Review of Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein

Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein
Vanja V. Malloy, Ed.

Vanya Malloy, Curator
Organized by Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive: November 7, 2018–March 3, 2019
The Mead Art Museum at Amherst College: March 28–June 2, 2019
Exhibit website: https://www.amherst.edu/museums/mead/exhibitions/2019/dimensionism

Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein
Vanja V. Malloy, Editor; foreword by David Little
Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, MA
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, London, England, 2018
328 pp., illus. 56 col., 54 b&w.
Paper, $34.95
ISBN: 9780262038478.

Reviewed by
Giovanna L. Costantini
April 2019

Published in conjunction with the exhibition Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein, this book examines and documents a movement announced in Paris in 1936 aimed at transcending boundaries of two- and three- dimensional media, including poetry and literature.  Spearheaded by the Hungarian poet Charles Sirató and influenced by advances in science that include Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the movement’s manifesto advocates the pursuit of a meta-reality to combine thought, matter, space and time in extensis of non-Euclidean spatiality.  Signed by such figures as Jean Arp, Alexander Calder, Robert Delaunay, César Domela, Marcel Duchamp, Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miró, László Moholy-Nagy, Ben Nicholson, Enrico Prampolini and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Dimensionism is the first book in English to explore international developments in art related to scientific breakthroughs in such areas as physics, mathematics, biology, quantum mechanics, psychology and engineering. Critical essays by Oliver A. I. Botar, Linda Dalrymple Henderson, Vanja V. Malloy and Gavin Parkinson contextualize Sirató’s aims within an atmosphere of cosmological and perceptual research, art experimentation and philosophical speculation during the early decades of the twentieth century.

Linda Dalrymple Henderson traces the Dimensionist movement to Hermann Minkowski’s mathematical physics, or spacetime, articulated in 1908 as a postulate of Einstein’s theory of special relativity. The implications of time as a dimensional component of reality gained currency among many Cubo-Futurists reflected in Apollinaire’s The New Painting of 1911 and The Cubist Painters of 1912, in which he describes the preoccupation of modern artists with dimensions of space termed the fourth dimension. He equates this dimension with a conceptual or creative space in which a painter distorts qualities of visual perception to render elements borrowed not from the reality of sight, but from the reality of insight. Henderson’s essay considers key elements of Sirotó’s manifesto, including sensory spatialization identified by the Hungarian theoretician Árpád Mezei and progressive perception in the writings of Oswald Spengler and Henri Bergson in relation to the work of the early modernist artist Marcel Duchamp whose Puteaux Cubists in tandem with mathematician Maurice Princet engaged earlier than others with four-dimensional geometry and space. It was Duchamp who incorporated these ideas into such works as The Large Glass and Rotoreliefs. She also traces aspects of Dimensionism’s development to pre-World War I figures Robert Delaunay, Wassily Kandinsky and Enrico Prampolini whose ideas about abstraction in painting and scenography impacted Sirotó. Henderson carefully delineates both the precise areas of scientific research that influenced each of these major artists, as well as distinctions among their involvement with theoretical scientific concepts: i.e. an interest in electromagnet waves for the Delaunays; conceptual dimensionality, non-Euclidean geometry, and kineticism for Duchamp; relationships between spirit (etherized substance) and matter for Kandinsky, including esoteric associations with ‘sacred geometry’ evident in On the Spiritual in Art; polyvalent movement, airborne transcendence, electrical currents and colored gases for the Futurist scenography of Prampolini. Many of these ideas came later to be absorbed into other fundamentally non-figurative, Paris-based formations such as Cercle et Carré, founded in 1930 and Abstraction-Création, formed in 1931. 

Vanja V. Malloy’s essay “From Macrocosm to Microcosm” opens with a solar eclipse of 1925 viewed from the steps of Columbia University by the sculptor Alexander Calder, an event that appeared to confirm a key postulate of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, that space is warped by the gravitational pull of large masses. As one who had been trained in physics and engineering, this cosmic spectacle fired Calder’s imagination in ways that preceded his experiments with spatial equilibrium and synchronous motion discernable in intricately balanced mobiles.  Hermann Minkowsi’s “light cone,” the path emitted by a flash of light traveling through spacetime, ignited artistic explorations of light and space among such artists as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy whose Light-Space Modulator (1930) introduced new dynamics into conventional sculpture, and Herbert Matter, who captured bursts of stroboscopic light in time-lapse photography utilizing electronic technology invented by Harold Eugene Edgerton at MIT in 1931. Others turned to microcosmic science: biomorphism in paintings by Arp and Kandinsky; molecular patterns in the petri dishes of Joseph Breitenbach.  

Gavin Parkinson’s essay points up important relationships between Surrealism and quantum mechanics that appeared in the journal Documents during the 1920’s, edited by Georges Bataille and Carl Einstein. Writing on André Masson, Carl Einstein (unrelated to Albert Einstein) referred to “packets of energy,” discontinuous quanta, allied to primitivism’s mythic and totemic forces.  He also attributed the loss of center evident in Picasso’s artworks to the “divided self” of psychoanalysis and ‘epistemological breaks’ described by the philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard.  According to Bachelard, Einstein’s theory of relativity demonstrated discontinuity in nature as well as historical rupture, a prefiguration of poststructuralism in later twentieth century philosophy. 

Sirató detailed the history of Dimensionism in a flyer to be inserted in the periodical Plastique in 1937 amid a raft of abstractionist collectives that sprang up internationally during this period such as Circle and Axis in Britain, Art Concret in France, and the Park Avenue Cubists in the United States. For some, an explicit non-figurative idiom formed a direct counterpart to pioneering formalist expressions such as Suprematism, Constructivism and De Stijl; for others, non-representation deliberately severed ties to imitative, illusory pictorial convention in ways that sought greater expressivity, universality and idealism inspired by non-western, archaic and ethnographic art.  As photography became more ubiquitous, representational painting experienced substantial reinvention.  In some cases, parallel movements formed against a backdrop of socio-political repression, particularly since from its earliest appearance on the Continent, non-objective art, especially Cubism, was attacked for its dehumanizing, un-French semblance, considered by some to be subversive and allied to foreign incursion. During the 1930’s abstract art resurfaced as a cultural battleground amid political nationalism and intolerance across Europe with numbers of artists who suffered public censure, their work proscribed as “Degenerate.”  Dimensionism’s international precursor, Abstraction-Création, a defender of “fiercely contested” free thought, included figures such as Jean and Sophie-Taeuber-Arp, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Alexander Calder, Wassily Kandinsky and Ben Nicholson who would also sign the Dimensionist Manifesto.  For this reason, polemicists such as Carl Einstein who sought to frame revolutionary art in terms of a commensurate revolution in physics, especially the acausality of quantum mechanics, underscore the importance of trans-disciplinary approaches to art and science then and now. To re-examine iconic artworks in light of theoretical science as an adjunct to developed epistemological canons of abstract formalism can be revelatory, dimensional, and in some cases, revolutionary.