Yale Scientists Offer Their Perspective on Art

Science and art, two spheres that normally operate in isolation from one another, are coming together in a unique series of lectures at the Yale Art Gallery.

The three-part series, “Scientists on Art,” features scientists from the Yale community who comment on works of art in the gallery’s permanent collection.

Next in the series will be Computer Science Professor David Gelernter, who will talk about Giacometti’s “Hands Holding the Void” on Thursday, Nov. 4, at 4 p.m.

On Thursday, Dec. 2, at 4 p.m., writer and surgeon Dr. Richard Selzer, a former professor at the Yale School of Medicine, will make a presentation titled: “Seeing Red: A Clinical Look at Rothko’s No. 3.”

“We have had an ‘artists on art’ series that included poets, writers and musicians as well as visual artists,” said Mary Kordak, the Jan and Frederick Mayer Curator of Education. “The speakers are asked to choose a work of art that particularly interests them and they discuss it from the point of view of their discipline. Scientists bring an enormous amount of research as well as appreciation to the task.”

The first presentation was made Oct. 7 by Gary Haller, Becton Professor of Engineering & Applied Science, and Peter Kindlmann, professor of electrical engineering and director of undergraduate studies. They spoke about and restored Marcel Duchamp’s motorized sculpture “Rotary Glass Plates,” in which the art is created when the sculpture is in motion.

“Rotary Glass Plates” has been in the gallery’s collection since 1941, a gift made by Katherine Dreier as part of the Societe Anonyme Collection.

“Much of the apparatus is not custom designed or manufactured,” Haller said in his presentation. “The ball bearings are of a standard kind as are the various nuts and bolts and right angle pieces that attach the glass plates to the axle. It seems clear that Duchamp did not think of the apparatus itself as art. It is often said that Duchamp thought that art was conceived primarily as a ‘mental act,’ and in this context it appears to me that the mental act of perceiving the black and white circular segments as full circles was the art that Duchamp intended.”

Kindlmann, who, like Haller, began with a disclaimer that he is not by any means an art critic, said that an engineer’s “dialogue” with a technical object is a process, which is often intuitive with experience and is structured by “affordances.”

“An affordance refers to the perceived or actual properties of an object, primarily those fundamental properties that determine its use or operation,” he said. “A chair is for sitting. A doorknob for turning. Glass is for seeing through or not being seen. Shafts with bearings at each end are meant to turn without wobbling.”

“Engineers have a heightened perception about objects and their particular discipline and are particularly aware of the causalities that link the functions of those objects,” Kindlmann said. “In fact, creating models of such causal links is an important, some would say defining, aspect of engineering. So I see the restoration of Duchamp’s ‘Rotary Glass Plates,’ whether he thought of it as art or not, as basically an engineer’s dialogue about affordances.”

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