Man Ray – Human Equations:
A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare
The Phillips Collection
Washington DC | USA
7th February > 10th May 2015
Conceptual Forms and Mathematical Models
The Phillips Collection
7th February > 10th May 2015
In bringing together the work of Man Ray and Hiroshi Sugimoto, in two separate but connected exhibitions under the same roof, The Phillips Collection, which first opened its doors to the public in 1921, and refers to itself proudly as America’s ‘first museum of modern art’, has done something very clever and very appropriate.
The museum’s policy of stressing the continuity between the art of the past and of the present, by combining works of different nationalities and periods, offers a broad-based, experimental approach to 20th and 21st century art. And, while in each case, the pieces brought together in these two new shows would easily warrant exceptional stand-alone exhibitions, their being shown simultaneously at the same venue, prompts comparison and contrast, each gaining by virtue of proximity to the other – Man Ray (American, 1890 > 1976) representing the old avant garde – Sugimoto (Japanese, b 1948), inspired by the former, the more contemporary.
Man Ray, Shakespearean Equation,
Twelfth Night, 1948
Oil on canvas.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden,
Gift of Joseph H Hirshhorn, 1972
© Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society
(ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2015.
Photo Lee Stalsworth
Legendary surrealist, muti-media artist, Man Ray was a pioneer in the exploration of the intersection of art and science that defined a significant component of modern art in Europe and in America, at the beginning of the 20th century. He created his Shakespearean Equations – a series of paintings that he considered to be the climax of his creative vision – in the late 1940s. Drawing upon photographs of 19th-century mathematical models he had produced in the 1930s, the series was a culmination of 15 years of experimentation.
The Phillips are showing more than 125 Man Ray works, side by side with the original plaster, wood, papier-mâché and string models – made in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to illustrate geometrical properties for the investigation and teaching of algebraic equations – from the Institut Henri Poincaré (IHP) in Paris, accompanied by the artist’s photographs of these strikingly odd forms. ‘Although nearly every significant Man Ray exhibition since 1948 has included at least one of the Shakespearean Equations, no exhibition or publication has ever brought all three components together for an in-depth study,’ says Man Ray – Human Equations: A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare curator, Wendy Grossman. ‘In fact, Man Ray never witnessed the triangle of mathematical object, photograph, and painting displayed as an ensemble.’
Hiroshi Sugimoto’s career has defined what it means to be a multi-disciplinary contemporary artist, blurring the lines between photography, painting, installation art, and most recently, architecture. Featuring five photographs and three sculptures Hiroshi Sugimoto: Conceptual Forms and Mathematical Models at The Phillips Collection is the first exhibition to juxtapose his photographs of 19th-century mathematical plaster models, with his own aluminium or stainless-steel mathematical models.
‘There is a deep connection between mathematics and photography that originated in the invention of photography itself, a tradition that has carried into the 21st century,’ says exhibition curator Klaus Ottmann, ‘Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work exemplifies this tradition, and this exhibition reflects the artist’s desire to combine a ‘very craft-oriented’ practice with making ‘something artistic and conceptual’.
Inspired by Man Ray, in 2004, Sugimoto photographed forty four 19th century mathematical and mechanical models, from two collections in Tokyo. Also made in Germany – at around the same time as those Man Ray had photographed in the 1930s – they had been produced as visual aids for students’ understanding of complex trigonometric functions. Demonstrating his engagement with 19th-century craftsmanship, empirical philosophy, and conceptual art, Sugimoto gave his series of photographs the title Conceptual Forms. The following year, he began manufacturing his own mathematical models using precision computer-controlled electronic milling machines. Several metres tall – paying tribute to the work of another pioneer of modernism, one of the most influential sculptors of the early 20th-century, Constantin Brâncuși – Sugimoto’s ‘endless’ structures are minimal representations of highly complex mathematical equations of infinity. Made from aluminium, they either project upward as twisted columns from iron bases or rise as cones from thin, mirrored discs into infinity.
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