Linking opposing fields

Which came first, art or science?

Art Review

August 06, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

In an intriguing volume titled Art and Physics, author Leonard Schlain suggests that throughout history artists have intuitively grasped new conceptions of physical reality that anticipated the discoveries of scientists and mathematicians.

The invention of linear perspective in Renaissance art, Picasso and Braque's famous experiments with cubism, Clyfford Still's fractal landscapes - all heralded radically new visions of matter, space and time.

This mysterious relationship between artistic and scientific discovery is the subject of Bridges: Mathematical Connections in Art, Music and Science, a fascinating exhibit at Towson University's Holtzman Art Gallery whose opening coincided with last week's annual gathering of scientists, artists and mathematicians who share an interest in the deep interconnection between art and science.

It is well known, for example, that Picasso and Braque invented cubism in the years between 1907 and 1914, and that Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905 and his General Theory of Relativity in 1915. Yet it is almost certain that the artists were unaware of Einstein's breakthrough; during those years it was often said that no more than five people in the world understood the significance of Einstein's equations.

How, then, to account for the uncanny similarity between the radically deconstructed space of a cubist painting and Einstein's revolutionary reformulation of Newton's physical laws?

According to Einstein, space and time are not fixed quantities but can bend and stretch according to their interaction with matter, which is itself just another form of energy. Similarly, in cubism, time and space are confounded with the objects they enclose, so that, for example, one can view a guitar or a human figure from two different vantage points simultaneously.

The answer to this puzzle seems to be that artists and scientists share a gift for intuiting the deep structures of reality, though they employ different means to express their insights.

(The flip side of this proposition may also be true: By the time scientists and mathematicians figure out how to translate their equations into visuals, the pictures no longer look "new" because artists have already anticipated them.)

The Towson exhibit includes many examples of works created by both artists who have had no mathematical or scientific training and by mathematicians and scientists who use computers and other sophisticated tools to visualize their ideas.

The results suggest a remarkable convergence of forms that makes the traditional distinctions between science and art seem more a matter of convention than of substance.

What is the shape of the universe? It may well resemble the structures described by artist Robert Fathauer's Circle Composition II, an image based on a fractal arrangement of circles that appear to repeat themselves infinitely on smaller and smaller scales against the dark background of a cosmic unknowable that preceded the birth of our universe.

Fathauer's image suggests that reality consists of an infinite number of networks embedded within networks on different scales, like Russian dolls, from the tiniest subatomic particles to the awesome arrays of galactic and supergalactic clusters. In another work, Fractus, Fathauer pays homage to the Dutch artist M.C. Escher, who based his infinitely repeating visual conundrums on imaginary metamorphoses, geometric distortions and architectural impossibilities.

Twenty-five years ago, Fathauer's visualizations might have been dismissed as physical impossibilities. Yet the recent discovery of various string theories by physicists - in which the fundamental particles are conceived in terms of tiny, flexible "strings" that vibrate in 11 or 21 spatial dimensions - suggest Fathauer's nested circles may have a basis in physical reality.

If so, it certainly would not be the first time that artists imagined new laws governing physical relationships that scientists and mathematicians only later were able to quantify exactly.

Art exhibit

What Bridges: Mathematical Connections in Art, Music and Science

Where: Holtzman Art Gallery, Towson University

When: 4 p.m.-7 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 p.m. -5 p.m. Saturday, through Aug. 10

Call: 410-704-2787

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