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Physics: An Antidote for Anxiety?

Today’s post comes from Olivia Zisman, class of 2016 and Art Center Student Docent.

Ross Bleckner (American, b. 1949) Symbols of the Sun and Other Planets, 1990 Oil on linen Gift of Michael S. Cornish, class of 1982, 1993.16
Ross Bleckner (American, b. 1949)
Symbols of the Sun and Other Planets, 1990
Oil on linen
Gift of Michael S. Cornish, class of 1982, 1993.16

On October 24, Professor Jenny Magnes of the physics department kicked off this year’s Artful Dodger series—now taking place at 5:00 on Thursdays during Late Night at the Lehman Loeb—with a talk about Ross Bleckner’s Symbols of the Sun and Other Planets. The painting is from the permanent collection and was recently included in the Art Center’s summer exhibition, Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art from the Permanent Collection. In her interpretation of the painting, Magnes focused on the concept of complementary spaces in physics and explained how these types of spaces can be used to overcome drama in everyday life.

Magnes began her talk by describing her first impressions of the painting. She saw the composition at first as situating her at the bottom of a well—with the bright circle at the center of the composition as light radiating down from an outside world she could not reach. In order to understand or allay her feelings of anxiety associated with this reading of the work, Magnes decided to use her background in physics to break the picture down into quantifiable sections and lines. In counting out the concentric circles and radiating lines in Bleckner’s work, Magnes was able to find cyclical patterns relating to the four seasons and lunar cycles that made her feel more at ease and more connected to the painting. She continued to bring Bleckner’s work further into the scientific realm by making connections between the patterns in the painting and her current research involving optics.

Recently, Magnes and her research group have been investigating microorganisms using various optical techniques. Their experiments involve millimeter-long worms, which create diffractive interference patterns when they are exposed to light. To illustrate this idea, Magnes gave the Artful Dodger audience special diffraction glasses to wear, which showed the viewer the spectrum of light radiating from surrounding surfaces. As someone who has never been exposed to the study of optics, I appreciated this hands-on approach to the discussion. Magnes went on to talk about how different wavelengths of light can interfere with each other depending on their frequencies and periodicities so that even though two rays of light may be present in a single space, they can interact to create darkness. This concept ties back into Bleckner’s painting nicely if we consider the alternating bands of light and dark in his work as rays of light: some interfere constructively as bright white light while others interfere with one another destructively, producing the dark voids we see between the white rays.

The complementary spaces of dark and light concentric circles work to activate the space and bring depth to the composition through their convergence at the bright center of the work. These circular forms give the work a feeling of rhythmic circular motion that in turn activates the space and makes it seem less imposing as an abstraction. When considered in this way, Bleckner’s work can be understood on both a scientific and visual level. Professor Magnes’s unique perspective and analysis brought the painting into a new realm and allowed the audience to gain new insights into the work.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Judith Dollenmayer

    Intriguing and excellent report of Professor Magnes’ explication! I missed a good deal of it, though I was present for most of her talk. Thanks for this.

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