Form Plus Function

Nestled beside a national wildlife refuge, the Noyes Museum of Art in Oceanville, N.J., seems an unlikely place for an exhibit featuring art rooted in mathematical concepts. Nonetheless, its galleries currently feature works by four contemporary artists whose art has a strong mathematical element.

The Noyes Museum of Art in Oceanville, N.J. I. Peterson
Catalog cover, “Form + Function” exhibit, Noyes Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Noyes Museum of Art
“Mathematical Art Philosophy 101: With Titles” (“Square Roots of Tree,” “Mathematical Art Brain,” and “Tree Root of Fractal”) by John Sims. Courtesy of John Sims
“Family Circle VII” by Mark Pomilio. Courtesy of Mark Pomilio
“Seeing Pi” by John Sims (as a quilt). Courtesy of John Sims

Called “Form + Function: Mathematics and Beyond in Contemporary Art,” the exhibit features artworks by Sol LeWitt, Steven Gwon, Mark Pomilio, and John Sims. The exhibit runs until Jan. 7, 2007.

Born in 1928, Sol LeWitt is known for his conceptual art. “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work,” LeWitt wrote in 1967. “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”

LeWitt’s series of vast wall drawings exemplify this approach. In effect, the artist conceptualizes the work and provides the instructions—an algorithm—for what should appear on a wall. Assistants and volunteers then implement the instructions.

For the Noyes exhibit, LeWitt contributed three wall drawings. Here are the instructions for each of these creations, drawn in thick pencil on white walls.

Wall drawing #142: A twelve-inch grid inside an eight-foot square an increasing number of horizontal not straight lines from the left side.

Wall drawing #143: A twelve-inch grid inside an eight-foot square an increasing number of horizontal straight lines from the left side.

Wall drawing #167: A line from the center of the wall to the midpoint of top side, and a line from the midpoint to the right side.

The instructions are curiously ambiguous and somewhat puzzling. Given just the instructions, I tried to imagine what each artwork would look like. (Try it yourself.) However, when I compared my imaginings with the actual works drawn on the walls, my images didn’t quite match the reality. And it wasn’t clear to me whether the instructions had been misinterpreted or were incomplete or whether the artist had provided additional guidance.

The pair of eight-foot squares particularly puzzled me. They featured both horizontal and vertical lines increasing from the left and bottom. And I couldn’t quite figure out the algorithm used to space these lines within the grid, made up of 12-inch squares, so that the top and rightmost squares end up filled with the correct number (8) of horizontal and vertical lines.

Steven Gwon’s pieces typically consist of colored pencil lines, hand drawn on sheets of finely ruled graph paper. The resulting sheets reveal spectral forests of subtly shaded lines, spaced at regular intervals and of precisely defined lengths. Seen from afar, these gently rendered patterns shimmer in the ambient light.

Gwon says that his drawings encapsulate days of the year, as recorded through numbers that measure time and space and through the colors of the spectrum—sunrises or sunsets; minutes, hours or days, months or years. The example on display, called “Year,” has 36 panels. His exquisite time capsules offer a soothing invitation to relax.

Mark Pomilio’s art isn’t explicitly tied to a grid. Instead, it explores, through layering and translucency, the geometry of growth and form. Now an art professor at Arizona State University, Pomilio likens his approach to the generation of a complex form from a single cell (or seed). His forms multiply, grow, and overlap to produce subtly complex, translucent landscapes of polygons, lines, and shadows, whether rendered in charcoal or deep, rich colors.

Pomilio uses his abstract works as ways to articulate, in a visual sense, profound recent developments in the life sciences, as seen in developmental processes and modeled by simple geometrical expressions.

Several large quilts provide an engaging introduction to John Sims and his visual ruminations on the digits of pi (see “Quilting Pi” at Quilting Pi). These square patterns map the decimal digits of pi to colors, starting from 3 at the center and spiraling outward from that point. Different choices of color lead to intriguing variants—the same digits and arrangement in each case, but strikingly different visual effects.

My favorite, however, is Sims’ signature piece, which pairs a representation of a tree with a branched, fractal structure. It highlights the connections that Sims sees among mathematics, art, and nature (and presents his own vision of growth and form). In different orientations, this dual image encodes a variety of relationships and concepts.

“What is exciting about all this is that these individuals are making work using systems with innumerable applications,” A. M. Weaver, curator of collections and exhibitions at the Noyes Museum, writes in the catalog accompanying the exhibit.

Each artist, in his own way, alerts viewers to concepts and processes that bring together mathematics, art, and nature. Mathematics itself offers a multifaceted, solid frame on which to hang provocative creations of artistic imagination.

If you wish to comment on this article, see the MathTrek blog version. For more math news and fun, go to

More Stories from Science News on Math