dance,” and there was Geo.
“Simplicity of shape does not necessarily equate with simplicity of experience.” –Robert Morris, 1966
Polygons—concrete, finite shapes—are familiar, factual and satisfying. A triangle props itself into a graceful mountain pose like an old Zen master. A rectangle is open and honest, revealing its surface in full. The sculptor Robert Morris believed that objects best express themselves through gravity, that their weight produces a feeling of knowing, like the way you know there’s another body in the room without even looking. But for all the body-sized shapes in Minimalist sculpture, there’s a surprising lack of circles and spheres— they’re too suggestive of faces and their subjective, shape-shifting emotions. Geometry is no-questions-asked.
Parallel lines. Concentric circles. Chevrons and checks. Herringbone and houndstooth. Step and repeat. Get stoned and look at MC Escher. Honeycombed hexagons. Rhomboid lozenge. Arab lattice marries Native American weave. Pre-racist-swastika fretwork carved in stone. French curve, but I don’t even know her.
Semi-History of The Geometric Proclivity
“Is the world geometric?” asked Amédée Ozenfant, with childlike curiosity, in 1928. To see so simply, he came a long way. Almost two centuries earlier Denis Diderot declared, “There exists not one lever in nature,” delaying supernatural nature until the advent of Cubism. However, calculus and physics are not artistic tools. In the grand scheme, artists don’t triangulate or solve for x or hypotenuse shit; they merely render. “A triangle is a goddamn sexy shape,” says John Parot. Shapes are abstract; shapes are style. A square is a stylized house, or the mind’s container. An oval, it stares you down. A trapezoid haunts. A pyramid points to the sky. This is all abstract, of another world imposed on this one, sorry Ozenfant. Why do children like to play with building blocks, especially blocks with letters on them? The world likes to be organized, perhaps fussily. Set up a grid with taut string inside stretcher bars or a frame, and draw what you see through that filter. The grid will help you to see beyond the grid, so that what you’re seeing is not the grid itself. How we activate the grid’s squares—what we place behind it—that’s the rub.
A great thing about abstraction, and geometric stylization, is its ability to transform. Shapes seem solid and immutable but they are not. Red square is not black square. We can re-arrange the world by filling it with stuff. The things that fit into shapes—the matter, the material, texture, color, collage, ink, heat, byproduct, symptom, calories, cross-hatching, garbage, driving gloves and maps, a pill for each day of the week—is the stuff that carries us on.
“Design produces people who engage with the world.” –Vilém Flusser
Ornaments Make the Man
Shapes love company, for geometry is social. When shapes replicate and touch, they create patterns that form our many backgrounds, the intricate wallpaper in a well-furnished sitting room. You can just sit there and get lost in the tracery. Shapes, combined into pattern, help us perform ritualistic tasks. Two agreeable persons conversing tend to mirror each other’s poses. Ten fingers interlaced for comfort. Lovers minding each other’s breath. Zebra patterns worn for the hunt, and pinstripes to the merger meeting. To see you better, my god, I look through the quatrefoils and eclipses in the rose window. Uniformity and order—the hotel carpet at the Modernist gala. Four-by-four, a rhythmic pattern guides us. “Listen to the rhythm of the pattern,” instructs Nadine Nakanishi. “Expand upon the rhythm.” Hidden inside a pattern, disguised, is visual pleasure.
So, if we fill our shapes with pleasure, and in turn our shapes provoke pleasurable visual experiences, can the taste for shapes be plainly explained as originating in the gut? Are shapes merely tactile, and not at all intellectual or spiritual? On one hand we may have a strong affinity for symmetrical, geometrical shapes because our eyesight converges easily upon them. The placement of our eyes in our head—our stereo vision— is a biological determinant for the enjoyment of symmetrical shapes. On the other hand, see the pyramid. Its base sits squarely on the earth’s soil, and as its four triangles rise to a point, the tip pricks the blue sky. In groups, pyramids point to sun and star cycles, the heavens, the pantheon of gods, ambrosia salad, whatever your religion. Symmetry accounts for a lot. The divinities commission symmetric homes, their mandalas and temples and ziggurats rising to well-ordered heights. In these instances, shape uses the eye to propel us out of our bodies.
Shape-Shifting for Sport and Leisure
Geometry is a picture’s “grammar,” wrote Guillaume Apollinaire, friend to Cubists, in 1911. A square is a square is a square. A square must always look like a square. They say rules are made to be broken, but it is better to make new rules, such as: invent the fourth dimension. Add height to the square and it becomes cubic, a multi-dimensional square, with six sides. Adding the fourth-dimension, friend to Cubists, cubes the cube, fills it with the substance of time. It is an infinite shape, but we only know its finite terms, the standard grammar of our containable right-now-reality.
The fourth dimension is a matron who drags her finger through this reality with a white-glove on the cosmic dusty bureau in our static little bedroom. Just a glimpse—a gray finger smudge—that’s all we get to see of that parallel dimension. Our common geometric shapes are blueprints to the fourth-dimension, and since the fourth-dimension is time, it is the future, but also history. Artists have been making geometric designs for at least six thousand years, see: Egypt, Third Dynasty; Rome, second century; Oaxaca, thirteenth century; Malevich, frostbitten in St. Petersburg; Chicago, the Bauhaus’ bootstraps lifted. The persistence of artistic geometric forms hints at a continuum, or a legacy, or some coy deity made present in this world by his shadow, cast as a polygon, on the eyeball of the artist.