Hidden Dimensions of Modern Art
Review of Tertium Organum: Traversing Space at Center for the Arts Eagle Rock
The beautifully lit, architecturally rich, spaces of the Center for the Arts Eagle Rock are currently teeming with animate forms. On one plinth, an intriguing kinetic work clicks slowly, hovering between living and mechanical states of being. Organic bone-like sculptures advance into the space with their seductive shapes and surfaces. Paintings alive with suggestive lines, colors swirling and shapes dissolving and reforming simultaneously, absorb the viewer in a highly aesthetic display of mystical belief. Combining work by canonical historical figures and emerging artists, curator Laura Whitcomb’s Tertium Organum: Traversing Space is the first of a two-part exhibit focused on connections between modern art and mathematical sciences.
The exhibit borrows its title from a work by P.D. Ouspensky, the early 20th-century philosopher who invoked the fourth dimension in his discussions of higher consciousness and insight into the phenomenal world. Ouspensky’s notion of Gurdjieff’s “fourth way” offered a path to mindfulness rooted in ongoing experience, rather than removal from it. The Fourth Way was Gurdjieff’s system which Ouspensky made coherent to wider audiences dedicating himself to becoming along with the British author, John G. Bennet, a British author who encountered their works while stationed in Turkey in the period following the First World War, a major disseminator of the ideas of both figures. These networks of connection formed a foundation for the dissemination of the teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky within a context where spiritualist teachings intersected with religious and philosophical traditions in a search for a path to moral and personal enlightenment.
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Ouspensky had a multi-faceted intellect, which is part of why he was so influential in various fields. For instance, he conceived of the point, line, plane and cube as progressive dimensions of awareness, not just a spatial progression, but articulated these ideas in ways that matched on-going explorations in the visual arts. Metaphor and concrete reality were closely linked in his thought and Ouspensky had a widespread influence on modern art and culture. His ideas found their echo in the work of renowned figures of abstract and non-representational art such as Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, as well as spiritualist publications and organizations dedicated to seeking wisdom while living a full life. Ouspensky’s teachings, like those of his mentor, George Gurdjieff, were mainstream, not marginal, and they continue to form core references in self-realization and mindful meditation practices today.
In the last decades of the 19th century, spiritualist investigations of “higher” dimensions had been a preoccupation across a surprisingly varied array of individuals and communities—scientific as well as aesthetic. Spurred in part by discoveries of X-rays and areas of the non-visible light spectrum, researchers were also fueled by imaginative writings that explored possibilities of accessing unseen dimensions of experience. Edward Abbott’s clever tale, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, first published in 1884, satirized cultural biases by invoking the limits of perception in a flat world—until the main character, Square, has his mind opened to new dimensions. The novella had—and still has—a broad following for its wit and insight into the idea that we all, in some sense, inhabit a “flatland” in which our understanding is circumscribed by conceptual limits. Three-dimensional existence was only a partial view of the projection of realities of higher dimensions. William Gibson’s cyberspace, the idea of “the matrix,” and other popular mind bending exercises extend these speculations into contemporary culture. The allure of a higher order of consciousness has not diminished, nor has the suspicion subsided that this world may be but a pale shadow of another reality.
Ouspensky’s synthesis of scientific and philosophical beliefs, disseminated through his publications, Tertium Organum and The Fourth Dimension, resonated with many like-minded individuals. Among the most renowned were Claude Fayette Bragdon, an architect who had made use of the extruded form of an n-dimensional “hypercube” in his designs and created a universal form language to communicate across cultures. He developed an independent interest in Eastern religions before encountering the philosopher’s work and then assisted with a translation of Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum and wrote the forward for the 1920 publication. Charles Howard Hinton, a mathematician who coined the word “tesseract”, wrote science fiction, and had published articles on the “Fourth Dimension” beginning in the 1880s. These and many other figures contributed to the popularization of the idea of a fourth dimension above the realm of the sensible. Practitioners of physics and the arts shared a conviction that a hidden order existed in the universe and that the visible or perceptible world was only a part of larger and more complex systems.
In the first decade of the 20th century, investigations of the fourth dimension were popularized by breakthroughs in physics as well. Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity and Hermann Minkowski’s diagrams of space-time were not extensions of philosophy as much as they were radical innovations in the conception of the dimensions of space and time in a new framework. As long as it remained within the field of metaphysics, discussion of higher dimensions could be dismissed by skeptics as mere speculation. But investigation of space-time at velocities approaching the speed of light and theories of relativity brought the discussion of four dimensions into serious and paradigm-changing research. Between the 1880s to 1910s, the lines between science, art, and philosophy blurred briefly. The conception of spatial dimensions were not seen as in opposition to mystical approaches to the phenomena of space, time, and consciousness. But then, things changed.
Developments in the sciences rapidly shifted the understanding of the world from classical physics, with its mechanical laws, to modern nuclear and quantum foundations. The theory of relativity altered concepts of space-time, not merely mapping hyperbolic and non-Euclidean structures in space. Plausible theories of the effects of speed on the experience of time at hitherto inconceivable velocities introduced radical changes in the basic principles of physics.
Artists had experimented with many of these concepts intuitively. According to the art historian Linda Dalrymple Henderson, a number of painters had depicted curved space and the fourth dimensions before these became the subject of research in physics. Henderson’s 1983 publication, The Fourth Dimension, remains a remarkable contribution to study of the dialogue of modern science and visual art at the turn of the last century. She makes evident the extent to which artists like Kandinsky and Malevich read scientific journals that tracked research in theoretical physics that shared an interest in unseen dimensions.
Spiritualism, including investigations of communications with the dead, telekinesis, mind reading, and channeling the wisdom of disembodied guides was taken seriously. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the persistent belief in an invisible world of divine or esoteric wisdom drove figures as diverse as the investigative journalist Upton Sinclair, astronomer Camille Flammarion, physicist Wiliam Crookes (inventor of vacuum tubes), Pierre Curie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and visual artist Hilma Af Klint. Spiritualism was not considered kooky and paranormal experiences were taken seriously well into the late 20th century as military-funded research sought skills for distant perception, foreknowledge of events, and other extra-sensory capacities. At UCLA (as in other major universities) a research center dedicated to this work existed into the 1970s, and this work goes on today though with a low profile.
Modern physics had little use for spiritualism. The mathematics needed for relativity was vector calculu–not Pythagorean symbolism steeped in the magic of numbers. Science had its own authority and no interest in conjuring unseen forces it could not model empirically. Gravity, subatomic particles, nuclear physics and quantum theory provided plenty of mysteries to ponder.
As the 20th century progressed, critical approaches to modern art also parted with mystical spiritualism, promoting formalist innovations and avant-garde tactics. The notion of a universal language of form became one basis for artistic authority. Political efficacy and the development of radical aesthetics became another. Though many modern artists had practices rooted in spiritualist beliefs, the art history mainstream marginalized these tendencies. By mid-century, when Clement Greenberg, Michel Seuphor, Meyer Shapiro and other canonical figures were writing the narratives of modernism, the spiritual dimension fell by the wayside. As feminist, post-modern, and cultural critiques of modernism emerged, they were driven by political-ideological agendas that had no use for Spiritualism. Discounted and disparaged, spiritualism was largely expunged from the history of modern art as well as contemporary critical acclaim.
And yet, the investigations went on. As Whitcomb’s exhibit makes clear, within Surrealism and its offshoots, and in communities concerned with the ideas of consciousness, questions about perception and reality, the legacy of spiritualism prevailed. The Afro-Surrealist investigations of the animate word and world that gifted Los Angeles poet, Will Alexander is actively engaged in bringing forward provide just such insight into these ideas. Much that has been excluded from mainstream critical attention has the potential to return with vibrant and vital contributions to the history of art, philosophy, science, and metaphysics.
The visual tropes of miasmatic color clouds, astral projections, floating eyes and spirit forms may provoke skepticism. Pragmatic empiricism and rational criticism have no use for the vagueness of vapors and channeling from the beyond. But not all the visual art that sprang from intuitive investigations of higher dimensions belongs to the realm of the glowing spiral and emerging phantasm. As Whitcomb makes clear, mathematics is the handmaid of mysticism in science as well as art. The mere fact of mathematics, our ability to apprehend what appear to be (and are) laws of a governable universe of relations, proportions, forms, patterns and conundrums inspires deep belief in its explanatory as well as divinatory power. The long-standing query of Edmund Husserl’s “The Original Geometer” was whether we apprehend the triangle, as form already and always extant, or invent it as a projection of the human mind hard-wired to find patterns in nature. Unanswerable, the question persists as the ever-expanding apprehension of phenomena constantly shift our conceptual boundaries. Nineteeth-century fascination with X-rays, magnetism, and electricity extend in the present to realms of invisible light in the infrared areas of the spectrum, Webb telescope images at unimaginable scales of space and time, and quantum processes at the subatomic level.
But the orthodoxy of high art history, the academic establishment, closed its mind and doors to the work of Hilma Af Klint and Remedios Varo, considering it trivial while purging the work of Piet Mondrian of its Theosophical core. In one striking example of the imposition of critical orthodoxy, Rosalind Krauss publically humiliated a graduate student at a lecture she gave on Mondrian at Columbia in the 1990s when asked about his connection with Theosophy. The cruel vitriol in her response was clearly motivated by an anxiety of authority. The formalist, semiotic perspective must prevail. Any other explanation of the work was illegitimate. But more to the point, Krauss represented the academic establishment in which anything but formal innovation and the avant-garde were discredited as foundations for modern art. And yet the artists whose work these academics were using for their own career advancement had far more wide-ranging interests than the art historians were willing to admit.
So, we come back to the present, to the curatorial vision of Laura Whitcomb and her courage in bringing a long-standing tradition in modern art and thought into view. The artists in this exhibit include figures whose California connections make this meaningful here in the Los Angeles area and beyond. For instance, Gordon Onslow Ford, whose estate is managed by the Lucid Art Foundation in Inverness, was a painter whose early connections with the Paris Surrealists can be discerned in his investigations of consciousness as an aesthetic project. Surrealism and Spiritualism spring from different sources, though both share a commitment to expanding beyond ordinary perception. The former was investigating the unconscious, desire, and revolutionary politics. The latter is more broadly concerned with a consciousness and the capacities of mind. A number of Surrealist artists—Varo, Leonora Carrington, and Roberto, (Wifredo Lam) Matta had Spiritualist tendencies. Spiritualism continues across New Age practices, not exclusive to California, but flourishing here. Paulina Peavy, subject of another of Whitcomb’s curatorial projects (Beyond Baroque, Summer 2021), began her spiritual journey in Southern California in the 1930s. Paul Landacre, a renowned Los Angeles wood engraver, occupied a cabin on the property originally known as the Semi-Tropic Spiritualist Tract. Landacre, and others in the Bohemian circles that also promoted Socialist beliefs, considered Spiritualism a legitimate aspect of philosophy. The influence of Theosophy was another factor in early 20th century teachings, and the arrival of Jiddu Krishnamurti to Ojai in 1922 made for a powerful connection to that worldwide movement.
Tertium Organum contains many intriguing objects. Sculpture by Lynn Chadwick and Pamela Boden, canvases by Wolfgang Paalen, Wifredo Lam and other well-known figures. Suggestive sculptures of bone-like form and paintings suffused with ambiguous organic automatic lines, auratic forms, and dream-like imagery. The works are skillfully reframed in this context to call attention to the Spiritualist aspects of their work. Particularly intriguing, Harry Kramer’s 1964 kinetic work, Lindwurm 2, is formed of wire into a bulging tubular organic mesh. The sculpture has a pair of delicate wheels that move an even more delicate mechanism through the vaguely intestinal shape. The work has no evident figurative referent, can’t be turned into a worm, organ, or specific animal, and yet, has the animate presence of living thing. That Whitcomb managed to get the Kassel Stiftung Künstler-Nekropole to ship this fragile and elegant object to California is a tribute to her curatorial skill. The work is stunning in its embodiment of the possibilities of perception. The wire shape can be read as a solid form or a phantom, as a projection or a body, and the action of its mechanisms as mere workings or as an expression of something living.
The generative capacity of aesthetic work remains a vital contribution to experience, and the imagination that combines spiritualist investigation with formal experiment continues to provoke both engagement and skepticism in the best sense.
When Hilma Af Klint’s exhibit appeared at the Guggenheim in 2019, many people were amazed by it, surprised they had no inkling of the existence of painting so directly informed by Spiritualist beliefs. That surprise only shows how powerful the high art establishment has been at banishing recognition of the influence of Spiritualism in early 20th century abstract art and its legacy into the present. Orthodoxy enforces ignorance. Formalist innovation (from abstraction, non-representational art, minimalism, and conceptualism) and the politics of the avant-garde (including activist and resistant practices), while themselves important strains of modern to contemporary art, have warped the history of modernism to serve specific ideological agendas. Whitcomb’s ongoing commitment to casting attention on the Spiritualist strain is much appreciated for the counter-narrative it supports and the enlightenment it provides.
Los Angeles, September 2022
Thanks to Laura Whitcomb for her suggestions.
 The historic building was one of the Carnegie Libraries and was built in 1914 in a California mission style, Conrad Buff architect.
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