Saturday, 29 June 2013

Odd Man Out

By Rory A.A. Hinton

Scientific Canadian
Kazuo Nakamura (1926 - 2002)

"People send me so many presents in the mail, but I wish instead of all the presents and art mailers I would get science mailers in language I could understand. That would make me want to open my mail again." (Andy Warhol)

When Andy Warhol started painting money (like 200 One Dollar Bills) he finished a revolution that demolished the dividing line between creativity and commerce. Curating capital through this multiply-and-concur strategy made it possible to recognize human survival as a natural pattern of aesthetic consumption. Taking Warhol's lead, some recognize this by producing consumable art (like Banksy), while others do it by artistically consuming $43.8 million for Warhol's money (like Sotheby's). They both supply and demand within the same marketplace of ideals, they just do it in different ways. Prior to the idea that "art is what you can get away with" (which goes proxy for the post-Pop principle that good art is good business), there was no gift shop to exit through, let alone survive within. Guggenheim as Bloomingdale's.
     Combining art and economics in this way set a precedent, and increased the possibility for artists after Warhol to live conceptually ahead of life itself according to their own artistic ideas. Jeff Koons is the perfect protégé. Andy's work is "about that spark of trying, in the most economical means," Koons says, "to just get a little bit ahead of life itself ... it's that increase of possibilities, and for that moment (you know as a great alchemist), we are greater than we have ever been." Koons' use of 'economical' means more here than just the necessity of romantic capitalism. It means trying to use whatever means necessary to increase the possibility of uniting art with culture writ large.

200 One Dollar Bills - 1962 by Andy Warhol on display in
New York at Sotheby's pre-auction preview, 2009.


     When Kazuo Nakamura finished painting strings (like Infinite Waves), he started a revolution that demolished the dividing line between painting and physics. Curating science through his own multiply-and-concur strategy made it possible for him to recognize that the artist and the scientist do the same thing but in different ways: they both recognize patterns in nature. There is a sort of "fundamental universal pattern in all art and nature," Nakamura says. In a sense, "scientists and artists are doing the same thing ... This world of pattern is a world we are discovering together." In this way Nakamura lived and worked ahead of his own life and times by increasing the conceptual possibilities of what art is, and what artists do. Prior to the idea that "art is what you can scientifically recognize with" (which goes proxy for the post-Abstract principle that good science is good art), there were no science mailers written in a language artists could understand, let alone read through. Scientific Canadian as Scientific American.
     Unlike Koons, Nakamura was less Warhol's perfect protégé and more his conceptual contemporary (he was two years Warhol's senior). At a time when the physical sciences are still ruled by reason, while the humanities "have been virtually abandoned to the primitive epistemology of mysticism," Nakamura's work functions as a scientific apology within Abstract Expressionism, in much the same way that Warhol's work functions as an economic alchemy without Pop Art. Both of them conceptually united art with culture writ large, they just did it in different ways.

Infinite Waves - 1957
Oil over string on canvas 


     Science for Nakamura (like economics for Warhol) was an artistic venture. His work shows that the difference between the art of humane measure and the science of human measuring is only in the patterned product of a physically vibrating degree. Knowing what this means, and how it fits into Nakamura's aesthetics, helps clarify what Roald Nasgaard might have been getting at (albeit cryptically) by describing Nakamura as the "odd man out" among the Toronto-based abstract Painters Eleven.
     Nasgaard's initial attempt to explain Nakamura's oddness focuses on his painterly technique (a predictable place to start). "From the start," Nasgaard writes, "his painting was precisely ordered and executed with restraint. There are no painterly flourishes, no expressionist gestures." What makes this explanation conspicuous is that words like 'precision,' 'order,' and 'restraint' usually don't belong within the expressionist lexicon. Is it any wonder, then, that Clement Greenberg (the abstract doyen of expressionist critics) dismissed Nakamura's work as "just a bit too captured by oriental 'taste'" to be of any good abstract use? We now have the benefit of hindsight to know that this "critical" remark is less about Nakamura, and more about Greenburg's lexical lack to describe him otherwise.
     In fact, it is precisely the precision of Nakamura's fragile line that gives sense to his abstract oddness, and why (contra Greenberg) he is of such abstract use. "Nakamura adopted a way of drawing," Nassgaard continues, "using first razor blades and then the edges of a piece of cardboard dipped into paint ... [this] gave to his line a fragility and precision that some viewers have attributed to his Japanese ethnicity.”
     Nakamura's ethnicity is not "germane to his primary practice" as a painter (as Ihor Holubizky correctly points out). However, it does help him express the “parallels between nature, science and art, [and] the mesmerizing complexity of both mathematical organization and mathematical chaos” in his paintings. This fact does not make his art any less abstract, nor any more concrete.
     Speaking of the organization of mathematical chaos, Nakamura's pictures are best read as representing the kind of abstractly concrete world you get within chaos theory: a world of order without predictability (a theory Nakamura probably knew about given his regular reading of Scientific American, a practice and a publication that was "emblematic of his entire attitude to art," as Nasgaard says). Nakamura's work shows that there is Occidental chaos within Oriental concision. And in tapping into that chaotic concision (where West meets East on a two dimensional plane), he questions the notion found within critical scholarship (the "Oriental/Occidental dilemma") that there is a real artistic tension between two cultural tendencies that cannot be united, let alone uniformly classified.
     To think there is a tension over the Oriental and the Occidental is to miss the unifying significance of "natural patterns" in Nakamura's philosophy of art. The patterns are simultaneously orderly (Oriental) and chaotic (Occidental) enough to be given both experimental and expressive recognition. The implications of this union are as surprising as they are revolutionary. In Nakamura's world an artist can literally make a scientific difference to culture. The artist just does it in a different, but no less significant, way than the scientist. How? The scientific artist and the artistic scientist share the same recognitional brain because they literally inhabit the same physical brane (but more on string theory later). Katsushika Hokusai's The Great Wave Off Kanagawa is a fractaled example of how the kind of chaos represented in the pictures Greenberg was most "captured by" can be expressed through the means of tasteful oriental precision. The Great Wave drips its own Lavender Mist.

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa - 1830-1832
Katsushika Hokusai

     Austerity is at the heart of Japanese aesthetics. Art must be austere enough to detach the viewer from an attachment to the world of surface appearance. To get beyond appearance to reality consists in remaining attentive without becoming attached to what merely meets the eyes. The kind of technique that you get in Nakamura's painting is generous enough to catch your attention, but serious enough to prevent you from being distracted by being caught. It forces you to question just what is being represented through his lined fragility, and why. There is an attentive method to this austere madness. Less shows more in Nakamura's taste. Hence his abstract use.
     Hillside - 1954 is an early example of this austerity in action (an instance of what he called "linear abstractions"). This painting demonstrates that too much psychological abstraction can get in the way of experiencing the abstract nature of physical reality. Psychologism is conspicuous by its absence here. Oddly enough, this early painting proves why Nakamura is both the most and the least abstract of the Painters Eleven. He is the least abstract since his work is not about his inner psychological landscape as a painter (unlike his abstract contemporaries). And yet precisely because of this, his work is the most abstract since it seeks to accurately represent the outer physical landscape of abstract reality. To copy nature is to create abstraction. “Do not copy nature too much," Gauguin once said. "Art is an abstraction.” Fortunately, Nakamura did not heed Gauguin's prohibition.

Hillside - 1954
Kazuo Nakamura

     Canadian painting is steeped in its landscapes, and Nakamura's contribution to it qualifies him as a quintessential Canadian painter. However, his work in this area is abstract in a way that might seem counter-intuitive at first, at least historically. "Cezanne broke nature down into cones, spheres," Nakamura says. "But we are living in an age where we can see a structure, a structure based on atomic structure and motion."
     Consider Plowed Field - 1953 as an early example of Nakamura's structured abstractions, a painting that Richard William Hill describes as "fresh, confident and clearly engaged with Japanese aesthetics." The landscape is recognizable. And yet, closer inspection displays smaller fractal-like images within the landscape. These images go proxy for the great waves of patterned energy derived from even smaller more chaotic structures existing explicitly beneath the surface, but implicitly making that surface landscape possible. Energy in motion.

Plowed Field - 1953
Kazuo Nakamura

     "It takes energy to do abstract work," Nakamura states. "Every once in a while I do landscapes, to do what's on top." This comment is less of a commentary on what Nakamura does in response to the spent human energy of abstract painting, and more of a scientific description of the necessary condition for producing it. It literally takes physical energy, the energy that gets produced on the quantum landscape, to make it possible. The energy is virtually on top, because it is vibrationally on the bottom. Nakamura was scientific enough to recognize this patterned fact.
     It is interesting to note here the similarity between Nakamura's 1953 painting Plowed Field, with the artistic rendering of a quantum field from Brian Greene's 2003 PBS documentary The Elegant Universe on string theory. The fifty years that separates the artistic rendering of these two fields only confirms the intuitive anticipation of Nakamura's artistically rendered scientific recognition of patterned spacetime. Odd, indeed.

Quantum Jitters - 2003



     Cutting-edge physics is concerned with unification. The goal is to fulfil Einstein's unified dream by creating a theory of quantum gravity that will unite two mutually incompatible areas of scientific study: general relativity (the very large) and quantum mechanics (the very small). Given its universal eloquence and unifying elegance (at least as Greene describes it), string theory is not only the best unifying theory within the marketplace of ideas, but is also as revolutionary as the individual theories it attempts to unify.
     String theory states that everything in the universe is made up of ultra-microscopic vibrating filaments (strings) of energy that vibrate and move within space-time. Strings (closed and open-ended loops) are the things that unite the four fundamental interactions of the universe: gravity, electromagnetism, the weak radioactive force, and the strong nuclear force. To work out how this works is the most pressing concern among string theorists. Strings be the ties that bind.

Untitled - 1965
Kazuo Nakamura


     When Edward Witten (one of the leading experts in the field) said that "string theory is a part of twenty-first century physics that fell by chance into the twentieth century" he was giving expression to its revolutionary status as a theory of comprehensive breadth and predictive depth. As a result "it could be decades or even centuries before string theory is fully developed and understood" (as Greene puts it). With this comprehensiveness in mind, our understanding of it just might (in part) come from an initially unlikely domain of inquiry and analysis (one that has generally been at odds with science): art. And why not? Excluding something explanatory from a theory that claims to explain everything would be prejudicial and inconsistent. The church once claimed that Copernicus' heliocentric science was not only wrong but had nothing to contribute toward our understanding of the cosmos. How quaint the ways of scientific progress.
     In his book-length commentary on why Warhol went from a commercial artist to a cultural icon, Arthur C. Danto states that “when there is a period of deep cultural change, it shows up first in art." In his analysis of the parallels between art and physics, Leonard Shalain says something similar: "Art generally anticipates scientific revisions of reality.” With Michio Kaku's commentary on Einstein as a guide, it is only right to conclude that art's anticipatory contribution toward scientific revolutions is found primarily in pictures. "Einstein would often comment," Kaku writes, "that if a new theory was not based on a physical image simple enough for a child to understand, it was probably worthless.” Nakamura’s string paintings are physical images that are simple enough for a child to understand their artistic value, but complex enough for an adult to grasp their scientific worth. This is chiefly the case when it comes to Nakamura's Infinite Waves - 1957, his "most extreme painting" as he put it.

The Infinite Wave
Kazuo Nakamura (1957)


     Commentators have struggled to make sense of the extremity. "The waves, dense and maze-like, go nowhere," Iris Nowell writes. "Or perhaps it is better to believe that the tantalizing lines emerged from a place deep in Nakamura's cosmic world and it matters not where they go." Nasgaard's commentary is less metaphoric, and therefore more insightful: "The rows of string lines cover the whole surface of the support uniformly ... suggest[ing] landscape horizons or even objects on a plane, literalness and illusion always coexisting." Take away 'illusion' and this comment comes closer to the literal significance of Infinite Waves, especially concerning Nasgaard's notion of "objects on a plane."
     Research into string theory has produced theoretical objects that are larger than strings. Witten's work theoretically created an extra dimension that allows a string to stretch into something like a very large surface or membrane ("brane" for short). With enough energy a brane could grow into an enormous size, perhaps even as large as an entire universe (like the one we live in now). Early string theory focused attention on strings that were closed loops (like rubber bands). But after Witten, physicists turned their attention to open-ended strings. It is now held that everything we see around us is made of open-ended strings, each one tied down to a three dimensional brane that is our universe. What Infinite Waves represents, then, is the waves of vibrational energy produced by open-ended strings tied down to an infinitely large brane (canvas as brane). Nakamura's "cosmic world" is our own, and it does matter where the strings go and what the strings do.
     Like the string theory he anticipates, Nakamura's string paintings are part of twenty-first century art that fell by chance into the twentieth century. Fifty years prior to the public disclosure of string theory, Nakamura's strings scientifically intuit and artistically represent the most important and revolutionary theory in fundamental physics (years before it was formulated within the scientific community). And fifty years after the private production of Nakamura's strings, string theory itself helps us comprehend his work. The string paintings and string theory mutually endorse each other and help to unify art with the most successful public institution for the past three hundred years: science.
     Nakamura's revolutionary worth consists in his scientific work. His artistic genius showed itself in conceptually intuiting and artistically representing string theory as a form of pattern recognition. In this way Nakamura made a scientific contribution to culture by preparing our collective imagination for scientific work in this field. Einstein was right: good physics requires good pictures. You cannot have thought experiments without them.
     In the Preface to the 2004 catalogue for the Art Gallery Of Ontario exhibition Kazuo Nakamura: A Human Measure, Dennis Reid states that Hill's introductory essay "establishes the platform for all future consideration" of Nakamura's work. Reid is right. The reason why is because Hill describes Nakamura's work as a "funny sort of realism." Hill's use of 'funny' here means "odd." And the oddness is based on the source for Nakamura's artistic inspiration (at least for an artist of his descriptive ilk). "[I was inspired by] photographs ... of the real world at the microscopic level," Nakamura says. "And this is real form. And its basis is pattern and structure ... [so] you might say I am actually a realist."
     To say that Nakamura is the "odd man out" is to recognize that his work is an extreme form of representational realism, unlike the work of his abstract contemporaries and his abstract critics. "Looking back, however, it is now clear that his radically simple yet infinitely expansive minimalist string paintings ... were more significant than any objects produced in the 1950s by his Painters Eleven colleagues," Reid writes, "and were among the most important works produced by any Canadian artist during that decade." Their significance consists in the contribution they make to our scientific understanding of the world. The string paintings are patterned artistic products of physically vibrating strings.
     To unite art and science artistically, is to do the same thing that quantum gravity is doing scientifically. Nakamura’s work is an artistic component of unified field theory at work. Einstein's unified dream was not unknown to him. Nakamura knew what he was doing: "I hope that some day all these explorations will be united - though maybe not by me - into a universal theory of number structure." 
     Combining art and science in this way set a precedent, and increased the possibility for artists after Nakamura to live conceptually ahead of life itself according to their own artistic ideas. Jeff Koons is the perfect protégé. The scientific sina qua non of Koons' artistic One Ball Equilibrium Tank is none other than Nobel Prize Laureate in physics Richard Feynman, with whom Koons collaborated in order to defy the art of gravity through the science of salting distilled water. In trying to use whatever means necessary to increase the possibility of uniting art with culture writ large, Koons shows that the art of science is indeed a spectacular sport.
One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank - 1985
Jeff Koons

     Warhol and Nakamura did the same thing but in different ways. They both united art with areas of culture that were their artistic concern: good art is good business if and only if good science is good art. They were contemporary revolutionaries. However, as an artistic American it is unfortunate that Warhol did not have a subscription to this Scientific Canadian. Nakamura painted in a language Warhol would have understood, and read. It would have made him open his mail again.

"Andy Warhol's 200 One Dollar Bills Silkscreen Sold For $43.8m." The Telegraph. November 12, 2009.
Andy Warhol. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001.
Ayn Rand. The Romantic Manifesto. Signet (Penguin Group), 1975.
Banksy. Exit Through The Gift Shop. Paranoid Pictures, 2010.
Brian Greene. The Elegant Universe. Vintage Books, 2000.
Ihor Holubizky. Kazuo Nakamura: The Method Of Nature. The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2001.
Iris Nowell. Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones Of Canadian Art. Douglas & McIntyre, 2011.
Joseph McMaster, Julia Cort. The Elegant Universe. NOVA, 2004.
Leonard Shlain. Art & Physics: Parallel Visions In Space, Time, And Light. Harper Perennial, 2007.
Michio Kaku. Einstein's Cosmos. W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.
Ric Burns. Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film. PBS, 2006.
Richard William Hill. Kazuo Nakamura: A Human Measure. Art Gallery Of Ontario, 2004.
Roald Nasgaard. Abstract Painting In Canada. Douglas & McIntyre, 2007.
Steven S. Gubser. The Little Book Of String Theory. Princeton University Press, 2010.
Thomas Kuhn. The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, 1996.