Walk with me: Math + art = math

To feed my inner creative beast, I went with the excellent Richard Newman (who runs a reading series in Queens on First Tuesdays) to an art opening at the Museum of Mathematics. On display were works by Anton Bakker, a devotee of M C Escher and Koos Verhoeff.

But first, there was this fantastic pi handle on the door.

I wish you could see the woman in the shiny pantsuit with the gold spider necklace bigger than her sternum.

Leaving aside the fact that it is really hard to distinguish the art from the math exhibits in this museum, I enjoyed learning how Bakker creates his very compelling sculptures. For this guy, it’s all about the process.

None of this is art. The gallery is in the back, behind the 3D printing design room.

As a kid, Anton Bakker liked MC Escher. The exhibit included six Escher originals — get this: I am so used to seeing Escher posters on various coffee shops (and face it, college dorm room walls) that I didn’t even recognize them for originals. No joke. It never even occurred to me that they MIGHT be originals, or even, that there are original Eschers in the world.

This is a failure of imagination. Or possibly a result of oversaturation of imitation.

Luckily, a young person handed me a free museum entry card! I’ll go back.

This is the artist, discussing his method. The best part of this was that he kept waving his hands as if the video loop was not a video but an interactive display that reacted to his movements. (We all make our own magic.)

So, the process: he takes a cube made of other cubes (think of the structures you made in pre-K with marshmallows and toothpicks to learn about planes and cubes) and then, using this structure as a map, he runs a program that traces various pathways through multiple points on his cube map following “code” until it hits upon a closed-loop shape (no word on whether the artist developed the code himself or just the rules of the code, or if he merely chooses a semi-randomly-generated closed-loop shape he likes best ) and then he picks the angular line drawings that seem like they might look cool as 3D sculptures, curves the lines, and adds dimensionality to the shape the line makes and then he 3D prints the shape and adds metal.

And you get something like this:

When the sculptures are little they are mounted on swivel bases and apparently it is okay to turn them. Again: it is so hard to differentiate between the art and the science in this museum of objectified abstractions.

The sculptures, which will remind you of Möbius strips because many of them are Möbius strips, are shiny and compelling. Why? Because they are orderly and follow rules while also breaking them — like the best optical illusions. There are curves, knots, and at the end of the hallway, a fractal tree. Nothing is more complicated than the doodles your smartest math-geek friend did in fifth grade (the one who grew up to be a very wealthy engineer), and all of them are absolutely pretty.

Should art be challenging? Is this anything more than lovely knickknackery?

While looking at these pleasant sculptures, I did not care. I was happy to be in a room of people drinking bubbly things out of plastic cups. (The choices were dry Prosecco, sweet Prosecco, rose Prosecco, or bubbly water — presumably so you could discuss fractals?) I was delighted that my vaccine card was checked against ID (prior to an invitation to demask that felt like leaving a fur coat with a coat check girl — guilt-inclusive). I loved looking at the various preposterous outfits that people thought were required for a Manhattan art opening (top prize to the aforementioned enormous gold spider necklace, impossibly the exact size of the bowler hat in Unbearable Lightness of Being, clinging with all eight finger-thick legs to the shiny raw silk lapels of the sharp-shouldered gray suit the woman uncomfortably wore; but definite honorable mention for the white satin pantsuit splashed with many wild colors which was still sheer enough that the laundry-care tag was clearly visible against the young lady’s thigh through the white part of the fabric.)

I was out! It was after dark! There was art!

The most fascinating item was not created by Anton Bakker — it was a seemingly abstract piece made of small cubes that hung in a dark room. Three lights shone through the cube. Depending on the angle of the light, the hanging structure threw shadows that were recognizably the images of Gödel, Escher, and Bach.

Yeah, okay, I need a new camera. Feel free to buy one for me. Here’s a video showing this amazing piece designed by Hanks Kuiper and Walt van Ballegooijen

The National Museum of Math is on 26th Street just north of Madison Square Park and really, the exhibits I saw while on my way to and from the gallery in the back of the museum were worthy of at least an hour of fooling about. They are entirely interactive (including square-wheeled trikes to smoothly ride on bumpy surfaces!) and lots of fun.

Alternatively, you can view the entire exhibit online in VR for free without any need to do anything other than to click here.

For local math: check out this amazing exhibit by Ned Smyth at the Shirley Fiterman Art Gallery on Church Street…actually? I’ll write about that next, but here’s a taste of Ned’s delightful work. Best part is you can see it through the window from the street. Zero effort, maximum happiness.

Keep wandering and looking.



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