Lately I’ve been thinking about geometry, or more precisely, about the straight-lined. For me, geometry evokes a pleasant schoolroom setting, protractors, compasses and straightedges (rulers) strewn about desktops. It involved an exotic vocabulary: quadrilaterals, isosceles, octagons, tetrahedrons, etc., conjuring visions of prehistoric creatures and faceted gemstones. A kind of maths I could get my head around, it was a visual practice that resulted in making objects. I loved filling pages with precise lines and shapes, closing gaps, outlining, filling. It was an opportunity to create beautiful things, and helped me see the patterns that were in everything around me.
When I teach Islamic art, which involves a good deal of geometry, I often find myself struggling to remember the basics and to relay them to Art History students who are rather shocked at being confronted with maths. This has made me think about why these two categories exist separately in Western pedagogy, and why geometric patterns are more associated with engineering than art. I get a kick out of challenging these established modes of thinking – I ask them why they think geometry is ‘artificial’ as opposed to ‘naturalistic’, and then ask them to think about snowflakes, or crystals, or DNA. The fact is, geometry is not a modern, industry-inspired style or form – like everything else it evolved from examples found in the natural world, from its underlying structures and patterns. There’s also a stigma surrounding geometry (like maths) that its processes are somehow uncreative, fixed in a way that making naturalistic or gestural lines and shapes is not. As if using a straight-edge robs the artists of his or her expression, or that having to calculate is a distraction from creative thinking. What is lost here is an appreciation for the endless possibilities allowed by geometry, the infinite number of variations and combinations of shapes. This is where designers of Islamic patterns truly shine; by innovating within set rules, finding new paths along those well travelled. Novelty is found only through careful adherence to basic principles and steps. And, for some reason that is not known or understood, the large majority of Islamic designers since the medieval period have preferred straight lines over curvilinear ones – omitting the basic circle that is the basis for any geometric pattern (Eric Broug, a designer and writer, explains this and other key concepts on his website and in his recently published book, Islamic Geometric Design. The V&A collections also have a great learning page).
The Victorians, obsessed simultaneously with nature and with the technologies used to control and tame it, caught on to this tradition in the Islamic world and used it as the basis for developing new, modern designs. Owen Jones and later generations of design reformers used these more mathematically minded traditions, and their roots in nature’s underlying principles, to create patterns which were versatile in their replicability and machine-like finish. The medieval Orient thus came crashing into the modern era, a movement that was not without its critics (of them, John Ruskin was perhaps the most vocal). For many 19th century thinkers, geometric designs sat uncomfortably between the ‘straight-lined’ forms of nature, and the abstract fantasies of the undeveloped, uncivilised mind, which was threatened to warp and stylize ‘actual’ things as the objective, trained eye might see them. For every privileged Victorian authority who embraced difference, there was another one waiting to shut it down, and still others who managed to do both at once. Ruskin, despite being an amateur mineralogist, struggled to accept the use of abstract and geometric forms in art, associating them with the evils of mechanical production.
But enough about the Victorians. What I really want to talk about, if only briefly here, is the relationship between geometric form and the way different cultures seek to order or make sense of the world. The ubiquitous pie chart, to give an obvious example, holds sway because it is instantly graspable; powerful and authoritative in its simplicity. On the other hand, kaleidoscopes splinter and multiply its subjects to a point of complete obscurity. Both offer ways to organise and reorder space, subjugating the visual experience to the logic of lines and shapes. There is something undeniably reassuring about a patterned surface: evenly distributed, balanced, precise. I’ve always thought it an interesting paradox that societies which produce pattern as a primary visual output have historically been seen as primitive, their artforms as craft. The tendency to cover buildings or objects with ornamentation has been associated with ‘horror vacui’, a term suggesting an innate fear of empty space. Nature abhors a vacuum, Aristotle claimed. Art historians have read anthropological meaning into certain cultures’ penchant for decoration, particularly nomadic desert peoples who were surrounded by, well, lots of empty space. This fails to account for the raft of other stylistic periods that span the globe, which are liberal in their over-the-top space filling (i.e. Baroque, Victoriana, Postmodernism), and dabbles in a racially or ethnically determined explanation of style which is best left were it belongs, in the past. It also focuses on the issue of quantity rather than the medium or style in question. How much is too much, and who decides?
Where does geometry come into all this? Well, the covering of surfaces with pattern is best achieved through the use of repeated grids (as opposed to pattern radiating outwards from a central shape, which can lead to irregularities), which means that some form of geometric calculation must take place before an object – whether a Greek amphora or an Islamic palace facade – is ornamented. This is something Muslim designers mastered as early as the 7th century. To make a clear, bold statement about the sophistication and power of a ruler and his court, geometric designs were developed (with the help of Euclid), to project from buildings, textiles, furniture, luxury objects and books in a way that boasted mathematical and artisanal mastery. Pattern was a language that everyone understood, if only through its visual and tactile qualities. This is arguably still true today. Successful patterns are ones that catch and hold the eye, and become easily identifiable signs of culture and status, of identity and affiliation. Think of the subtle but important differences between tartan (plaid), check and gingham. Or Louis Vuitton and Cath Kidson. Iconic patterns articulate complex social messages in an instant, and transcend the language barrier through their organisation of colour, line and shape within a repeatable grid. The building blocks that unites them all are the square and the circle, which underpin each and every design that patterns our world.
Whitechapel Gallery’s recent exhibition, ‘Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015‘, is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the geometric escapades of modern and contemporary art, with a strong nod to international and ‘non-Western’ traditions which are part of the legacy catalyzed by Kazimir Malevich’s ‘black quadrilateral’, first exhibited in Russia in 1915. I was particularly struck by the way that the curators attempted to elevate geometry under the rubric of abstraction, following the Conceptual Turn. In plain speak – geometry was only considered art-proper when it it became a receptacle for avant garde ideas. Emancipated from the realm of craft and decoration, it was given pride of place amongst other fine/high art modes of production. Standing on a Carle Andre and looking at Dan Flavin’s strip-lit Monument I for V. Tatlin, it was clear that geometry for geometry’s sake had no place in the history of Modernism. In their attempt to empty art of all reference, these archetypal minimalist works are always, unavoidably about the Western art canon and its discontents: the triumph of ideas over medium and process. The contemporary galleries confirmed my suspicions – the work of Iranian artist Nazgol Ansarinia is an overt example of how traditional Islamic pattern is in the service of a concept or idea, in this case it functions to scramble news headlines. According to the curators, it’s the way that Ansarinia ‘links Persian and Arabic decorative arts with Modernism’ that is important here.
What is left out of this and other rather late arriving discussions about abstraction is the value of geometry as a creative practice and form of inspiration in its own right. Its history reaches much farther back than Modernity (a nebulous temporal category in the first place), and often overlaps with representation in that it borrows from and mirrors the underlying features of the natural world – the mostly hidden realms of rocks, minerals and crystals. As my friend and art historian Anirudha Dhanawade has observed, crystals have proved not only to be ‘curious’ in themselves, but have also inspired representations which ‘invite reflection upon the nature of images’. Their clean lines and complex formations appear to our eyes as somehow fabricated or constructed; they are magical, miraculously produced things. The replication and interpretation of these systems and their structural logic is the basis for technological as well as artistic developments, something that is often left out of discussions of the ‘representational’ in art. The Whitechapel exhibition acknowledges this through its second organising category, ‘Architectonics’, but mainly through the lens of Constructivist idealism. Similarly, the ‘Everyday’ picks up on textile compositions by Sophie Taeuber-Arp and truisms by Jenny Holzer as the basis for discussing the slow incursion of geometric abstraction into our daily lives since the birth of Modern art.
If this has turned out to be a critique of ‘Adventures of the Black Square’, then I hope it also acts as an incentive to see the exhibition before it ends (6th of April). I think its clever curatorial vision is worth exploring, and the works themselves (by over 100 artists!) are a feast for the senses. Yet there’s something incredibly partial about its scope – not so much in geographic terms, as it charts a truly global path – but in its pondering of the geometric and the abstract as a Modernist invention, at least in a populist or avant-gardist sense. What about the history (histories?) of geometric art production that can only be considered innovative by an entirely separate criteria? What about artists who perfect the art of elaborating and complicating the rules, rather than breaking them? While we are able to recognise patterns and their association with brands or types of people, the average contemporary viewer has no idea how they are designed or executed. Certain audiences of the past, by contrast, may have grasped the language and principles of geometry in a way that allowed them access to the complex variations of shapes and lines within repeated grids. Indeed, for many it was a dynamic and contemplative act that we might liken to entertainment, or cultural enrichment.