People like shapes, ideas like colors,
colors like people, shapes like ideas.
Performance commission for Este Arte, Punta del Este, Uruguay
Performed by Carolina Besuievsky, Winston Chmielinski, and Jonathan VanDyke
At the Bauhaus school, the trinity of triangle, circle and square were building blocks of modernism. Painted surfaces were once populated with gods and queens, but now circles and rectangles demanded the most exclusive real estate. At Bauhaus parties, people sometimes wore costumes that made them look like moving shapes. These shapes became central characters in modern painting, from Albers' sacred squares, on to the concentric circles of Jasper Johns' targets and the chevrons of Kenneth Noland.
Then again, there is nothing new about the art of geometric patterning. The extraordinarily complex tile work of Persia and the glass mosaics of Byzantine Ravenna are just two examples. In Cambodia, I saw patterns carved into stone that were so old that giant trees had grown over them, and the trees themselves were so old that no one would cut them away, even to preserve the stones. Pattern often fills space in a way that it becomes background, or what is sometimes called decoration. When painters and historians talk about painting, at least in the academic sense, there is mention of the relationship between figure and ground. If there's just ground, is the figure still implied, a ghost? In certain works of Lygia Clark you, spectator, are invited to come forward and make contact with shapes. Last year, a child was photographed playing one of Donald Judd's geometric stacks, and people on social media said they were very upset.
The Amish of central Pennsylvania created quilts using pieces of fabric cut into shapes. Triangles and squares and rectangles populate these textiles, stitch by stitch, their colors sometimes mismatched in ways that might embarrass Albers, who carefully recorded his color choices on the backs of his paintings. I grew up near this Amish community, though I am not Amish myself, and when I study these patterns I often wonder how Amish women achieved a spectacular 19th century minimalism in a culture of such strict Protestantism that they refuse electricity. What about the charge and energy of the bodies that lay under these quilts, that slept and huddled for warmth and fornicated beneath them? Did all those shapes take root in the subconscious of those sleepers? Did they wake up with dreams of triangles and rectangles sprouting arms and legs?
With special thanks to Afshan Almassi and for production assistance from Laura Bardier and Martin Cracuin. Photos by German Luongo