– Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (1966)
Robert Smithson's iconic earthwork at Rozel Point in the Great Salt Lake, Utah.
Excerpt from Philip Ball’s Lecture on Contemporary Art:
“I think it is fair to say that patterns and form have emerged as strong themes in contemporary art. For example, artists ranging from Bridget Riley to Damien Hirst to Andy Goldsworthy to the Japanese painter Yayoi Kusama have become interested in the effect of repeating motifs. Frankly, I find that the interest of these works is greatest when that repetition is not perfect and mechanical, but incorporates an element of randomness or surprise, just as it often does in nature… Interestingly, they also put us in mind of some very ancient art like that found carved into the rocks of the Stone Age structure at Newgrange in Ireland, or that of aboriginal art [pics]. Which prompts me to finish with a question: are these natural patterns perhaps archetypal, and therefore destined to recur in the art of all ages?”
Winner of 2003 national sculpture prize, Austrailia
“The simple beauty of the phyllotaxis spiral is at once a highly complex but everyday phenomenon found in plant life around the globe—from the arrangement of leaves on stems to the radiating centre of a sunflower. It is a reminder of the mathematical intricacies of nature… I often employ natural geometries such as concentric circles, logarithmic and phyllotactic spirals as part of a visual system or structural language. These explorations and observations serve to reinforce an aesthetic appreciation of the underlying principles, laws and geometries that govern, inform and shape our world. Creativity is a natural language to humans—we reshape the nature of the world around us and in turn the world reshapes us.”
Matthew Harding, December 2002
Peter Coffin's Untitled (Rainbow), 2005
photo: Peter Coffin/Andrew Kreps Gallery
For Untitled (Rainbow), the artist created a spiral of 30 postcard images of rainbows, as if they were all one continuous stream of light emanating from a single source.
Italian artist, b. Jan. 1, 1925, d. Nov. 9, 2003
"Space is curved, the earth is curved, everything on earth is curved."
A Collaboration with Nature
Andy Goldsworthy is a contemporary British sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist. His work includes site-specific sculpture and land art, in both natural and urban settings, and his materials are drawn from natural and found objects. For example, in place of glue, he uses frozen water. His technique produces both temporary and permanent sculptures that are designed to highlight the natural character of their environment. He refers to the frozen spiral (above), constructed by attaching individual icicles to the tree’s trunk with water, as the soul of the tree.
“When I’m working with materials it’s not just the leaf or the stone, it’s the processes that are behind them that are important.”
Broken pebbles scratched white with another stone
St. Abbs, Scottish Borders, June 1985
Andy Goldsworthy, 1997
Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, NY
Completed in April 1970, Spiral Jetty, constructed of black basalt rock, precipitated salt crystals, and mud, is a product of the movement known as Earth Art that emerged in the 1960s. Fifteen hundred feet long and fifteen feet wide, the counterclockwise coil has been likened to a whirlpool and to the chambered shell of a nautilus. Smithson reportedly chose Rozel Point as the site for his most renowned piece because of the blood-red color of the water and the association with the primordial sea. The water gets its red hue from the presence of certain strands of bacteria and algae that thrive in the high salinity of that part of the lake.
Phyllotaxis. Spun stainless steel hemispheres. Winner of 2003 National Sculpture Prize, National Gallery of Australia.
As discussed in the section on Plants and Phi, the golden ratio, also known as the golden mean, golden section, or divine proportion is a number frequently found in the ratios of distances in simple geometric figures, including the rectangle, pentagon, and dodecahedron.
The spatial relationships demonstrated by the golden ratio have long been considered pleasing to the human eye, and many artists and architects across history have based elements of their works on that proportion. Some studies of the Acropolis and Parthenon have found that many of the proportions of those building approximate the golden ratio, and analysis of the Great Mosque of Kairouan reveals the use of the golden mean throughout its design as well. A famous example of the golden mean in art is Salvador Dalí’s Sacrament of the Last Supper. The canvas itself is a golden rectangle, and a huge dodecahedron, whose dimensions reflect the golden ratio, dominates the painting from its position above and behind the figure of Jesus.
The human fixation with the golden mean can perhaps be explained, in part, by its prevalence in the natural world. Mathematician and philosopher Adolf Zeising observed the golden ratio in the arrangement of branches along the stems of plants and in the veins of leaves. In the bodies of animals, he found these proportions in the branching patterns of veins and nerves. In chemical compounds, as well, he observed the golden ratio in the geometry of crystal structures. Based on his studies, Zeising came to see the golden mean as a fundamental force in natural order and wrote of it in 1854 as a universal law “in which is contained the ground-principle of all formative striving for beauty and completeness in the realms of both nature and art, and which permeates, as a paramount spiritual ideal, all structures, forms, and proportions, whether cosmic or individual, organic or inorganic, acoustic or optical; which finds its fullest realization, however, in the human form.”