Artful Arithmetic

Screen Shot 2019-03-17 at 11.48.36 PM
Jennifer Bartlett, Air: 24 Hours, 5 P.M., 1991-92, oil on canvas. 84 x 84 inches. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1993. © Jennifer Bartlett

When confronted with a mathematical problem, have you ever thought to yourself ‘if only I could see an image (instead of numbers and symbols), this equation might make more sense?’ If so, then you are someone like me, whose method of learning is more inline with visual-spatial abilities than logical-mathematical modalities (see: Gardner, 1983).

That is not to say that if you are more inclined to perceiving things visually/spatially then you can’t also be logical. In fact, these two ways of thinking and reasoning (along with six other multiple intellegences, explained by Gardner, see: ibid) are actually complimentary to logical reasoning and are both bolstered through artistic engagement.

Through employing the theory of multiple intellegences, learners are empowered to combine and/or hone in on problem solving methods by utilizing one or more of eight modalities. The eight modalities are: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic.

The systems-centered artwork of Jennifer Bartlett is a great example of how art can combine multiple intellegences in order to arouse responses from a diverse array of viewers, who each bring different abilities and prior knowledge to the viewing experience.

Bartlett’s paintings are inspired by systems based processes, proportions and ratios. She presents these self-imposed mathematical elements via a highly expressive painterly style. For example, for Air: 24 Hours, Bartlett created twenty four paintings to represent each hour of the day. She arranged her square canvases by painting a grid-based system that always adds up to the number sixty. While she has implemented the structure of a grid, a comment on a trope within modernist painting, Bartlett contrasts the logical-mathematical system by overlaying imagery and formal elements that are at once absurd, mysterious and intimate. Bartlett makes logical structures more personal by including symbols and vignettes from her personal life. The scenes, while not overtly telling, represent moments and happenings around Bartlett’s house at a specific hour of the day.

Jennifer Bartlett, Squaring: 2; 4; 16; 256; 65,536, 1973-74, Enamel over silkscreen grid on 33 baked enamel on steel plates, 77 inches x 9 feet and 8 inches. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, Alex Katz Foundation Gift and Hazen Polsky Foundation Fund, 2018. Photograph by Adam Zucker

In Squaring: 2; 4; 16; 256; 65,536 (1973-74), Bartlett applied black enamel paint over a silkscreen grid on 33 baked enamel on steel plates. The title is a literal description of Bartlett’s self-imposed mathematical formula for cumulatively squaring the number two. The mathematical function was the basis of Bartlett’s artistic process. She composed the precise number of hand-painted dots within the grid to represent the square of 2 (4), 4 (16), 16 (256) and 256 (65,536). The resulting painting juxtaposes logic with subjectivity. The perspective changes depending on how you view the painting (i.e. from closer up you can clearly see the dots within the grid, but from afar they seemingly amass into an abstract form or blend together into obscurity).

Jennifer Bartlett’s paintings are an exemplary intermediary between mathematical and aesthetic thinking and doing. Incorporating visual art with mathematical systems is a great way to gain a well-rounded grasp on math formulas, while also expressing a personal element to problem solving, which makes overcoming challenging tasks efficacious and relevant.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Gardner, Howard 1983. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences , New York: Basic Books

Gardner, Howard. 1999. Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books.

Garner, Mary L. ‘The Merging of Art and Mathematics in Surface Substitution on 36 Plates’, in Kirsten Swenson (ed.), In Focus: Surface Substitution on 36 Plates 1972 by Jennifer Bartlett, Tate Research Publication, 2017,, accessed 17 March 2019.

Zucker, Adam. “Differentiation and Multiple Intelligences.” Artfully Learning. 11 Jun. 2018.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s