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Besides all the mathematicians, the world has produced many magnificent geometers such as the Tantric artists, the Muslim tile designers, or the Caucasian rug weavers-who must all have spent their lives in the joy of discovering formal order. There are also those who become so deeply involved in its mystery, so consumed by its cosmic wonder, and rediscovering what was long known, that academic mathematicians lump them into a category of "geometry cranks."
It is probably not true that to be obsessed with geometry can make one really batty, but if you have a love for the utter magic of its continually surprising order it is hard to resist attributing mystical significance to it all.
There is no simple answer as to why polygons and polyhedra fascinate us so, but is there any other class of visual experience which brings us quite so close to the mind's capacity to understand complex order, or puts us so directly in contact with the universal laws of space? Take six pennies on a table and place them to surround a seventh one, all in perfect tangency. If you can contemplate this phenomenon of first principles without a sense of awe as to why six around one and not five, or seven, it probably is to admit that you have come far indeed from the wonder of the world you knew as a child.
Johannes Kepler was successful in discovering the laws for the orbiting of the planets only after he tried in vain to impose on them certain relationships between the five Platonic polyhedra. Since their order was so exquisite, wouldn't a reasonable God have designed the order of the heavens in an equally elegant way?
Bucky's special obsession was with one of the fifteen semiregular "Archimedean bodies;" a form like a cube with its corners cut off, usually known as the cubo-octahedron. It was this figure that he decided to claim as his own by renaming it the "Dymaxion"-and later on, the "Vector Equilibrium."
He believed that, somehow, it was the magical structural shape in nature-no matter that six of its fourteen faces were of that offensive non-structural shape, the square. But, again, whatever he intuited to be true, according to that early voice of prophecy, became true. We devotees were convinced that Bucky had invented that polyhedron for we heard so much about it from him. At least the name he used for it was his own. For those familiar with his work the Dymaxion/vector-equilibrium/cubo-octahedron, with its eight triangular and six square faces became his hallmark just as much as the word Dymaxion.
Even though it was nature's chosen form he was unable to point out actual examples in nature, whether in crystals or in the shape of viruses. As this became evermore apparent, he explained why: "The Dymaxion is elusive for the very reason that it represents nature at the dead center of all dynamic interactions. And because nature is always in motion- never arrested at dead center-we will never find any Dymaxions about, except those we ourselves construct-out of balsa wood or cardboard." Who can argue with that?
Still, I found his romance about geometry and structure extraordinarily beautiful, for in those days Bucky's tetrahedral world of form was novel in art school. What we saw mostly in magazines or books of modern art was the cubical space of Bauhaus architecture, the rectangles of Mondrian and the triangles and circles of Nonobjectivists. These were the familiar and acceptable forms for my generation of geometrical painters. They were "pure" and elemental shapes. Along with color, they were all one needed for exploring painting within the rectangle of the picture plane, while avoiding all "extraneous" (meaning representational) matter.
At the University of Oregon, Jack Wilkinson first awakened us students from small western towns to abstract art and its geometry. In the warm camaraderie of our little clique of painters, we developed a special set of words we all understood in discussing ART. It didn't occur to us it was a peculiar jargon but when I went to Black Mountain, and talked with Ken Noland, I realized that Albers' followers used different words for the same ideas.
By listening also to de Kooning, Peter Grippe and Richard Lippold, and students from other schools as well, I began to grasp that some people talked about "modules" while others spoke of "intervals in space." Color (hue) was alternately intense or it was said to be saturated. Those who studied with Hans Hoffman talked a lot about "push and pull." Some schools emphasized the illusion of 3-dimensionality while at Oregon we sought the "honesty" of flatness. Each school accused each of the others of being quite wrong about it all-and generally getting everything all balled-up.
There were those of us who were also captivated by "real" three-dimensional objects-and space-which filtered down to us from the architectonic ideas and cubical thinking of the Bauhaus. Out of balsa wood or cardboard we built studies around the cube to which we added rectilinear lines, planes or volumes "articulating" the space in some, maybe, interesting way. We all took a direct road to construction which meant gluing the parts together then praying they'd survive the voyage to Friday's critique. Though the cube was the keystone of Bauhaus architectural thinking, no one seemed to think or care whether the cube was a sound structure or not.
Then along came Bucky who'd never been to art school. He provided the astonishing insight that the only structurally firm polygon is a triangle-and argued for a kind of structural space completely different from the usual cubical considerations. It was not easy to see the connection between his interests in space and the aesthetic attitudes toward it from the view of the sculptor or architect. Only engineering students studied things like triangulation or tension and compression which appeared to have no role in art education. Before he came along, no one in my classes asked, as a child might ask, "How can I make it stronger?" If the question had occurred to someone, no doubt the answer would have been, "You might try using a little more glue."
Because Bucky entered that art school complacency with his "engineering" ideas, he was viewed by many as a sort of bull in a china shop. He often told stories about famous artist friends - about funny times with Noguchi or Calder, but it became clear that he had little real interest in art. It was not his realm and he paid no attention except as courtesy required. This bewildered me, for here we were in this center for avant garde art, with Albers, de Kooning, Lippold, Grippe, Cage and all- and Bucky's only conclusion was that artist's were perfectly wonderful people, but they should all become "Dymaxion Comprehensive Designers."
Despite his pro-artist-anti-art attitudes, he was fully accepted by most artists because of his intellect, his energy and absolute commitment to his fascinating beliefs.
One time in the summer I asked him if he ever had a desire to paint. "Of course," he answered, "but I can't afford that luxury. It would be an unwarranted distraction from my elected responsibility. I've thought if I were to paint I'd like to study the way lights appear at night." (I thought of his lecture, and the Martian explorers approaching the earthling's lights in the dark.)
For me it was not difficult to set aside questions of categories-art versus design, or architecture versus a sort of devotion to Platonic solids-because my new teacher was a genius and his structures and spatial geometry were Mesmerizing; plus the fact, he was much more exhilarating to be around than any of the other professors; even Albers. To my mind and eye, the enlightenment of treating three-dimensional space as structure was new and refreshing in a world which indeed seemed stuck in the rectilinear cliches of the Bauhaus.
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