>Against Grids_curated by Brandon Taylor_ milkandsugar gallery RIBA Liverpool_ 13.05.2010-11.06.2010

>Ian Dawson

>Against Grids_ Catalogue Text_ Prof. Brandon Taylor


By common consent the grid as a structure came to dominate if not characterise modern art as a whole: in architecture, rational planning and the Bauhaus, in painting of the various European abstract schools and groups c1920-1940.  And more besides.  To be even more precise, an ideal of rationality and the straight line came to dominate that part of modernist design that was close to Constructivism, De Stijl, and the Bauhaus – or if not rationality, then an ideal of balanced symmetry that itself requires for its definition a notion of horizontal and vertical axes.  And in that version of modernity the qualities of decorativeness and curvilinearity – and their effects, such as profligacy, colour, scale and complexity – came to be viewed as negative, even undemocratic in the sense required by progressive modern culture as a whole.  And in that culture ‘nature’ was assumed to lie largely elsewhere, even to be the subject of instrumental domination.  In emphasising the grid as ‘pure relationship with no connection to nature’ Rosalind Krauss in her celebrated ‘Grids’ essay of 1979 reminded her readers of the resonance between the grid and the manufactured world of buildings, cities and built environments on the one hand, and a certain genre of representational formats such as maps, graphs, charts and diagrams on the other.  If for Rodchenko in 1921 the grid could function as the perfect anti-compositional format, it could also serve as an embodiment of technical modernity in the form of the efficient, the verifiable, and the true: to function as a ‘factual display’, as Lawrence Alloway later described it.[1]


 The apparently ubiquitous nature of the modernist grid also called for explanation at the time of writing.  As Krauss observed at the beginning of her essay, ‘no form within the whole of modern aesthetic production has sustained itself so relentlessly while at the same time being so impervious to change.’  Change is ‘precisely what the grid resists’, she said in the course of opening modernism to closer critical inspection.  ‘One of the most modernist things about [the grid] is its capacity to serve as a paradigm or model for the anti-developmental, the anti-narrative, the anti-historical’ – as if to demonstrate that formal modelling alone could account for the grid’s historical persistence, its innate conservatism.[2]  In fact, the decline of the grid in later modernism, and with it the decay of the straight line, has scarcely been documented so far.  In painting alone the grid gave way in 1950s art to many versions of the all-over field, just as sculpture would celebrate ‘openness’ and so forth in post-1960s late modernist practice.  Both developments, in my view, owed something to a creeping awareness in studio conversation and art criticism that other, more complex models of the cosmos and the atomic world were beginning to gain credence: that models dependent upon discontinuity (quantum mechanics), complex curvature (space-time), or paradox might align more closely with ‘the real’ as conceived by contemporary science. 

 Even more relevantly here, we look to the natural sciences of the post-1970s for a set of cognitive structures in which the universe begins to look very different indeed.  The most impressive of these arose out of the scientific study of hard-to-predict systems such as the weather, flowing liquids, and population growth – all of them significantly involving phenomena occupying three dimensions at the same time as calling for visual representation in two.  Tides, eddies, cyclones, cloud-patterns and the patterns of meandering rivers had fascinated Leonardo da Vinci some five hundred years before, but by the middle of the twentieth century were still defying the efforts of mathematicians and physicists to describe them.  Such phenomena had proved highly resistant to capture with conventional geometries, while understanding them promised clear military benefits, particularly for the USA.  The famous meteorological modelling undertaken by Edward Lorenz with the help of state-of-the-art computers in the 1950s gave birth not only to a new mathematics of stable versus unstable patterns of change (including the so-called Butterfly Effect) but to a new level of popular interest in the physics of dynamical patterns of movement in the human and animal world.  In particular, the phenomena of swarming, whether of birds in flight, of fish shoals in rapid motion, or of human crowds teeming through and across cities, exhibiting wave motions at sporting events or reacting to conflict situations in patterns of coalescence, dispersal and escape – all now captured on film with the glamour of accelerated or slowed-down motion – at that moment presented a profound challenge to experimental scientists and artists alike.  When the American painter Mark Tobey abandoned compositional formats in favour of ‘all-over’ markings across the field of the canvas he found he could capture something of the teeming quality of crowds and transport in New York city, as well as evoke new ways of viewing an abstract painting as a mobile continuum rather than as a set of figure-on-ground gestalts in fixed relation.  The Portuguese painter Filipe Rocha da Silva has studied the phenomenon of spontaneous order in pointillist paintings through which he invokes the power and purpose of the human mass as a patterned synchronisation of its many-millioned parts.  It may even be that swarming systems turn out to be self-regulating; moreover that self-regulation as opposed to Divine inspiration may be a structural feature of the expanding and contracting universe as a whole.   At the middle-sized and therefore human scale, the physics of swarming has recently led to speculation on the spread and patterning of social contagions such as addiction and perhaps crime.  Its application to patterns of artistic and cultural change should not be far behind.[3]

 In a related sense the collapse of figure-ground configurations in the fine arts can be viewed as a crisis in the concept of determinate boundary, hence of shape, and hence of line itself, whether curved or straight.  Indeed there turns out to be a demonstrable link between the mathematics of turbulence and the crisis of the straight line that had functioned in 1920s Constructivism as an index of simplicity and efficient functionality.  A context was provided by mathematicians in the 1970s who began to reconsider the geometrical properties of the complex number plane, the graphic space that, since the end of the eighteenth century, has been used to represent the real numbers stretching as a straight line conventionally from east to west as well as the so-called complex numbers (defined as pairings of real numbers and imaginary numbers, the latter understood as multiples of √-1, or i) that could be positioned both east-to-west and north-to-south on a conventionally gridded plane.  Building on the discovery of the eighteenth century Swiss mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss that an equation of degree n could have all its solutions represented as points in the complex number plane, the question that now assumed significance in the study of turbulence patterns was whether these solutions were stable or otherwise.  The answer, prompted by the Cornell mathematician John Hubbard in the 1970s was that a simple iterative test could determine stability or otherwise: the more surprising result was that the boundary between the stable and unstable sets was of literally infinite complexity, in the sense that the shape of any part of the boundary repeated the shape of the original part when subjected to magnification or minimisation to any degree.  The significance of the experiment was that exactly the same kind of self-similarity (or scale-invariancy) discovered by Hubbard’s computers seemed to characterise those inscrutable natural phenomena such as weather-cycles and water-flows that had baffled physicists for so long.  It only took the French mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot to generalise Hubbard’s result into what became known as the Mandelbrot set, an eerily bulging shape fringed by extraordinary tentacular protuberances; after which the grid-like regularities of Euclid’s geometry seemed suddenly to be structures belonging to the distant past.  And this had consequences for aesthetics too.  Now, to speak of ‘beauty’ was not to speak of symmetries based on the real-number axes, or even of compositional balances based upon those symmetries, but to acknowledge a family of complex curvatures, enclosures and eventually three-dimensional morphologies in which the cosmically large and the infinitesimally small seemed identical, as well as radically unlike anything seen or imagined by the human mind hitherto.  

 These morphologies, known since the 1970s as ‘fractals’, gave rise not only to a new descriptive mathematics of nature but to new ways of looking at and understanding the world. For sure, the grid, rectangle and circle could no longer function as metaphors for industrial modernity or even for modern instrumentality as such.  ‘Clouds are not round and mountains are not cones’, was the slogan Mandelbrot brought to the scene.  ‘The new geometry’, says one scientist giving a popular explanation of Mandelbrot’s work, ‘mirrors a universe that is rough, not rounded, scabrous not smooth.  It is a geometry of the pitted, pocked, and broken, the twisted, tangled and intertwined’.[4] At more or less the same historical moment, and with the help of the same computing power that enabled self-similarity to be modelled on the screen, the systematic asymmetry and polycentrism of buildings by master-architects like Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava became part of a normative cultural experience, while painters and sculptors became newly fascinated by the complex form-giving possibilities of regularity-within-irregularity on the model of the fractal set.

 The position in regard to pattern-formation more generally, briefly stated, is that some progress has been made of late in the relationship between the instabilities that lead to snowflakes and those that appear in soot, cracks in the pavement, and continents – the list is given in a recent book on pattern by the science writer Philip Ball.[5] The same physical laws that govern heat transfer may organise clouds, the shapes and movements of stones, and the appearance of bubbles on a pan of hot milk.  The leopard’s spots are formed by regularities of diffusion.  The patterns of a river network and a retinal nerve have principles in common.  Physicists, economists, ecologists, chemical engineers, and geologists are now talking the same – at least an overlapping – language, and artists are learning how to join in.  Take the forces that produce the viscous fingering in mineral dendrites, or that form elaborate branching networks when air enters a vacuum between windowpanes, or when water confronts oil inside porous rock.  Such forces produce an instability that makes bulges and elongations that cannot be explained otherwise than in terms of small random changes triggering rule-governed amplifications of startling and somehow beguiling appearance.  Equations known as Laplacian instabilities (after the eighteenth century mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace) can now be applied by powerful modern computers to tease out how aggregation-patterns of many kinds (including those limited by the physics of diffusion) can be understood as the result of competition between forces delicately balanced at the molecular level in nature.  There, vectors conducive to instability have to reach a compromise with inertial forces before a pattern will result, a delicate balance that rides the trough of featureless homogeneity on the one side and mere randomness on the other.  In a related branch of pattern-mathematics, small random changes trigger instabilities whose magnitude can only be apprehended probabilistically – there is in such cases no way of telling whether small perturbations will produce changes of a given size or scale.  This, in turn, is to say that changes are scale-invariant in the sense that for a certain class of disorderly events we cannot be sure whether we are looking at the whole system of just one of its parts.  The edge of chaos rather than chaos itself ‘sounds like a dangerous place to be’, writes Philip Ball, ‘but it is a place where we have always lived’. [6]

 The present exhibition claims to exemplify this changed awareness, but without certainty that the new patterns produced exactly mirror those of the newly-uncovered processes of nature.  Three artists of approximately the same generation have agreed to show works that put into circulation some of the cognitive principles that come to energise the recent reaction against the modernist grid.  None of them has been schooled beyond high school level in the new mathematics and none professes more than a lay comprehension of recent science.  Yet quite clearly, there is much more at stake in the dialogue of grid and anti-grid than merely taste or an aesthetically-driven choice between formats.   In the generation of the anti-grid a number of qualifications must be noted.  The most obvious of these is that the paintings that respond to the recent discoveries are static rather than mobile, arrested in their growth rather than in a state of becoming.  And that is because the human agent does not shadow nature but brings factors relevant to human agency (the reach of an arm movement, say, or the asymmetries of handedness) to the properties of the medium and the already existing conventions of their handling.  The result of any such performance is likely to be an image that contains both its immediate past and its short-term future in a single take.  The viewer, in turn, will be able to discover that combination and replay its generation through careful and prolonged attention to the work of art.  And in that process the viewer will confront an interesting paradox that inevitably haunts the dialogue of grid and anti-grid, namely the fact that paintings on the whole remain no less rectangular in their basic construction and no less two-dimensional than any other marked-up surface from the modernist past.  For one thing, paint and the tools of its application remain more or less what they were in the days when modern art first showed signs of own abstraction, and it is in that sense that the vertical and horizontal grid continue to function as default settings for both the artist and the art object alike.  Just as the canvas remains rectangular, paint continues to dribble vertically and hence at right angles to the top and bottom edges of the frame.  The medium remains viscous and durable, while the painting surface remains porous and vertical in relation to the line of sight.  The next virtually inescapable constraint is that the pattern produced by the contemporary artist is conditional upon the size and shape of the surface that contains it in relation to the viscosity-laws of the handling medium.  Thirdly,, even more complex forces are in play in the form of the effect, at any instant, of the pattern formed up to that point upon the decision-rules now accepted by the artist; the meta-rules governing these, the higher orders of rules governing these in turn, and so on in a nested sequence towards infinity.  Such nested awareness would seem to be both similar to and different from the pattern-forming tendencies of nature; similar in as much as phase-transitions resemble tipping-points between one order of regularity and another (or regularity and none), but different in as much as human cognition has no obvious model in the natural world.  Of so we may suppose.  In fact, if what certain physicists has suggested is correct, that self-organisation can emerge epiphenomenally from the iteration of number of simple principles, then we may be justified in concluding that the self-organising work of art provides one good exemplification of what consciousness itself is like.

 All that being said, we will not want to understand the demise of the modernist grid as itself a simple historical line, and certainly not a straight one.  Very often in earlier modernism the superiority of the straight-line grid was established in terms of a contrast with the baleful effects of what was viewed as excessive or ornate.  The founder of the De Stijl movement Theo Van Doesburg insisted that the modern plastic arts separate themselves from one another (painting from sculpture, and both from architecture) lest modernism lapse back into a sea of instinct and spontaneity.  Even Tatlin’s monument to the Third International was to him an instance of romanticism, muddle-headedness, and illogicality.   By the end of the 1920s Van Doesburg was fulminating against ‘lyricism, dramaticism, symbolism, sensitivity, the sub-conscious … and the baroque’.  To ignore intellectuality and the demands of thought, he wrote, was to encounter only ‘animalism, sensualism, sentimentality, and that super-baroque testimony of weakness, phantasy’.  ‘If one cannot manage to draw a straight line with the hand’, he wrote, ‘one may use a ruler’.[7]  The art of today has itself brought into the limelight the fact that an interest in flows, branches and networks was by no means entirely missing from the era of high modernism.  An influential minority of Constructivists (Mikhail Matiushin, Pyotr Miturich, and Tatlin himself) advocated the investigation of the properties of those structures that mirrored the shapes of the human body or the collective behaviour of crowds, and that in doing so renounced the geometry of the regular grid.  Their importance has yet to be fully appreciated.  

 And yet over the much longer interval that separates the inter-war modernists from our own time, the modernist grid (occasional in Rodchenko, ubiquitous in Mondrian, and present but oblique in Boris Ioganson and the later Van Doesburg) has given way to organising principles that announce a changed attitude, not just to design, but to history, cognition and value more generally.  New types of connection between aesthetics and science bound.  Turbulence itself, writes Philip Ball, gives rise to ‘elegant, baroque beauty’.[8]  Widespread popular disenchantment with linear teleological explanations in the human sciences is another obvious example of this shift.  Talk of ‘origins’ and ‘destinations’ has now come to seem simplistic, even hopelessly misguided, however much the once-popular notion of  ‘the end of history’, whether Marxist or millennarial, could not be articulated without it. Very different patterns of history and historical explanation begin to emerge if we think instead in terms of topology, feedback-loops, and instability.  Such possibilities have come to entrance the contemporary imagination, with the implication that ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ may not be so conveniently sequential as we thought, and that the artist might do well to look to biology, to weather-systems, to cosmology and the nano-scale for clues on how to proceed from here.

 In the work that I already knew by Ian Dawson (b. 1969) he would take heavily flammable material (plastic, polythene) and subject it to deformation by means of rapid heating (with a flamethrower) so as to reduce what began life as a more or less regular vacuum-formed shape (a milk-crate) to inchoate forms beyond what the artist himself could control.  That process would typically disrupt the permanence or regularity of stable industrial units in ways that spoke of the unpredictable, the riotously colourful, or the chemically damaged – and in which the language of modern sculpture that produced ‘open’ structures now reverted to making collapsing or collapsed ones that hovered somewhere between the ready-made and the onslaught of guerrilla gang.   In more sober language, his research as an artist attended to unstable materials under pressure from extreme forces, as in volcanoes, earth-quakes and landslides.  In the work contributed here, Dawson adopts a gentler and more inquisitive posture.  Large sheets of paper are immersed rapidly into swimming-pool-sized volumes of water on whose surfaces variously coloured printing inks have begun to disperse.  The sheets are then quickly extracted, to produce swirling patterns taking shape beyond the artist’s control and very likely beyond his immediate comprehension.  The process is similar to paper marbling; except that the wall-sized results claim to occupy the observer’s field of vision, just as if he or she were becoming immersed in patterns having only colour and complexity within them.  

 The title of one large work, Mimoid, refers to the trope of the pulsating object that arises out of the ocean surface in Stanisław Lem’s 1961 cult book Solaris, in which baffled scientists from earth observe how the mimoids mimic anything in their immediate vicinity.  The scientists observe too how the  mimoids have ‘gala days’, on which each one goes into hyperproduction, embroidering formal extensions ‘to the delight of the non-figurative artist and the despair of the scientist, who is at a loss to grasp any common theme in the performance’.[9]  The book-like objects shown here are formed by a partially parallel process.  A large and ornately illustrated book is first vandalised with a sharp knife, revealing a pattern or an illustration on the page or pages beneath.  That vandalisation is then repeated according to ‘rules’ of cutting that include boundary-following, shape-repetition, and the abrupt termination of a rule once a given visual or tactile limit has been encountered.  Both regular and random, these effects mimic what happens when natural systems ‘slip’ from stability to instability, or when forces erupt on scales that are either microscopically small or unimaginably large.  These self-regulating tendencies of material encountered at extremes of scale, or under extremes of pressure, came close to what the scientist, fictional or otherwise, finds mesmerising and even 

 The large paintings by Nick Mead (b. 1967) offer the surface effects of swarming particulate matter at a scale that oscilalates between the appearance of surface-tension patterns (bubbles, grains) and the micro-cellular adhesions and separations of mobile units.  The paintings create shoal-like motions that coalesce at nodal points in a world that the eye does not normally see, sometimes (but sometimes not) constrained by the frame that takes the place of a containing vessel’s edge.  Their method is as follows.  The artist largely cedes control of the pictorial order by setting limits to how much he wishes to regulate in accordance with the demands of the grid.  First, he draws a covering of lines with a set of colour and extension-properties that are given in advance.  Number 2 or number 4 sable brushes are employed.  Black, or black nourished by a touch of chrome orange or red, are the only colours used.  Lines are neither straight nor regularly twisted, and most reverse themselves and go backwards, or turn a corner and stop.  Some accommodate the rectangular shape of the canvas by ‘knowing’ when the edge is close – but not all do this.  In this structure small islands are then traced, onto which semi-hard blobs of white paint are squeezed from an icing bag.  Once dry, these ‘masses’ are given ‘eyes’ comprising a coloured iris and a black centre.  Decisions once made are not cancelled or revised.  These paintings do not show the history of their own making, and do not organise into easy conceptual units such as islands, reservoirs, currents, rivers or boundaries; all of which is to say that the pattern-seeking viewer cannot tell what is the whole and what are the parts, nor whether the visual effects produced are those of the microscopically small in nature or the excessively large.  Decisions as to placing, connectivity, the curvature of lines (etc) are of the kind that would once have been called ‘intuitive’, except for the artist’s awareness that an active field of marks is being formed through a system of inscrutable attractions, repulsions, and surface tensions that he on some level controls.  A precedent for Mead’s intelligent sense of surface is to found in the drawing style of the Engoish artist Keith Vaughan (1912-1975 CHECK) whose war-time notebooks compress similar energies into the rectangle.  The drawings of Ben Nicholson from the same period might be compared.[10]  In those cases too, the determining verticals and horizontals of the picture’s relation to gravity play a formative role. 

 In the paintings shown here by Katie Pratt (b. 1969) we see only part of her method: the rest has to be either deduced or explained.  She will begin a painting by throwing a lump of liquid paint at a flat canvas surface to see how it lands, or she will paint a ground in a given colour loosely, without covering the whole of the painting surface or checking too rigorously for defects in the result.   She will then examine the results of this stage closely for effects of randomness, and devise two or three simple rules for marking the canvas more deliberately, but without planning a particular outcome or appearance.  The application of these rules will spread paint in micro-units across a given space, often somewhat like tentacles, subject only to further rule that will govern what must happen when the first rule encounters an obstacle.  Further rules might accumulate on top of those – but Pratt is eager to demonstrate visually that she is far from obsessive about rule-following and that her particles may wobble, fade, or cease, according to another type of decision supervening upon the first.  And seemingly random principles can intrude into whatever scheme exists at a given time.  Eventually the process stops.  What the viewer sees is how regularities appear with seeming unpredictability in some relation to those that have come into existence so far.   Eventually the painting, if not complete in any sense suggesting design or preordination (let alone composition), reaches the end of its formative life and becomes incapable of being continued any further.  The result when viewed as a whole may evoke any number of processes from the natural or human world, from the spread of moss across a petrific surface, to the growth of a virus, to the seemingly chaotic sprawl of urban space.  Visitors to the outer suburbs of a large metropolis will be familiar with the appearance of random patterning governed at the level of the unit by almost inscrutable regularities of decision.  Yet in the unfolding of that process, dripped paint writes vertical lines in a faint echo of a grid; the same grid that generated the picture-rectangle in the first place and gave its viewer an orientation to the work. 

Brandon Taylor is Emeritus Professor of History of Art at Southampton University and Senior Research Fellow in Modern Art at Southampton Solent University.  

Published by the University of Liverpool
Texts c Brandon Taylor 2010
ISBN: 978-0-947608-30-9

This exhibition and its publication are supported by the generosity of the RIBA Northwest, Liverpool University, and the Hispanic Baroque Project, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Major Collaborative Research Initiative based at the University of Vancouver.  The organisers are grateful to Juan Luis Suarez, Jonathan Harris, Harald Braun, Anna Johnson, Jon McLeod and 01 Art Services Ltd


[1] L.Alloway, Systemic Painting, Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York 1969, p 14.

[2] R.Krauss, ‘Grids’, October, Summer 1979, pp 51, 64.

[3] N.Christaks and J.Fowler, The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How they Shape Our Lives, Little, Brown and Co, New York, 2009.

[4] J.Gleick, Chaos: the Amazing Science of the Unpredictable, Vintage Books, New York 1998, p 94.

[5] Philip Ball, Nature’s Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts: Book 3, Oxford University Press, 2009, p 180

[6] Philip Ball, Nature’s Patterns, op cit, p 183.

[7] T. van Doesburg, ‘Painting and plastic art’, De Stijl, series XIII, I, 1926; and ‘Comments on the basis of concrete painting’, Art Concret, April 1930; translations from J.Baljeu, Theo van Doesburg, Studio Vista, London 1974, pp 118, 141, 161, 181-2.

[8] Philip Ball, Nature’s Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts, Book 2, p 173.

[9] S.Lem, Solaris (1961), trans Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox, 1970, p 124

[10]  Journal and Drawings 1939-1945: Keith Vaughan, Alan Ross Ltd, London 1966.