Brave new worlds, on view at the Mead Art Museum
AMHERST — Dimensionism, wrote Charles Sirato in his 1936 manifesto for the art movement he’d personally cultivated, would be the rocket ship carrying the brave and worthy “towards completely new realms, leaving older forms and exhausted essences as prey for less demanding artists!”
Where have we heard that before, or since? How about everywhere, -ism by -ism: Impressionism, which rejected art’s prevailing devotion to verisimilitude in favor of individual vision; Cubism, which rejected a single perspective for many; and Dadaism, which rejected pretty much everything else. Later on, we’d have Abstract Expressionism, which rejected representation entirely; Minimalism, which rejected Abstract Expressionism’s maximalist aesthetic; and Conceptualism, which, to be novel, didn’t reject Minimalism so much as adapt it into a further piling on of Abstract Expressionism’s dominance.
We could go on — Neo-Expressionism undercutting Conceptualism’s heady astringency, Neo-Conceptualism trashing Neo-Expressionism’s bacchanalian excess — but you get the idea.
Dimensionism, a keen-eyed vision of a new-world cultural order informed by the fast-moving world of science and technology, is now the subject of a sharp and absorbing survey exhibition at Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum. The museum zeroes in on its manifestations in Modern art as it came of age in the nuclear era, but the movement crossed boundaries. Sirota, its founder, was a poet; his vision of a cultural landscape remade knew no boundaries as it sailed forth to a brave new world.
Dimensionism, as a cultural insurrection, may lack the flair of, say, Italian Futurism, though really, who didn’t? “The dead shall be buried in the earth’s deepest bowels! The threshold of the future will be swept free of mummies! Make room for youth, for violence, for daring!” wrote Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini in their own mainfesto in 1916. But what it lacked in drama Dimensionism made up for in substance. Sirato kept its romantic idealism to a practical minimum; science-minded, he knit his movement to the specifics of a world in rapid technological transformation.
Fellow travelers weren’t hard to find. The show name-checks a host of all-time greats. Isamu Noguchi, with at least a half-dozen pieces here, feels like its star. A pairing of his pieces right up front situates him in the moment: “Bucky,” an hourglass-shaped wooden form wreathed in sticks and wire from 1943, was a tribute to the utopian architect Buckminster Fuller; “E=MC2,” an urchin-like creature in soft black from 1944, was named for Albert Einstein. By the time the manifesto was published, Sirato had gathered the signatures of such luminaries as Joan Miro, Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Wassily Kandinsky and Hans Arp, to grab a well-known handful. They may have felt what he did: In this burgeoning era of scientific advancement, the moment was ripe with potential and anxiety both.
Flying machines and automobiles had made a vast world suddenly tiny, huge distances once months apart now only days or hours away. Microscopic realms only imagined were now clearly visible, teeming universes unto themselves. Einstein’s theory of relativity, a popular sensation, had wobbled our understanding of reality itself; not a decade later, his ideas would help spawn a power threatening the world’s very existence, as atom bombs vaporized the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By 1936, when Sirato converged his ideas into manifesto form, no one needed to wax romantic about the thrill of dangerous progress — they were living it.
One of the show’s keystones, Noguchi’s “Lunar Infant,” bundles up a set of concerns. A vaguely childlike form carved from wood dangling in a steel cage and glowing from within, it screams to me of unsettling otherness — a disqueiting future vision of luminous isolation (alarmingly prescient, given how social media maroon us in our screen-lit solitude). Even Calder, whose dangling minimal mobiles epitomize art-world friendliness, feels lonely here: “Two Spheres,” from 1931, a motorized black brick of a piece, features a pair of small white orbs moving slowly on its dark surface, never to meet. I doubt Stanley Kubrick saw the piece before making “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but the chilly desolation — technology yiedling futility, an implied threat — feels familiar.
But Dimensionism had its share of idealism, too. Sirato called it “great, universal and synoptic,” a movement gathering up the best of human cultural advancement thus far. But its hope for the future was leavened by its fear of the unknown. Everything was changing, and art along with it. Changing into what, no one was quite sure, and uncertainty surely shaded the adventure more darkly. The very experience of seeing had undergone a radical shift, with photography evolving into less a specialist’s pursuit than a consumer phenomenon, pushing artists to mess with the medium itself.
Harold Edgerton’s long-exposure pictures — that famous drop of milk, captured mid-splash, a tennis player swinging through a full stroke — are here, a fluid subversion of the idea of still images. More captivating, though less celebrated, are Herbert Matter’s wondrous experiments with photography and dance. His “Figure in Motion,” from 1939, is a lush, shimmering swoop of form and light, like the tendrils of an invasive alien creature arching to strike; only when you look closely can you detect a human head at its core. “Mercedes Matter Dancing,” 1937, brims with the same dark mystery, its forms like silvery liquid bursting into geysers. Technology made these pictures possible, but only the keenest mind could make them real.
“Dimensionism” splits in two, though not neatly: Outer and inner space, the cosmic and the microscopic. The influence of science on the cultural realm steered our gaze skyward to the infinite, or downward to the elemental. “Capricious Forms,” from 1937 by Kandinsky, is a sickly yellow composition of blobby amoebae, bleeding into one another; more Matter photographs using microscopic lenses plumb previously unseen depths. “La Daphnie,” a vividly dreamy 1928 scientific documentary by Jean Painleve (one of three shown here, among the many in his wildly unique oeuvre) dips into a freshwater stream and discovers a universe of tiny creatures. They’re as alien as any worlds away, hiding in plain sight. It’s riveting and disquieting at once — teeming, another realm of the unknown just underfoot.
The show strikes a balance: Between optimism and worry, wonder and dread. That seems about right. As much as the march of science has given us, it’s also taken away (and we’ve barely even touched AI yet). Is dread doomed to always win? In the final room here, the show deflates whatever upbeat thrum it might have had with an array of bleak and gorgeous works brimming with dark portent.
It folds the works in under the heading “Uncertainty and Quantum Theory,” a nod to Werner Heisenberg’s 1927 uncertainty principle. The pieces here fray the nerves. Yves Tanguy’s eerie landscapes — dark voids sliced by a horizon, wispy forms draped like dead things — set the tone. Noguchi’s “Time Lock,” a rough block of pink stone mounted on a wooden column, feels like entropy: A mutated form with no symmetry or balance, its hue evoking mutated flesh. Dorothea Tanning, with “Midi et Demi,” from 1956-57, presents a world on fire in pale yellow, hot orange and blue, its figures swallowed in a storm of jagged color. Robert Matta, with “Genesis,” from 1942, hangs next to it, cool to her hot, an icy abstract vision of a world collapsing into itself.
For artists living through unprecedented change, all this nervous tension seems fair enough. From combustion to nuclear power to the bomb, scientific advancement sharpened into the most anxious moment in human history, as the Cold War took hold and satellites encircled the globe, watching our every move. Sound familiar? It should. If anything, Dimensionism’s moment now feels like a dry run for the main event, making the show timely indeed. We’re living it. Nervous? You should be.
DIMENSIONISM: MODERN ART IN THE AGE OF EINSTEIN
At the Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, 41 Quadrangle Drive, Amherst, through July 28. 413-542-2335, www.amherst.edu/museums/mead