Linda Dalrymple Henderson: Boccioni, Futurism and the Energies of Modernism

Evening lecture on the occasion of the conference "Mapping Futurism"

Avant-garde artists in the early 20th century shared a common culture of popularized science that has been virtually ignored in histories of modern art. Rather than the highly mathematical Relativity Theory that would come to stand for 20th-century science after Einstein's popularization in 1919, the science that stimulated the imaginations of modern painters was late Victorian ether physics. Exhilarating discoveries, such as the X-ray (1895) and radioactivity (1898), directed the attention of artists and public alike to the impalpable ether of space, believed to fill all space and to serve as the necessary vehicle for visible and invisible vibratory wave transmissions. The ether was also discussed in this period as the possible source of matter itself, suggesting an invisible "meta-reality" of vibrating energies, constantly coalescing and dematerializing on the model of radioactivity (widely believed to be universal in this era). Both Umberto Boccioni and pioneer of abstraction Wassily Kandinsky refer in their writings to the prominent "electric theory of matter" that reduced matter to swirling vortices of ether. The ether was likewise a powerful signifier of continuity in the early 20th century, and Boccioni declared specifically in his writings that the ether was the "unique form of continuity in space", the title of his best-known sculpture. Such ideas were also embraced by occultists in this period, so that Boccioni's preoccupation with both scientific and occult energies was hardly unusual. Indeed, in the face of such an invisible "meta-reality beyond human vision, Boccioni spoke for many early 20th-century artists when he declared that "what needs to be painted is . . . what the clairvoyant painter sees."

Linda Dalrymple Henderson holds the David Bruton, Jr. Centennial Professorship in Art History and is Teaching Professor at the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas, Austin. She earned her Ph.D. at Yale University in 1975 (Dissertation: "The Artist, 'The Fourth Dimension,' and Non-Euclidean Geometry 1900-1930: A Romance of Many Dimensions") and has taught twentieth-century European and American art in the Department of Art and Art History since 1978.

Before coming to the University of Texas, she served from 1974 through 1977 as Curator of Modern Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Professor Henderson's research and teaching focus on the interdisciplinary study of modernism, including the relation of modern art to fields such as geometry, science and technology, and mystical and occult philosophies. In addition to periodical articles and catalog essays, she is the author of "The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art" (Princeton University Press, 1983; new ed., MIT Press, 2009), which received the Vasari Award from the Dallas Museum of Art. Her second book, "Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in the Large Glass and Related Works" (Princeton, 1998), won the first prize in the Robert W. Hamilton Author Awards competition in 1999.

The new MIT Press edition of her "Fourth Dimension" includes a "Reintroduction" of several hundred pages tracking the history of this important cultural idea in the second half of the 20th century. It was in the context of that work that she discovered the Park Place Gallery artists and developed the exhibition "Reimagining Space: The Park Place Gallery Group in 1960s New York" for the Blanton Museum, opening in fall 2008. The exhibition and her catalog essay, "Park Place: Its Art and History," highlight this important gallery and group of artists who were at the center of activity in New York in the mid-1960s, but whose commitment to complex space in painting and sculpture put them at odds with the increasingly dominant reductivist aesthetics of Minimalist sculpture and Clement Greenberg's doctrine of flatness in modern painting.

Professor Henderson published in 2002 an interdisciplinary anthology co-edited with literature scholar Bruce Clarke, "From Energy to Information: Representation in Science and Technology, Art, and Literature" (Stanford University Press). In 2003 Professor Henderson co-organized in Austin the national conference of the Society for Literature and Science (now the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts) on the theme "Rethinking Space and Time Across Science, Literature, and the Arts." A Guggenheim Fellow in 1988-89, Professor Henderson is a member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers and holds the David Bruton, Jr. Centennial Professorship in Art History.

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