studioNOTES: support for artists/ideas and information

Number 22

October - December 1998

George W. Hart
Battered Moonlight
papier-mâché over steel
21 in.

George W. Hart, Battered Moonlight GEORGE W. HART earned his PhD in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. He has worked there, and taught at Columbia and Hofstra Universities, and is the author of a textbook on multidimensional analysis and several dozen articles. While he has made polyhedra throughout his career-since he was a boy, in fact-he has now, he says, become "a 'free agent' of geometry," devoting his time to sculpture.

studioNOTES: What have you been doing recently?

This summer I gave talks at three great conferences concerning math-related art: the Math and Design Conference in San Sebastian, Spain; the Bridges Conference in Winfield, Kansas; and the Art and Math Conference at UC Berkeley. And at New York Academy of Sciences, on Oct 1, I brought a few pieces, showed slides of my work, and discussed the pieces, the techniques, and their mathematical basis.

They were great opportunities to meet other artists and be inspired by a wide range of work. It was wonderful to show my pieces to such audiences, who are highly tuned into the mathematical aesthetic and strongly enthusiastic. At Berkeley, in addition to showing some sculpture and my slide presentations, I also gave two workshops on my model construction techniques.

The response to everything was so positive that I decided to make the plunge to full time. Last month I did what one is always advised not to do: I quit my day job.

What is the range in size of this work? Media?

My constructive sculpture is not tied to any particular media. I try to use whatever materials best bring out the forms I am interested in, usually woods, metals, plastics. So I spend a lot of time working out the appropriate technique for each construction. I just finished a three-foot piece assembled from hundreds of CDROMs. They had to be slit, slid into each other, and invisibly glued. Thus I worked out the techniques for a larger CDROM sculpture I have been commissioned to install at UC Berkeley. I just finished a 20 inch piece which is a mosaic of exotic hardwoods over a fiberglass core. It has over 900 components. My largest so far is a 16 foot mobile hanging in the student center at Hofstra University. It is made of hundreds of plastic knives, forks, and spoons in various geometric arrangements. But I want to go much bigger and am looking for appropriate commissions.

Do you think of these pieces as a series, a body, a group, or just individual pieces? What do they have in common?

I have done a series which shares a certain "symmetry group." This is a commonality which only a mathematician sees. To the casual viewer they appear individual because of the different media: one is oak and brass, one is aluminum, one is plexiglass, one is papier-mâché, etc. In a few cases, I have made pieces which are pairs, e.g., left and right handed.

Almost every one of your works consists of several identical elements connected together to form a polyhedron. Why?

I don't honestly know. I find them beautiful, engaging, challenging, worthy.

Could you describe your process?

My pieces start as visualizations. I am always imagining forms and constructions of various sorts. When one is so strong that it becomes an obsession then I feel I have to make it real. I often make rough sketches as a guide, sometimes detailed drawings when I need to work out some proportion or shape of a curve, but in other cases I know precisely how I want to begin and just start building.

Most of my constructions require various jigs to form components or hold them in precise relative positions for assembly. I usually spend as much time making jigs that the viewer never sees as I spend in using them to make the piece itself. For jigs, I usually make precise sketches with dimensions and angles worked out.

About how long does a typical piece take, start to finish? Do you work on more than one at time?

In the past, a month was typical for the physical work of making jigs and then the piece. Before that might come days or years of visualizing, mental design, sketching, and paper models. Now that I am full time, I hope to pick up the pace. Usually I focus obsessively on a single piece once I begin its construction, because I need to see how it will turn out.

Are you sometimes surprised, despite all the preparation?

Yes, aren't all artists often surprised by the way their things turn out? Sometimes I'm just delighted with how something I've made seems so wonderful. (That sounds pretty immodest, but what can I say; I like my stuff.) Other times, I am disappointed. Everything I do is an experiment. I suppose it is results of the first type which keep me going as an artist.

Is this mainly a question of how the materials you have chosen will actually "work"?

That is a part, but also: I never even know that a piece is even possible for me to finish until I'm done with it. Maybe I've made a wrong angle in a component or something, maybe miscalculated and two parts would have to be in the same place. Also, I design it based on certain properties or views, and then see other views after it is complete.

Is there any improvisation involved between the time the jigs are built and the piece is finished?

Much. I'm always experimenting with different glues, clamps, sequences of assembly, etc.

Your sculpture "Fire and Ice" has an interwoven band of brass. Did you plan that from the start, or did you decide to add it after you began constructing the wooden elements?

I knew there would be a woven brass sphere in the center. (I was after the "texture" of old scientific instruments made of oak and brass; they imply certain qualities to me that I wanted to import into that sculpture.) I had two choices for its pattern in mind when I started. To decide, I made a paper model of the wooden part, and wove ribbon through it to see how it looked, e.g., how it lines up with the openings in the wooden structure as seen from different angles. I chose the one I liked, but still wasn't sure how it would appear in brass, which is much stiffer and thicker. I had to guess what was the widest band that wouldn't be too tight. Then there was the question of joining the ends of the ten loops. I couldn't use a high temperature braze because of the surrounding wood, so went with a low-silver solder and had to figure out how to do it well, not heating the wood or dripping flux on the wood, and then sliding things around to hide the joints on the inside where they are hard to notice. That was one of my happiest results, where I am very pleased with how it all came out.

How do you know when a piece is finished?

You mean if. I have quite a few things I am getting back to someday, or so I delude myself, e.g., if I made the components, but the jigs didn't line them up accurately enough so I have to go back and redesign them, or something. Sometimes a piece is more work than I can stand, and I put it off for something with a nearer term result. For questions of how much to sand wooden surfaces, I just go by touch; when I find it very sensual to fondle the wood, I am done.

To what extent does your education in math and engineering influence your vision?

George W. Hart
72 Pencils
8 in.

George W. Hart, 72 Pencils I had truly wonderful teachers in my math and engineering education. All good math and engineering involves certain aesthetics: the proof of a theorem may be simply beautiful, a design might be ingenious. Good teachers convey these aesthetics to their classes (I know I've always tried) and part of becoming a professional in these fields is to learn the aesthetics (though it is rarely put in those terms.) So in my mind, math, engineering, and art are very much of a kind.

There is also the lab component of engineering education, e.g., chemistry labs, circuit labs, computer labs. They teach you how difficult it is to actually build something that works, how to isolate and work around problems, to improvise, test, and debug as necessary. All essential skills for a sculptor.

Conversely, has your being an artist - thinking as an artist - ever influenced your thinking or work as an engineer or scientist?

Again, very strongly yes, and any good mathematician or engineer would agree that aesthetics is essential to their work. I know artists who think the opposite-that art is far, far removed from math and engineering-but that is just because math and engineering are not understood in our popular culture.

In my case I'd say the common thread involves the idea of "beautiful forms"-that's what led me to all three fields-but I can't articulate it any more clearly.

To play devil's advocate for a moment: Why are your sculptures not merely mathematical models? In fact, where is the line between math and art?

I also make mathematical models, and sometimes the line is fuzzy, but most of the time the distinction is very clear in my mind. If a mathematical object exists first, e.g., the cube, and I make a model of it, say in walnut, then I made a walnut model of the cube, not a sculpture, even if it is beautiful to see and feel, and might be popularly described as "a work of art". A true sculpture, on the other hand, is not a model of anything but itself; it may be mathematical, but did not first exist for some other purpose. (Other artists might make a big cube and call their cube "art" - I don't object-but that is not my kind of art.)

What are your general plans for the future?

I need to test the market to see what I can actually sell, to decide if I have any chance of making a living just by sculpture (without any CS consulting on the side). I'll be approaching galleries, agents, and advisors in the next couple of weeks. (If you know of any in the NYC area that you recommend, please let me know.)

I can't think of any off hand, but maybe some of our readers might. Thanks, and good luck.

Aside from the places mentioned above, Hart's sculpture can be seen at: The Goudreau Museum, New Hyde Park NY (; SOMA Gallery, Northport NY (, the 10th Annual Juried Fine Arts Exhibition at Chelsea Center, East Norwich NY; and at the Northport Public Library. It's also on his web site at

- Benny Shaboy, Northport NY, 10.02.98

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