Diagrams and Art

 Figure 1: Mark Lombardi:  George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens, ca. 1979-90

Figure 1: Mark Lombardi: George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens, ca. 1979-90

A Few Pre-Path Considerations

In this project, The Expanded Diagram, I am exploring the intersections of diagrammatic thinking and a broad range of historical and contemporary artistic practices. What follows are the first forays of an ongoing series of relatively short passages, each touching on different aspects of diagrams in art. I will be referring to these brief writings as vignettes. None is intended as a comprehensive, closed argument, but rather an opening to a larger “conversation.” With these vignettes, I aim to illuminate a broad range of diagrammatic influences in any number of historical and contemporary art practices. I am fully aware that this is a vast, sprawling, and potentially unwieldy undertaking. I liken this project to that famous parable of the colossal elephant surrounded by a quarrelsome pack of blind men, each separately touching its many disparate and dissimilar parts. Similarly I see each vignette as yet another set of fingers groping for a larger understanding of this expansive and multi-faceted category.

But even before we begin to link diagrams and artworks, we need to acknowledged the enormous variety of graphic displays that fall under the general category of diagrams. In the About Diagrams page, I tried to tease out what I consider the critical features that distinguish diagrams from purely depictive and descriptive modes of representation. But even with more conventional diagrams, not all of them present those features in equal proportion if at all.

And matters get significantly more elastic when linking diagrammatic thinking to art. For starters, we are talking about ART, a highly volatile term that means so many different things to so many different people, and for which there is little consensus as to what this thing called art actually is, much less what it is meant to do. Most artworks and art practices are influenced by far too many overlapping factors and motivations to be reduced solely to a single category such as the diagrammatic.

Intention vs. Reception

And there is yet another thing to consider before taking this thought experiment on the road: we need to acknowledge the critical distinction between an artist’s (or a culture’s) intentions and the audience’s reception of an artwork. Often these do not align, even within a community of contemporaries, much less when the makers and viewers of artworks are separated by centuries. To take just one of many examples of this, we can point to Islamic art and design as it is received by most non-Islamic Westerners. Safe to say, that the majority of this audience views Islamic art as a purely decorative art—stunning and intricate patterns adorning the walls and ceilings of mosques and palaces. (1) But the designers and fabricators of these interlaces and marquanas intended them as spiritual, geometric (and I would add, diagrammatic) expressions of deeply felt spiritual and philosophic ideals, most notably the affirmation of ultimate unity (Tawhid) expressed through diversity. (2) (Critchlow) Similarly, the history of 20th and 21st century Western art is riven with misalignments of artists’ intentions and public reception, as evidenced by countless “misunderstood” artists and their reams of artist statements and manifestos. So going forward with these investigations, I will be ever mindful of whether I am examining artists’ intentions or viewers’ receptions; and more often than not I will be focusing on the former.

(1) I state this fully aware of Oleg Grabar’s observations in his The Mediation of Ornament, that even in the Islamic world only the elite thinkers and artisans would have understood most of these philosophical/theological connections. In fact, this presents yet another instance of the above mentioned gap between the initial intentions and the subsequent receptions of artworks; but it doesn’t, to my thinking, negate the underlining diagrammatic (rather than decorative) inspiration of these artworks.

(2) For a tour de force of diagrammatical exposition of Islamic art, I urge anyone to read Keith Critchlow’s Islamic Patterns (1976).

More Than What You See

So with the example of Islamic art in mind, I will often expand on the discussion from About Diagrams regarding an important (although not necessary) feature common to diagrammatic-based art practices that distinguishes them from more “self-referential” artworks in the contemporary world—namely, these artists are often motivated to create more than mere objects or beautiful optical displays that point to nothing outside of themselves. Artists working in a diagrammatic vein are less likely to subscribe to Frank Stella’s famous statement, “What you see is what you see.” Certainly such a view would have been incomprehensible to most artists and artisans working in pre-modern eras, as there was little to no daylight between what we would call “artworks” and the cultural and religious structures of meaning underwriting them. Aside (perhaps) from the Classical Roman and Hellenistic eras (and perhaps from some periods of Far East Asian art), I suspect that most premodern artists and audiences would have been puzzled by any sort of “art for art’s sake” conception of art-making. The vast majority of frescos, sculptures, paintings, drawings, reliefs, stain glass windows, manuscripts, mosaics, tapestries, and so on were meant to reflect or illustrate “higher order” religious, mythological, philosophical, or royal ideals. Contemporary diagrammatic-based art practices may or may not seek to reflect these kinds of ideals, but their makers generally “intend” for their artworks to point to something extrinsic to the actual artwork even if that something is difficult to pin down precisely. This is not always the case with many other strands of “self-referential” contemporary painting and sculpture, especially works that go under the general heading of reductive/nonobjective. (1) I will even go out on a limb and suggest that in many instances, this “something extrinsic,” this “more than what you see” is indeed meaning itself, a highly problematic term for so many contemporary artists and generally avoided at all costs. But even though meaning in contemporary art is often highly personalized and idiosyncratic, more than a few artists are compelled to articulate the inarticulable in their work through abstract, non-pictorial means; and I am suggesting that diagrammatic-based practices offers an especially viable platform for this to happen.

(1) I certainly do not want to suggest that more self-referential art practices are any lesser for not explicitly referencing something outside of themselves; only that they derive their aesthetic kick (and, yes, meaning) through other pathways. And as I have stated elsewhere, most contemporary artworks/practices that I see are influenced by more than one artistic lineage. I find very few instances of purely diagrammatic art practices including my own.

Diagrammatic Influences on Early Modernist Art

As I outlined in About Diagrams, the explosion of diagrammatic thinking and display began in earnest around the time in the Enlightenment when scientific advancements were beginning to usurp the traditional, collectively understood structures of meaning. Not surprisingly, these same cultural forces began to affect artists. Toward the end of the 19th century and into the first decades of the 20th century, European art began to split away from the traditional religious, historical, and genre-based art forms. One notable characteristic of this emerging modernism was its break from the traditional naturalistic, mimetic “picturing” of the world to more abstract (non-pictorial) modes of visualization. (See Alberti’s Box in About Diagrams) Here the usual suspects come immediately to mind such as experiments of the cubists, Russian Constructivists and the artists of the De Stijl movement. Of course there are many different influences that factored into these and other “movements” at the time, and a great deal has been written on this. Here I want to follow just one strand that I feel is pertinent to the early development of diagrammatic thinking in modern European art.

The Grid

Again, I do not wish to paint this with too broad a diagrammatic brush, but my point here is that diagrammatic thinking and processing was implicated in many of these early 20th century turns toward abstraction. So how did key features of diagrams transfer over from predominantly scientific and managerial domains to art?

Perhaps the grid, more than any single graphic structure, offers us a direct link, connecting the largely science-based 19th century “culture of diagrams” to early modernist diagrammatic art practices. Here we can track the migration of this fundamental organizational schema from its role in mathematical and statistical analysis and visualization to its redeployment for aesthetic expression.(1) Although the use of grids (both as graphic displays and as organizational devices) stretches back many centuries from many parts of the world, it is hard to point to any other graphic form more emblematic of Western modernity. The grid is the elemental graphic matrix of the Cartesian coordinate system that structures tables, charts, maps, and any number of diagrammatic expositions. Similarly, the grid proved to be a strategic graphic form that facilitated the transfer from those properly diagrammatic “languages” of science and statistics toward a radically new aesthetic.

 Figure 2: Bar Chart: William Playfair’s Commercial and Political Atlas and Statistical Breviary (1786)

Figure 2: Bar Chart: William Playfair’s Commercial and Political Atlas and Statistical Breviary (1786)

Many artists working around the turn of the century were responding to their rapidly changing ecosystem so ably described in Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Time and Space: 1890-1918. (Kern) And artists, like so many other inhabitants of the cosmopolitan centers, were enveloped in this highly accelerated and complex life world, increasingly unpresentable by conventional pictorial means (see Statistics and the Domination of the Contingent in About Diagrams). The practitioners of science, technology, management, and any number of knowledge domains had for a long time visualized processes and space/time relationships through diagrammatic formats. Surely this must have prompted at least some artists to search for their own non-pictorial visual languages adequate to their emerging aspirations.

I am not suggesting that the grid is a necessary component of either conventional, much less artistic diagrammatic practices. In fact, a great deal of latter 20th century and now 21st century art practices—diagrammatic or not—actively eschew grid like organizational principles in response to an awareness of what Brandon Taylor describes as “more complex models of the cosmos, dependent on discontinuity, complex curvature or paradox that aligned more closely with ‘the real’ as conceived by contemporary science.” (Taylor) Nevertheless, the grid was an important component of this emergence of non-pictorial art in general and diagrammatic-based practices in particular.

So what specific qualities of the grid might have prompted this turn to more abstract representational formats? What specific properties made grids conducive to diagrammatic visualization? What were the insistent needs of artists that were resolved by working with grid-like visual protocols? Indeed there are numerous responses to these questions, and each is worthy of its own essay or book. As it is, I am not quite ready to write that book, but I have listed below a handful of ideas along with articles, essays and books by other writers who do address some of these questions. And, in the spirit of this project’s mission to “start conversations,” I will list here a few responses to these important questions and leave them all hanging for now. Consider the following list an elaborate notes-to-self—some of which will be revisited at some future date.

1. To whatever extent artists were motivated to abandon conventional pictorial composition, the grid offered a decidedly anti-compositional format, especially in its non-hierarchical presentation of visual information across a flat plane of presentation. (Later in the century all-over field painting would abandon the grid but still share a similar desire to suppress hierarchical composition.)

2. One specifically diagrammatic consequence of the grid’s non-hierarchical organization of visual elements is, that by lending more or less equal significance to all the parts of the image, the viewers’ attention would be distributed in such a way as to encourage more correlative interactions among the various parts. (See About Diagrams)

3. Echoing what was already discussed, the grid-like schemas would have suppressed any mimetic or naturalistic reading in favor of one more in line with the emerging modern technological imaginary. (Ironically, the Futurists were to champion this even more fervently, but almost strictly through pictorial modes of representation)

4. Grid-like visual grammars are stridently spatial, and as such, they eschew sequential/narrative modes of representation in favor of a spatial, simultaneous reception of information. This features prominently in many diagrams; ironically, even those attempting to “map” temporal features onto graphic displays (e.g. graphs, charts, time tables).

5. Another feature that would prove supportive of diagrammatic and information visualizations was the gird’s capacity to support open, modular structures. Certainly Piet Mondrian exploited this feature in much of his later paintings (along with the grid’s capacity for endless repetition).

6. Although less directly pertinent to diagrammatic-based art practices, commentators such as Rosalind Krauss emphasized the grid’s role in signifying an emerging emphasis of the “autonomy of art” (“self-referential”) and a need for some artists to make a clean break from their historical predecessors and other modes of cultural expression. (Krauss)

7. Krauss also makes an interesting argument when she states: “In the increasingly de-sacralized space of the 19th century, art had become the refuge for religious emotion; it became, as it has remained, a secular form of belief.” In this context she says the grid allowed artists to “magically resolve the para-logical contradiction between a materialist secularism and a spiritualism [metaphysics] in a sustained suspension.” (Krauss)

8. Finally (for now), Krauss brings up an observation about grids that I find tantalizingly pertinent to understanding diagrammatic thinking. She draws the distinction between centrifugal and centripetal “readings” of grid-based artworks. The former tend to have the effect of dematerializing the surface/art object, thus opening it up for more spiritual associations (e.g. the sublime, infinite extension beyond the material boundaries of the object). Whereas the latter, by becoming more self-identical with the art object suggests a more materialist reading of the artwork. (Krauss) Further investigation of this might prove fruitful in pinpointing the differences with at least some diagrammatic-based art (“More than what you see”) and artworks that privilege their status as objects, that do not refer to anything beyond themselves. Just a thought.

(1) Of course the mere presence of a grid is no guarantee of diagrammatic thinking in an artwork (and, inversely, the absence of a grid does not invalidate diagrammatic processes). For example, the gridded paintings of Agnes Martin stand for a rich tradition of artistic practice continuing to the present that, in my opinion, is not diagrammatic. But like some vestigial remnant from an evolutionary past, the grid’s very presence points to a common lineage.

 Figure 3: Piet Mondrian,  Composition

Figure 3: Piet Mondrian, Composition

 Figure 4: Theo van Doesburg,  Counter-Composition in Dissonance 16

Figure 4: Theo van Doesburg, Counter-Composition in Dissonance 16

 Figure 5: El Lissitzky:  Prounenraum [Proun Room]

Figure 5: El Lissitzky: Prounenraum [Proun Room]

Diagrammatic Dada

Having briefly traced the grid’s influence on the migration of 19th century “diagrammatic culture” to early 20th century nonfigurative art, I want to take note of two artists in particular—Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia—whose work developed directly out of that period and lead to full-fledged diagrammatic-based art practices. At the outset, I want to mention my indebtedness to David Joselit’s 2005 essay, Dada’s Diagram, which demonstrates once again my role in this project as an aggregator of relevant ideas and insights of other thinkers. This essay along with Joselit’s previous book, Infinite Regress: Marcel Duchamp, 1910-1941 (and other writers who influenced him, especially Roger Shattuck) directed my attention to these artists’ pivotal influence on an important strand of 20th century diagrammatic-based art practices.

 Figure 6: Pablo Picasso:  Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper

Figure 6: Pablo Picasso: Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper

As mentioned, cubism constituted a pivotal moment of early Modernism’s turns toward abstraction. However, it was cubism’s synthetic phase that most forcefully exhibited key diagrammatic features discussed in the About Diagrams page. Here I am thinking of the paintings of Picasso, Braque and Gris. For example, a glancing analysis of Picasso’s Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper (see Figure 6), reveals the telltale presence of “white space” and how it functions to subvert traditional hierarchical composition and instead, prompts the viewer to “correlate diverse packets of information,” (e.g. text, hints of pictorial shading, geometric shapes, lines and notations). (Bender and Marrinan) To my knowledge, none of Duchamp’s so-called cubist paintings exhibited diagrammatic properties to this degree, as that work clung more to traditional pictorial composition and effect (e.g., Nude Descending a Staircase). However, these works led directly to his subsequent diagrammatic-based work such as his enigmatic Network of Stoppages and the Large Glass. (see figures 7 and 12).

 Figure 7: Marcel Duchamp:  Network of Stoppages

Figure 7: Marcel Duchamp: Network of Stoppages

Echoing what I discussed above about the “rapidly changing ecosystem” of that historical juncture, Joselit emphasizes what some writers and artists at the time registered as a “historical rupture between a mode of knowledge grounded in text and one founded in images.” Among other factors, these artists were responding to cinema and collage, both newly emergent representational modes that intermixed text (or speech) with imagery in radically novel ways that impacted the larger culture. (1) Joselit goes on to say that “in Dada, the diagrammatic served as one of three visual tactics—montage and the readymade being the other two—for embracing and representing this epistemological crisis.” Joselit traces several artists’ experiments with combining images and text where, among other aspects of their work, he hones in on their diagrammatic drawings, paintings and designs. Here he states that “such combinations of word and picture [“mimetic units”] are precisely what characterizes more ‘canonical’ Dada diagrams by artists like Picabia. In such works, image and text circulate within a single plane of signification.” Again, this alludes to bedrock diagrammatic features discussed elsewhere.

 Figure 8, left: Francis Picabia:  Voila Elle   Figure 9, right: Francis Picabia:  Dada Movement (Mouvement Dada)

Figure 8, left: Francis Picabia: Voila Elle
Figure 9, right: Francis Picabia: Dada Movement (Mouvement Dada)

It was during the short-lived but geographically extensive period of art referred to as Dada (which overlapped with other art “movements” such as Surrealism and Constructivism) when some artists began to deploy diagrams as constituent elements of their artworks. Many were displayed in various publications (2), and a fair number of these related to a loose category of artworks and designs referred to as “machine drawings or mechanomorphic drawings.” (see Figue 8) Here we see combinations of lines, notations, captions, and schematic forms often suggesting mechanical pulleys, gears, and connective ducts. In full diagrammatic fashion, these works suppress mimetic picturing in favor of explaining, albeit in a highly idiosyncratic and enigmatic manner.

Picabia’s new industrialized visuality was mobilized for the purposes of framing a much more fragmented subjectivity. The traditional “unified” human figure is now dispersed across diagrammatic arrays of mechanical motifs, text, and notations. No longer anchored in a similarly unified and static pictorial space, the subject is reconstituted as a series of vectors and relations among dissimilar representational elements. Referring to this period, Joselit states: “The diagram reconnects the disconnected fragments of representation invented by cubism. This act of reconnection does not function as a return to coherence, but rather as a free play of polymorphous linkages, which, to this day, remain a central motif of modern (and postmodern) art.”

AS AN ASIDE: Jumping forward to the contemporary moment of diagrammatic-based art, I think it is worth pointing out its striking parallels with these early 20th century artists’ deployment of diagrammatic visual languages in response to the emblematic technologies of their time. The mechanomorphic drawings and designs were quite possibly a reaction to the emerging influence of technology and advanced industrialization so readily visualized by the proliferation of mechanical devices, large and small. Fast forward a century later, and we see similar diagrammatic-based responses to our current and equally disrupting electronic and networked technologies.

 Figure 10, left: Julie Mehretu:  Stadia II.  Figure 11, right: Screenshot from http://wwwwwwwww.jodi.org/

Figure 10, left: Julie Mehretu: Stadia II. Figure 11, right: Screenshot from http://wwwwwwwww.jodi.org/

I would like to end this vignette with a brief foray into one of Duchamp’s most well-known artworks, The Large Glass (aka The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even), which I have seen many times at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Numerous writers have theorized any number of facets of this famously enigmatic artwork. However, I simply wish to highlight what I see as its distinctive diagrammatic properties.

 Figure 12: Marcel Duchamp:  The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)

Figure 12: Marcel Duchamp: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)

As we have seen, Duchamp’s work also veered away from conventional pictorial representation, but in his case toward a more concept-driven (and highly erotic) diagrammatical language. The viewer of The Large Glass is not encountering modeled objects and figures tethered to illusionistic space, but rather highly abstracted (and enigmatic) processes whose logic/illogic can only be apprehended diagrammatically. A close viewing reveals many of the key diagrammatical features discussed in the About Diagrams page. The viewer is immediately confronted with a preponderance of “white space” (in this case, “interstitial” may be a more appropriate term, as the substrate is clear glass). And similar to conventional diagrams, this functions to “prompt the viewer’s correlative interactions among the diagram’s varied graphic elements.” (Bender and Marrinan) The viewer is enjoined to take an active role of cross-referencing and decoding. As mentioned with Picabia’s drawings, “the components of a larger visual array are tasked with explaining something, often aiding the viewer’s understanding of processes and relationships.” Understanding precisely what these processes and relationships are in The Large Glass—what they “mean”—is exceptionally challenging, to say the least. But its idiosyncratic nature does not invalidate its fundamental diagrammatical mode of address to the viewer—of explaining and of referencing ideas extrinsic to the actual artwork. And finally this brings up a common diagrammatical feature that distinguishes diagrams (and many diagrammatical-based art practices) from narrative/temporal representational modes like writing and film which would seemingly prove well-suited to describe sequential processes. As with so many conventional diagrams, what takes place in The Large Glass is a transfer of predominantly temporal relations (i.e. processes) into spatial/graphical relations—thus transforming a predominantly sequential order of “events” into a graphic display of simultaneous interrelationships.(3)

With The Large Glass, we have clearly left the territory of conventional diagrams for the more fluid and open-ended domain of art—of the Expanded Diagram. Even with this very brief overview, I hope I have made the case for The Large Glass and numerous other artworks of this period, for their seminal contribution to diagrammatic-based art practices.

(1) This should be self-evident with cinema, but one could argue that collage’s ready ability to produce seemingly random combinations of text and images has greatly influenced subsequent graphic design in the 20th century and beyond.

(2) Stigltz’s 291, Picabia’s 391 and Tristan Tzara’s Dada.

(3) I investigate this critical operation of diagrammatic “transfer” in the Diagrams and Mapping vignette, as yet unpublished.

Just Down the Hall from Marcel: Fifty Days at Iliam

A short distance down the hall from Duchamp’s Large Glass in the Philadelphia Museum of Art is another room dedicated to the work of Cy Twombly. I have chosen to feature the work of both Duchamp and Twombly because (one) I have viewed these artworks in person on numerous occasions, and (two) I feel that they represent two radically different approaches to 20th century diagrammatic-based art. Each signals two profoundly divergent artistic sensibilities yet both display many key features of diagrammatic thinking in art. Duchamp’s work is insistently conceptual (some might say, favorably or not, “cool,” “ironic” or “intellectual”), and his diagrammatic sources are predominantly mechanical in nature. Twombly’s work, on the other hand, aligns to a much different expressive and “painterly” lineage of modern art.

 Figure 13: Cy Twombly:  Fifty Days at Ilium , full room

Figure 13: Cy Twombly: Fifty Days at Ilium, full room

By no means am I reducing the paintings of Twombly’s Fifty Days solely to the diagrammatic. As with most artists working in this fashion, this is but one factor, albeit a very significant one in his case, especially in comparison with other kinds of art practices. Clearly his work exudes a powerful poetic (both epic and lyrical) sensibility buttressed by its expressive, gestural marks, revealing an unmistakable influence of mid 20th century abstract expressionism. Indeed, there were other influences at play, but my point here is that a fully comprehensive analysis of his work requires an understanding of diagrammatic thinking—both superficially as a mode of “display” and more fundamentally as a distinctive creative process.

As with the previous discussion of the Large Glass, this is not the place for a detailed examination of these paintings; rather, I simply wish to point out their key diagrammatic features. With much of Twombly’s work, we encounter unexpected amalgams of pictographs, inscriptions (legible and illegible), numbers, lines, and clumped and dispersed brush strokes. And of course, we see lots and lots of white space, which we have seen is crucial to many diagrammatic processes, as it simultaneously separates and binds the disparate “packets of information.” (1)

In keeping with another common characteristic of diagrams and diagrammatic-based art, this body of work is not self-referential but rather points to references extrinsic to itself—in this case, Homer’s Iliad. Yet despite its stated connection to a (temporal) narrative and the occasional presence of graffiti-like word scribblings, the work is stubbornly visual/spatial. Similar to the Large Glass and many diagrammatic-based artworks, Twombly’s paintings and drawings spatialize the predominantly temporal/sequential elements of a narrative or process. As this is such a critical feature of many diagrammatic-based art practices, let me insert a quote from the About Diagrams page: “Diagrammatic images spatialize relations in a meaningful way. They make spatial relations [e.g. simultaneity, hierarchy, juxtaposition, proximity, alignment, connectedness & disconnectedness] meaningful.” (Drucker) As such, the resultant “cognitive yield” of the viewer is obtained primarily through correlative processing of dissimilar visual elements. (2)

 Figure 14: Cy Twombly:  Fifty Days at Ilium, Achaeans in Battle

Figure 14: Cy Twombly: Fifty Days at Ilium, Achaeans in Battle

Finally, I feel I must repeat that my intention is never to reduce Twombly’s or any other artist’s work to some pure status of the diagrammatic. Such a relatively formal and technical analysis as I have just sketched is not meant to supersede other conceptual or expressive qualities and perceptions. But I believe that in any artistic endeavor in any medium, content and form (and often function) are inextricably linked; each determines the other in any number of obvious or subtle ways. So by further illuminating the extended diagrammatic family of formal structures and processes, I hope to gain new insights into these artworks and their artists’ creative process.

(1) From About Diagrams: “…a relatively neutral blank ground in and around the images, words, symbols or notations. It is the strategic presence of the white space that prompts the viewer to focus less on the individual components, but instead to extract meaning by actively correlating one “packet of information” with another so as to conjure new and unexpected relationships.”

(2) It is worth noting here that the viewer does NOT register the “cognitive yield” by reading (through written description), by imagining (through picturing), or even allegorically (through, let’s say, emblems). Ultimately these are some of the key “differences that makes a difference” (Gregory Bateson) between diagrammatic thinking and other modes of representation.

Ititamat: Native American Diagrams of Time

I would like to (provisionally) close Diagrams and Art with one final vignette to show an example of contemporary diagrammatic thinking influenced by the Native American practice called the Ititamat. Of the contemporary side of this exchange, I feel that I can speak with full authority, as it is my own artwork. On the historical side, I am indebted to an old family friend and noted scholar, Mary Dodds Schlick, for helping me with the background of this fascinating practice. (1)

First, some context: as a child, I moved around to several Indian reservations growing up, but I consider my childhood home to be the Yakima Valley in central Washington State where I lived until leaving for college. Years ago while researching the Yakima Indians (whose reservation I lived on), I became aware of an intriguing custom once practiced by women from the various “Plateau Tribes” of that region (bordered on the west by the Cascade Mountains and on the east by the Rockies). They would construct what was called the Ititamat, or as it was later referred to in English, the Time Ball. After a woman was married she would record the events of her life on an ever-extending length of spun hemp. She would register each day by tying a knot, and on days marked by a birth, death or some extraordinary event, she would attach a bead, shell or some special object. Over time this ball of hemp would grow so large that she would need to start another. As a mnemonic device she could presumably unravel these “balls” and recall the events of her past, each indexed sequentially along the twine.

What struck me the most about the Ititamat was its exquisite spatialization of time, as history and memory were so poignantly registered and represented along the length of a punctuated line of hemp. Of course, we have seen that this temporal/spatial transfer is itself a common feature of diagrammatic thinking.

The following images are examples of my sporadic efforts of homage to the Ititamat. My earliest stabs consisted of a series of photographs I took of rope strung about with randomly spaced knots. These pieces ultimately led to what has become an ongoing series of small paintings that I return to off and on. As I discussed in the About the Project page, I was drawn to the Expanded Diagram project by my predisposition to engage diagrammatic thinking with my own practice. Not all of my work has been diagrammatic-based—some periods more than others. But I consider this particular series to be the “purist” of any, and as such, they exhibit almost all of the key diagrammatic features previously discussed. So having already analyzed diagrammatic features in numerous other artworks, I will simply let these pieces speak for themselves.

(1) As well, she mentions the Ititamat in her book, Columbia River Basketry: Gift of the Ancestors, Gift of the Earth, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1994).

 Figure 15: Steven Baris,  Ititamat, rope study

Figure 15: Steven Baris, Ititamat, rope study

 Figure 16: Steven Baris,  Ititamat, Study #3

Figure 16: Steven Baris, Ititamat, Study #3

 Figure 17: Steven Baris:  Ititamat #8

Figure 17: Steven Baris: Ititamat #8

 Figure 18: Steven Baris:  Ititamat #5

Figure 18: Steven Baris: Ititamat #5

FINALLY: My hope is, that with these three papers—About the Project, About Diagrams, and Diagrams and Art—I have laid down an adequate foundation for subsequent discussions and investigation on any number of topics related to diagrammatic-based art practices. Moving forward, the core of this project will be composed of what I have already described as vignettes—brief discussions, focusing on instances and examples where diagrammatic thinking intersects with historical or contemporary art practices. My plan is to post these on a blog along with other postings featuring the artwork and interviews of contemporary artists. The central questions driving these vignettes are (1) How do diagrams cross over into art practices that usually do not look like conventional diagrams? (2) How does diagrammatic thinking actually “work” in art? (3) What distinguishes diagrammatic-based art practices from artworks that are not diagrammatic?

Below I have listed several topics that I am planning to investigate for future blog postings. Some of these I have already begun while others remain in the crazy idea stage.

1. Diagrams as Visual Metaphor
2. Premodern Diagrams and Matrices
3. Diagram as Enactment (Where Geometry Meets Native American Dancing)
4. Cognitive and the Aesthetic: Aboriginal Art
5. Diagrams and Mapping
6. Mandalas
7. Diagrams as Visual Narrative
8. Messages vs. Meaning
9. Architectural Space: Optical vs. Diagrammatic Visualization
10. New Media: Art & Information
11. Diagrammatic and Reductive Art: Overlaps and Contrasts


Figure 1
Mark Lombardi: George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens, ca. 1979-90, (5th version), 1999, 24 1/8 x 48 1/4 in. (cat. no. 19)

Figure 2
Bar Chart from: William Playfair’s Commercial and Political Atlas and Statistical Breviary (1786)

Figure 3
Piet Mondrian, Composition, oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 19 1/2 in. (49.5 x 49.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org

Figure 4
Theo van Doesburg: Counter-Composition in Dissonance 16 (1925)

Figure 5
El Lissitzky: Prounenraum [Proun Room], Great Berlin Art Exhibition, 1923,

Figure 6
Pablo Picasso, Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper, 1913,

Figure 7
Marcel Duchamp: Network of Stoppages, 1914,
Oil and pencil on canvas, 58 5/8” x 6’ 5 5/8” (148.9 x 197.7 cm)

Figure 8
Francis Picabia: Voila Elle, 1915, print, 48.2 x 32 cm
Publications of Stieglitz’s galleries: 291
Beinecke Library, Yale University, http://drs.library.yale.edu/HLTransformer/HLTransServlet?stylename=yul.ead2002.xhtml.xsl&pid=beinecke:sok&clear-stylesheet-cache=yes&big=y. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:291-No9p23-Spread.jpg

Figure 9
Francis Picabia: Dada Movement (Mouvement Dada), 1919
Ink and pencil on paper, 20 1/8 x 14 1/4” (51.1 x 36.2 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, https://www.moma.org/collection/works/35993

Figure 10
Julie Mehretu: Stadia II, 2004, Ink and acrylic on canvas
107 2/5 × 140 1/10 × 2 1/5 in; 272.73 × 355.92 × 5.71 cm,

Figure 11
Screenshot from http://wwwwwwwww.jodi.org/

Figure 12
Marcel Duchamp: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) :1915-1923, Oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass panels, 9 feet 1 1/4 inches × 70 inches × 3 3/8 inches (277.5 × 177.8 × 8.6 cm), Philadelphia Museum of Art

Figure 13
Cy Twombly: Fifty Days at Ilium, full room, 1978
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Figure 14
Cy Twombly: Fifty Days at Ilium, Achaeans in Battle, 1978
Oil, oil crayon, and graphite on canvas, 9 feet 10 inches × 12 feet 5 1/2 inches (299.7 × 379.7 cm), Philadelphia Museum of Art, http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/85713.html?mulR=738453034|20

Figure 15
Steven Baris: Ititamat, rope study, digital print, dimensions variable

Figure 16
Steven Baris: Ititamat, Study #3, 5 x 7 inches, graphite & marker on paper, 2018

Figure 17
Steven Baris: Ititamat #8, 10 x 12 inches, oil on MDF board, 2018

Figure 18
Steven Baris: Ititamat #5, 12 x 10 inches, oil on MDF board, 2005


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