Keith Tyson’s art is powered by the hidden forces that govern creation, whether that of an artist in the studio or of the universe at large. In “Fractal Dice,” his current show at Pace Wildenstein, he grapples with the former, with results radically different from last year’s more cosmologically-minded “Large Field Array.” While the prior show presented a visually dense, symbolism-laden grid of 230 slickly-fabricated figural sculptures in an homage to the myriad ways we strive to make sense of reality, “Fractal Dice” is an austere, aloof meditation on art as process.
The sculptures in “Fractal Dice” were created using a chance-driven system in which the faces of a cube are modified according to a series of die rolls and a set of simple rules. Implementation of the system was left completely in the hands of the gallery’s production team. The resulting glossy aluminum clusters look something like the Suprematist paintings of Kazimir Malevich rendered in three dimensions and a few extra colors, or perhaps the outcome of a giant child’s playing with a set of very complicated toy blocks. Most of the sculptures are elongated forms ranging from two to ten feet in length; a couple are hung on the wall, while the remainder stand upright or lay flat or tilted on the floor. Some have a fragmented look, with disconnected bits resting nearby.
At its core, “Fractal Dice” is a comment on form and the role of subjectivity in modern art, meant to test the idea that taste and personal judgment only weaken an artist’s exploration of a pure aesthetic principle. In setting a few rules and then stepping away to let other hands deal with the practical details, Tyson wants to see what happens when a simple shape and a few predefined colors are allowed to iterate themselves.
Yet the true fascination of these works lies not in their intellectual underpinnings, but rather the way they evoke the house style of high modernism so effortlessly. So many recognizable elements of 20th-century art are present (the sheen and sharp angles of Judd’s Minimalism; the bright, flat colors of Matisse or Mondrian; the austere geometry of Bauhaus) that it’s hard not to see them as deliberate attempts to work within and comment upon the tradition. A postmodern method yields very modern work, making the prior era’s proclamations on genius and creation seem achingly hollow. In surrendering aesthetic choices to chance and arriving at such tellingly familiar results, Tyson points out just how arbitrary so many of modernism’s hotly-contested rules of form seem in retrospect.