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Meetup: Simon Dinnerstein & Paul Lockhart

December 20, 2012 6:52 pm

 

Art and math converged at Bookcourt in Brooklyn, during a public conversation between painter Simon Dinnerstein and mathematician Paul Lockhart.

 Lockhart is author of the newly-published Measurement, a compact, conversational volume that presents math as an art form and invites readers to set aside fear and try it themselves. Dinnerstein is a painter whose most famous work, “The Fulbright Triptych,” painted between 1971 and 1974, is the subject of The Suspension of Time. The book consists of essays about the huge and richly detailed painting; the pieces are written by an eclectic group of contributors, from novelist Jhumpa Lahiri to actor John Turturro.

Lockhart and Dinnerstein met 13 years ago when Lockhart, now a math teacher at Saint Ann’s School, enrolled in Dinnerstein’s painting class; Lockhart continued to study painting and drawing for eight years. At the bookstore event the two took turns posing questions to each other (in a manner that Dinnerstein likened to the movie My Dinner With Andre. Below, some of the back-and-forth.

*Throughout the conversation, which took place on November 27th, 2012, a slide of “The Fulbright Triptych” was projected onto a screen. Dinnerstein and Lockhart occasionally refer to it.

WHY MATH?
Dinnerstein:
Paul, how did you come to mathematics?

Lockhart: From the age of 12 or 13, math was my comic book inside my schoolbook. Math was my escape. To me it was all about rebellion, and it still is. To me math is the most rebellious thing you can possibly do. One thing I love about it is that it is utterly noncommercial. It has no value at all. As an idealist what more could you want than math? It’s not even here. It’s way, way, far away.

My grandfather was actually a mathematician before becoming a drunk. In his later years when I was 6, 7 or 8 we’d sit together with several glasses of scotch and do math. So from a pretty early age I knew about the existence of this abstract study of patterns. And it always spoke to me. A big event that I recall was my father going on an errand. He was a clinical psychologist and he had to go to a technical bookstore and he dragged me along. I ended up in the math section of this technical bookstore. Kaboom! There are other people in the world like me.

ON KNOWING WHEN YOU’RE DONE
Lockhart:
How do you know when you’re done? I know when I solve a problem―I know it when I see it. But what does it mean to finish a painting? That’s something I never was able to do. Every painting I’ve ever done was unfinished because time was up or we got a new model or I got sick of it. Is this ["The Fulbright Triptych"] done in your eyes? And if so why?

Dinnerstein: This painting took three years to paint. I was living in Germany and I had a Fulbright grant. I was doing printmaking and I was carving a plate on this table (he points to the table in the painting) and I was sitting on this chair (the chair he’s sitting on in the painting). I moved back in the chair and looked at the landscape out the window and at the table, and I thought, “Wow, this would make an incredible painting.” About half the pictures in the middle were up and some of the tools were there. So I ordered this [center] panel. I drew everything in that middle panel with a rapidograph pen—no studies. I would never work like that now.

When we came back to New York, all of this was drawn. The people who owned the home in Germany let me take the radiator and the table-top with me. The crate was enormous! I started working on it, and I didn’t really think about how difficult this would be to do—not just to do it, but do it on a high level and carry it off. I continued working on it, and it was a point where I didn’t have any financial resources to keep going, and I happened to meet a gallery dealer who bought the painting from me before it was finished—he paid me by the month to work on it. And at the end of three years, it seemed to me that I had said what I had to say. And it seemed that was the right time. It was finished.

Lockhart: It was finished because you no longer had any need to work on it?

Dinnerstein: If I kept working on it, it would be diminishing returns. I would be overworking it.

Lockhart: Wow! That’s the opposite of the way that I work. Because for me, it comes in a huge flash. Most of the time when you’re doing mathematics you’re in this doldrum place and then—BANG!—it’s good.  I don’t even need to work out the details because every fiber of my being sees it’s going to work. I’ll write it up later. Now I can get some sleep.

ON ART CRITICISM
Lockhart:
I’ve been reading Simon’s book. I’ve been reading a lot of art criticism, which, to be perfectly frank, I’ve always, my whole life, believed was complete bullshit…But I have to say I had a really good time, actually, and I would like to try to do it myself right now. I’m going to do art criticism!

Well, Simon…what you have here is a triptych. And there’s a long history of, I’m going to say, Northern European Gothic Altarpiece Art, (snort) which has to do with triptychs. The only thing you’re missing here is baby Simone’s arm in a benedictory pose. (Simone is Dinnerstein’s daughter, pictured in the painting.) You know what I’m talking about— these Netherland-ish things: You’ve got mother and baby Jesus in the middle, then you’ve got Saint So-and-So and maybe scenes from the annunciation on the wings.

You’ve done something really interesting. That is, you’ve shoved the holy family out of the middle section―all that’s left is the halo, which is this copper plate. And what it says to me is, this is an altar to art itself. Art is more important than these simians that you’ve shoved to the side. This (indicating the copper plate in the painting) is the only round thing in this picture. Everything else is a set of rectangles. There’s rationality all over the place except here. It’s an egg, even! And, do you know what I noticed just this morning? It’s off center. Ooooh! So, it’s as if to say, in this world of rationality, art is irrational—it’s an egg, it’s a golden egg containing God knows what, but whatever it does contain, it’s off-center. How interesting is that?

So, what I wanted to ask you is: You started with three pieces of wood with nothing on them, and you came up with this whole thing. When you’re working, do you hear art criticism in your head? And if you do, how on earth can you keep that noise out so that you can do art?

And, how was my art criticism, by the way?

Dinnerstein (shrugging): Ah…interesting?

Lockhart: Yeah, OK, you’re saying: “We’ll be looking at your math in a little while.”

Dinnerstein: The point that Paul makes about the art criticism may or may not pertain to my book because the idea in the book was to have an anthology of writing in which the people who wrote were not necessarily art critics.

But the point Paul makes about this painting is actually interesting. In the book, a number of people have written about how work separated this family. I didn’t think of it this way. I thought of the bookends—of myself on one side and Renee and Simone, my daughter, on the other side—as pulling you out to the periphery. The person who bought this painting —before it was complete—told me in no uncertain terms that he would prefer to buy the middle of the painting and that I should not do the ends. I had to argue, with a whole lot of money in front of me… that I wanted to do those two end pieces. And I hope that you (talking to the audience) would take the time to go see this painting. You can think of it without the ends—just the middle— or you can think of it the way it actually exists. And there is some point to arguing even a crazy idea and getting your way.

WHERE DO THESE BOOKS COME FROM?
Dinnerstein: Paul, what is the origin of Measurement?

Lockhart: It goes back to a 1997 winter storm that had me in a cabin, trapped. Luckily I’m a mathematician, so being trapped in a cabin with nothing to do is not a problem. I had been kvetching and complaining about math and school…and then I was like, well, put your money where you mouth is. What would your math book be? So, I took out a yellow pad and made a stab at it. And I hated it and I ripped it up. I made six stabs at my math book before I said, “Oh, yeah—honesty! I’m just going to be honest. I’m just going to talk on paper.”

…But I can’t talk about the origins before explaining a little bit about what math is—because that was my motivation.

The first thing to understand about math is, it’s the study of patterns. What that necessarily entails is the construction in one’s mind of a place capable of housing abstract patterns. In particular, if we’re going to talk about say, shapes, which is a big theme in the book, we have to understand that we’re not talking about things in this world, we’re talking about perfected things.

And this is where what Simon and what I do has something in common, which is reality as a jumping-off point.

This isn’t reality here. (Referring to a drawing of a circle.) This is a subjective take on reality. So, when I talk about something like a circle, it’s absolutely crucial that you understand that there aren’t any. There aren’t any circles. They don’t exist. Circle is a cognitive, linguistic concept. It’s too beautiful and perfect to take place in this vale of tears of complicated complex ugliness. One can make models. One can get out a pair of scissors and make a real circle. You build models and the models are mathematical and the models sit still and it’s calm and its perfect. That makes it something you can have knowledge about. That’s really interesting to me.

Dinnerstein: This book exists because I have a very large art book collection—maybe fifteen hundred or two thousand books. I have 12 or 15 books on one painting, and I’ve always been fascinated by those 12 or 15 books. Those books would be the equivalent of perhaps reading a novel. I felt that this painting would lend itself to that treatment because the painting has a lot of themes and a lot of ways to enter. You could enter the painting from the landscape, you could enter the painting from the two people, you could enter it from the plate, from the tools, from the process…. It turns out a publisher [Milkweed Editions] was very interested in this, and the different writers were chosen to present different points of view.

At the time I did the painting it was the very beginning of my work as an artist. So, to some degree this is a different analogy than Paul, who wrote a book based on years and years of thinking about mathematics.  If I’d been smart enough when I started this, I wouldn’t have done it. It takes a certain amount of stupidity and awe to think that you can do this.

[Before she began her essay], Jhumpa Lahiri wanted to go see this painting in person, so we drove to Penn State University [which owns the painting]. She must have looked at this painting for two or three hours without moving away. And I spoke about it, she asked questions. When we left the museum, she said, I know you haven’t seen this in about 10 years. What did you think, having seen this now? I said, you know, the first thing I thought was, I couldn’t believe I did this. It seemed like the best that I could be times 100.

• Measurement by Paul Lockhart (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, $29.95)

• The Suspension of Time: Reflections on Simon Dinnerstein and the Fulbright Triptych by Daniel Slager and Simon Dinnerstein (Milkweed Editions, $35.00)


 

 

“The Fulbright Triptych”—which is 14 feet across and more than six feet high—is now on display at the German Consulate General, 871 United Nations Plaza, at 49th Street, Manhattan.

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What Writers Read: Samantha Gillison

December 4, 2012 1:41 pm

This is the inaugural post in an occasional column that will appear on TSAR’s Books Blog. It is called “What Writers Read,” and it aims to explore—well—what writers read…or start to read, or wish they were reading, or read a little of and then stop. Novelist Samantha Gillison, author of this first post, notes below that the series is “meant to be modeled on” Nick Hornby’s always entertaining column in The Believer called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.” We would say “inspired by” rather than “modeled on,” but in any case, please read, enjoy, and chime in below in the comments section. Look for future entries by all manner of writers.
—RO and DR

About a Book

by Samantha Gillison

Blog about what I read this month? Well, OK, then first a caveat lector: I’m easily bored, judge by appearances and believe that the literary novel is as dead as Bruce Willis in the beginning of The Sixth Sense —all pathetically unaware that he’s a ghost who only freaks care about anymore. And then, there’s the fact that this column is meant to be modeled on one Nick Hornby writes in The Believer magazine. But it won’t be, not this first iteration of WWR at any rate, because I’ve never read The Believer. Held it a few times, yes, admired its winsome design and heft in the hand. But haven’t cracked it open lest those soy-based ink printed, thick, matte pages hurl me into the abyss of despair I suspect they will.

Nor would this caveat be sufficient if it didn’t include a disclosure about my reading ‘habits.’ If I ate the way I read I would be diagnosable with a chronic disorder. As a reader, I go through cycles of furtive binging on everything I can get my hands on —from re-reading my entire dog-eared 6th grade Agatha Christie collection to back issues of Biblical Archaeology Monthly to dense, obscure 500-page novels. And then: I starve myself. There are days, weeks, sometimes months—when I can’t bring myself to read even a recipe or the copy on a subway ad. (Always, always excepting Dr. Zizmor’s conceptual art installations.) For longer periods than I feel happy admitting I can get stuck in obsessive repetition. I will read the same thing: an author’s entire work (including fragmentary manuscripts, letters, memoirs, biographies, biographies of their lovers and enemies), and even, on occasion, I can get fixated on one book, reading it two, three, four times in  a row…you get the picture.

A friend of mine used to have a problem with walnuts. She loathed them with such violence that just hearing the word “walnut” uttered out loud or encountering it on a menu made her turn green and gag. I feel the same way about some books. And I’d rather be locked up for a month in a windowless cell, chained to the wall with an Adderall drip in my arm, forced to watch back-to back episodes of The New Girl than read literary fiction that’s going to give me a fresh understanding of the complexities of being a woman and an artist. So, there you have it. My caveat lector.

What I Intended to Read This Month:
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
This Is How You Lose Her by  Junot Diaz
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Book of Job, Edited by Paul Sanders
The Book of Job (Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version)
The Tools by Phil Stultz & Barry Michels

What I Actually Read This Month:
[* = read incompletely]
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
*Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
*Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Book of Job, Edited by Paul Sanders
The Book of Job (Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version)
The Book of Ecclesiastes (Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version)
*The Tools by Phil Stultz & Barry Michels
*The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom by Suze Orman
*The Post American World by Fareed Zakaria
Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richard J. Heuer, Jr.
Thinking and Writing: Cognitive Science and Intelligence Analysis by Robert S. Sinclair
Broken Harbor by Tara French

What I Loved:
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The sentences drew me in: Percy writes tight, fluid, funny, sad, playful, serious, smart prose with a rhythm as seductive as New Orleans in the summer but it was Binx Bolling, the book’s blue-blooded, traumatized, Korean War-vet hero who made me fall in love. Then broke my heart.

What I Really, Really Loved, Thought About a Ton and Told People to Read:
The Book of Ecclesiastes, (Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version)
Depressive, totally atheistic, and with a world view as dark as any Wachowskian dystopia, the only reason “Ecclesiastes” was allowed to stay in the Bible is because it’s so insanely, exquisitely written that even the suspicious, persnickety editors who codified the Old Testament in 90 a.d. burst into tears every time they read it. Ecclesiastes is the source of all the awesome English class titles, too, e.g. The Golden Bowl, The House of Mirth, The Sun Also Rises, Vanity Fair.

What Was Surprisingly Dull:
*Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
Don’t tell me it’s a gender thing; I’m very boy in my reading taste. I love SciFi. I devour war narratives like they’re Dunkin Donuts Munchkins. This book was just kind of boring.

*The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria
I had expected to be wowed by a sophisticated explication of global political and economic trends and an assessment that was going to challenge my conception of the United States’ position in our brave, new multi-polar world. But this book felt timid, watered down, a little heavy on the “Go Team USA!” Jehosephat knows I’m not looking for Noam Chomsky, just something a bit more clinical in my foreign policy assessments.

What I Felt Kind Of Bad, But Not That Bad, About Not Liking:
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
I don’t know, read Francine Prose’s review in NYRB. What she said. I’d only add that Yunior going on and on about pussy is getting old. And that’s not a good sign.

What I Would Recommend to My Mother-in-Law:
Broken Harbor by Tara French
Have you ever contemplated the phenomenon of the lady murder-mystery reader (I count myself among them)? Not that men don’t read them, but a lot, like millions of women, especially women of a certain age, gulp them down in massive quantities. Agatha Christie’s Ur old biddy detective, Jane Marple, has spawned dozens of mystery series based around the worlds of knitting, baking, cats, quilting, jam-and-pickle bottling, etc. And women who’ve never so much as given the finger to anyone, regularly eat up stories of brutal, obscene murder. In fact, these ladies (myself included) find it relaxing to cozy up with a hot cocoa, a mohair blanket, a purring kitty and read tales of such horrifically blood-curdling, nauseating, inhumane violence that they wouldn’t be out of place at a war crimes tribunal.

Anyway, you don’t need to understand the phenomenon in order to get big points from your mother-in-law or any other mystery lover you know by presenting them with Irish writer French’s Broken Harbor this Hannukah/Kwanza/Christmas. It’s quality.

What Con I Can’t Believe I Fell For Again:
The Tools by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels
Once upon a time, long before the Hons. Guiliani and Bloomberg tidied up our city, 14th Street was full of guys who played 3-card Monty on cardboard boxes. I was a hip city kid. I knew 3-card Monty was a con. But I’d stand there, in the crowd near 7th Avenue, watching the cards move around, shaking my head as the suckers got played, until the cops came and everyone scattered. And then, one day, my grandmother gave me the princely sum of $100 in cash for my eleventh birthday. I’d never seen that much money in one place—she may as well have given me $10,000. Of course, I marched straight over to 14th Street, stepped up to a game, slapped my $100 down on the cardboard and lost it in less than a two seconds.

Cut to: Thirty Years later. I spy a book like The Tools: Transform Your Problems Into Courage, Confidence, and Creativity, and Eureka! I’ve found it. Right here in BookCourt! The book that will finally reveal a saner, healthier, wealthier, nicer, more productive, more creative me—and it’s all going to happen fast!! I just need to follow the tools or the rules or the secrets or the women who run with the wolves or whatever. I start reading, flipping pages, trembling with excitement and then…it’s another con, not even as elegant as 3-card Monty. The Tools they want me to follow? Religious Faith.

The authors of this particular iteration of the con (we’ll call them “The Tools” shall we?) dressed up their crypto-Christian message to look like psychotherapy —“psychotherapy that works!” the Tools write. Not that pesky kind of therapy where you have to spend years ruminating through painful memories and confronting yourself and then wind up maybe saner, but not happy. Not more productive. The Tools and The Tools themselves are sort of Jungian and so if you’re the kind of person who thinks Jung’s ideas are valid, well, then you are the kind of person who thinks Jung’s ideas are valid and you and I won’t ever attain a deep feeling of simpatico with each other. And I’d give you my copy of The Tool’s opus except I threw it out already.

Long before The Tools started writing books I knew that if I could get Jesus or Yahwe or Buddha or the Guru Mai or A Higher Power I would be less anxious, nicer, more successful, more likeable and feel a true sense of purpose. But I’m not a believer. God is dead, spake Zarathustra, which, all things considered, makes sense to me.

Samantha Gillison (Saint Ann’s School, class of 1985) is the author of  The King of America and  The Undiscovered Country, many short stories (including “The Mother of the Bride,” The Saint Ann’s Review Vol. 2, No. 1), magazine articles, opinion pieces, and book reviews in various publications. She has won a Whiting Award in Fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and is at work on a new novel, The Outstation.

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