Mathematics and Art

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1748, acrylic on paper

Q:  You talk about this moment  where you decide to discontinue your Mathematical studies in favor of art at the end of your sophomore year in college.  I’d say it is fortunate your art side won out.

ReeL: Art always had the priority.  Art and drawing are things I’d been doing since I was six years old. I wanted to be a painter since I was nine.

The interest in Mathematics came later. My interest there  always had an uphill battle on several fronts.  For one it was almost in opposition to how Mathematics

was taught in American schools at the time. Now days there are far more options in our Mathematics programs, or at least the ones my son has had access to.

Back then, it was all Analysis, probably my least favorite branch of Mathematics. I was interested in, first of all, finite structures, and for the most part structure. Also, I was definitely interested in pure Mathematics, proofs, the elegance of ideas.  American schools at that time were trying to pump out engineers for the cold war. The Math departments were full of Analysts–they wanted to do differential equations, rocket science, make better ICBMs, applied Mathematics. I never cared about applications. It was a totally abstract endeavor for me.

When I quite studying Mathematics, I was doing my reading in Algebraic Topology and Universal Algebra in an attempt to get at thinking about finite small-dimensional topologies.  I never quite got there.  They didn’t even teach topology like that then. Now it is a serious field of research. So the Mathematics side of things was becoming a very frustrating endeavor, school-wise.

The decision between Mathematics and art wasn’t really as clear cut as  it might sound.

Q: I don’t follow: how’s that?  All you do now is art.

ReeL: It was more a realization that I didn’t really have any strong split inside myself over any of this. It all seemed to me, within my thinking, a more unified thing.

What I realized is that my intuition in Mathematics had a very dominant visual and structural component.  My interest in art had a very strong structural and philosophical component; I was not that interested in any representational intent.

What finally struck me right at the end of my sophomore year, right after finishing a paper on Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics which in a way had taken me in an entirely different direction, a direction different enough to pull me far enough away for me to get perspective on what and how I really thought about things, was that my interest in both art and Mathematics had a similar component that was structural, highly abstract, and connected to visual relationships..

What this helped me see was that my interest in Mathematics and art were at root an interest in the same thing: certain highly abstract  structural relationships, and that these were merely a natural foundation for doing whatever it was that I was going to do.

It’s pretty much been that from then on. I work from a specific foundation of structures, ideas, and constructs and everything I have done since then has been built upon that.

So  I decided to paint, and continue reading whatever else interested me along the way.

Q: Have  you ever written anything  regarding this foundation? those ideas and constructs you build everything else from?

ReeL: No. Unfortunately no.


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