The discerning art critic once tried to write a minimalist joke. That was it. He went up to his friends and said, “I wrote a minimalist joke.” Then he waited a moment, but they never understood the joke. The joke was that it was too short – minimalist. Munson Williams Proctor Insitute, located in Utica, New York, now has an exhibition “Geometry in Motion” by minimalist Leon Polk Smith (1906-1996).
Polk Smith had an epiphany in 1954 upon looking at a tennis ball, because the seams appeared to wrap around the sphere in an extraordinary way. The curator’s notes point to Mondrian, but Polk Smith could easily fit in with post-moderns like Agnes Martin, or post-structuralists like Frank Stella. Dadaist Man Ray even had a cutout phase. Whereas Agnes Martin painted and drew at massive scales, the size of entire walls, and Frank Stella broke boundaries with colored stripes in boundary-breaking amalgamations, Polk Smith is always bite-size, with proportions that don’t overwhelm the eye. Bright colors and jazzy rhythms are easy to enter for both the art historian and the layman – they mean joy. If not for paper cut outs, Polk Smith would have been an incredible trumpet player.
Explaining Polk Smith’s epiphany, one might turn to the painter Goya and the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Goya’s mythical, “Saturn eats his children,” is a painting showing a giant man eating a child whole, which is absurd. (At least a cannibal would cut the child up and cook him first! Joke). But the sentiment of an old giant eating a new child speaks to how a person’s preconceptions color every new situation. Kant, in The Critique of Pure Reason, worked to consider how it is that we synthesize new experiences.
This problem is straight up boredom for the layman – but the problem of boredom is exactly a case in point. How is boredom possible?
It takes a medium-amount of High School mathematics to work out the area and surface of a tennis ball. It might take a little while longer to do the cut outs. With two shadows, Polk Smith accomplishes the spheroid in seconds.
Polk Smith and the minimalists want these epiphanies, which are the Kantian new experiences, aka the unconceptualized intuitions. That’s what all the big squares of color are about, because all experience takes is a few edges and they’re off to the races. Surrealists like Joan Miro and Rene Magritte had entire careers based on this, that you could draw a triangle and all of the sudden it looks like a tower. This irony is between the artist and the audience – a giant Ouji board where the artist and the audience are asking each other who’s moving it? Here, Polk Smith’s symbolism serves as a dance with the viewer, and it’s important that some of Polk Smith’s paintings and cut outs here are even symbols meant to represent dancing.
Polk Smith at any given time in this exhibition dips his toes in the water of symbolism, psychology, Native American artwork, and Egyptology. His splotchy black paintings could easily come out of the psychologist Rorschach’s ink blots, and the curator’s notes have a story that Polk Smith was fascinated by Egyptology – right next to a cutout piece of two gold squares. The discerning art critic thought of the trumpet player Dizzie Gillespie, who would play “everything but the kitchen sink” in his soloes, and would play “Jingle Bells” in the middle of a solo to make sure the audience is paying attention. Did he just play Jingle Bells in the middle of an unrelated song? Gold is a symbol of eternity because the chemical composition of gold doesn’t rust over time, but if you didn’t catch that when looking at the picture, it’s still pretty.
Kant’s project ultimately points to divinity without saying as much out loud. With radical sense of wonder, medieval philosophers such as Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed and St. Aquinas, talked about adequatio, or the mind’s ability to be-adequate for the experiences one is having. When a person looks at a Tennis Ball, her mind creates a mathematical sculpture within microseconds at breathtaking speeds and incomprehensible complexity at a tradeoff that her head doesn’t explode considering all this computing power. That’s quite the bargain.
The reward for symbolism is simplification, but the other side of the trade is still complexity. Too much overthinking and you wind up chasing your tail!