The minimal forms of Math Bass’s paintings and sculptures reflect a playful attitude toward philosophical questions about identity and bodily experience.
Gabriel Lippmann’s foremost contributions to turn-of-the-century science were the color photograph and the capillary electrometer, a device essential to recording the beat of the heart. Both of these inventions produced an image by documenting waves of energy, one visible, the other invisible. Lippmann’s color photography wasn’t practical on a mass scale—too detailed. But, his electrometer, which produced an image of much lower-resolution—just a simple, black-and-white waveform—solidified his impact. When Lippmann shot a current through a tube of mercury and sulfuric acid held against a negative, the mercury traced a line, which fluctuated with the current’s power. Lippmann’s method precipitated the EKG machine, now ubiquitous in our hospitals (and our televisual plotlines), where the simple, repetitive zigzag tracks the human heart, an index of survival, or a “vital sign.”
Please ignore the pun when I say Math Bass makes waves. In her recent solo show at MoMA PS1 in New York,1 the form of a zigzag or the shape of a wave emerged over and over again: zigzags of steel, rows of arches, lines of triangles painted on bare canvas, sets of cast-concrete legs splayed in dynamic “V”s, crosshatched fences, and even the shadows made by wooden ladders leaned against the wall. Before settling on “Off the Clock,” Bass told me recently, she wanted to title the exhibition,“zigzag woman, zigzag man and child.”2 Bass’s primary medium isn’t painting or sculpture but rather the zigzag or the arch.
For the past three years, Bass has given the title Newz! to most of her paintings. The exclamation might be an ironic repetition of the modernist call to “make it new.” But it also reflects a genuine sense of wonder at new forms created through combinations of old ones. The title clues us in to how the works in the series function: written out, the word Newz! contains three zigzags; more, rotated 90 degrees, “N” can be “Z.” The symmetry shows us what careful looking does to sense: symbols become shapes. “I can’t stop thinking about orientation,” Bass told me, unwrapping two new paintings from the series in her Los Angeles studio. The works, 6-by-4-foot canvases, are nearly identical—interlocking rows of green zigzags beneath a black “Z” shape and a graphic purple flower—except for their orientation: one portrait, one landscape.
The paintings in the “Newz!” series share a palette, a vocabulary of shapes and unprimed canvas as their ground. Bass’s red, green and blue are uniform in tone, just a whisker off primary. And her pure blacks are weighty and consistent. Applied in even fields, Bass’s colors meet the bare fabric along crisp edges, and hardly a brushstroke is visible in the final compositions. Pared-down shapes and lines, zigzags and arches, are the basic units that Bass manipulates and reconfigures to create a set of recurring images: alligator teeth, a staircase, a doorway, a phallus, the letter “A,” breasts, the letter “B,” the inside of a nostril, a quotation mark, a cigarette, an eyeball, the letter “O,” a flower. The occasional gray gradient fills out a plume of smoke, as uniformly as would a bucket tool in Photoshop. Thin gouache soaks into the canvas, leaving a flat plane. The materiality of the shapes fades, letting the images play.
Oscillating between “elemental” and “elementary,” installations of Bass’s work end up looking like playgrounds, with paintings and sculptures echoing the same kooky visuals. In one Newz! painting, a pair of shapes—a blue orb under a green triangle with zigzag edges—repeats three times. This trio, arranged in a triangular configuration on the canvas, makes a face in surprise: mouth open and eyes wide. If her paintings sometimes make faces, her sculptures make bodies. Just two arches cut from a thin, 7-foot sheet of steel turn And Its Shadow (2014) from pure material into a person with arms raised, legs agape. The sculpture’s own weight pulled the sheet into a curve as it leaned against the wall. The childlike sensibility of Bass’s primary palette, simple iconography and anthropomorphism of classical shapes highlights her playful perversity. In another Newz! work, a tall arch sits underneath two bulbous “U”s, a phallus hovering beneath breasts or a butt.
In his 1918 text Schöpferische Indifferenz, the German philosopher Salomo Friedlaender advocates a cosmology based on similarity, or “creative indifference.”3 He believed indifference, “the in-between,” “the gap” or the “no place” made difference—and thus anything—possible. “From time immemorial,” he writes, “when dealing with polarities, more attention has been paid to the poles than to their indifference. Yet in this indifference lies the real secret, the creative will.” Friedlaender was writing around the time when major discoveries in quantum physics were being made, and we might think of this concept of indifference in relation to the paradox that characterizes every elementary particle: they are both particles and waves.
Science’s rather abused “observer effect” has its origins here: how particles behave depends on how they are measured. Like Friedlaender’s metaphysics, Bass’s aesthetics relies on indifference, positing orientation, rather than essence, as constitutive of identity. Her works place equal emphasis on positive and negative space. She makes nonidentical paintings of the same name. Her shapes can be reduced to two forms, one peak and one bow, and even these two can be related by a twist of a line. Foregrounding similarity, or indifference, Bass posits identity—of a symbol, a shape or a person—as a plastic, context-dependent force.
It’s boring and borderline offensive to assume Bass’s own queer identity just erupts on the surfaces of her works. Like most compelling art, hers doesn’t need biography. In one Newz! work, an arch is unmistakably a phallus. In another, it is a doorway. (Or is it actually a vagina?) Maybe Bass has made some sneaky cunt art for our times. The phallus, constructed in our cultural imaginary as pure presence, is recast as its opposite, as lack. Bass’s work, despite the sharp edges evident in it, suggests a generative blur. “It’s real,” Bass told me, “the power differential between penetrable and impenetrable bodies.” In her practice, the canvas oscillates between penetrable, absorptive surface, and flat plane.
“I’m interested in animals and animism,” Bass said, as her dog, a teeny black Chihuahua named Joan, sat on my lap. “I always see objects and animals as human and see the body becoming an object or architecture.” Bass’s longtime collaboration with her partner, artist Lauren Davis Fisher, is instructive here. For Bass’s PS1 show, Fisher removed a portion of a gallery wall to echo a found shape in the architecture of Bass’s studio. Vertical wooden one-by-twos occupy Fisher’s cut, a rectangle except for its sharply sloped top. Titled Structure A, Rupture B (2015), Fisher’s work was a structural intervention that framed visitors’ views of each of the two galleries used for the exhibition, but it was also an invocation of artistic labor in a museum context, which can be obscured by the conventional display of finished objects in a white cube.
A series of sculptures begun in 2012, “Untitled (Brutal Set),” makes architecture of the human form. Bass pours concrete into jeans and denim shorts and displays the resulting works upside-down—that is, resting on the waist. Each work stands as a “V,” some upper- and some lowercase. The edges of pockets, rivets and seams are preserved from the denim cast. Bass’s bottoms offer an alternative to statuary, memorializing not bodies but clothes—the particularities of the costume, not the essence of the individual. They might show us how rigid meanings get cauterized into our own fleshy forms. Oh, did I mention they are funny? Whatever rhapsodic conjectures a critic might choose to elucidate these works, the protuberant butts always act as a kind of bulwark against pure seriousness.
Friedlaender was made famous not for his philosophy but for his narrative grotesques, written under the name Mynona, the German word for anonymous, anonym, spelled backward. Friedlaender described himself as part Kant and part clown. Bass takes a similar route: “idiot savant” and “a real painter’s nightmare.” Reflecting on the marketability of contemporary painting, Bass understands suspicions about her “self-referential, auto-erotic” work, but to those critics too quick to lump her success with the rise of zombie abstractionists, she replies, “they got the wrong guy.”
Portents of Bass’s current painting practice are evident in backdrops and settings used in her video and performance work. The video Sticks (2011) depicts a ground of thick, olive-colored stripes, rendered freehand on a canvas. Three perforated, ruler-size sticks are drawn into and out of the frame, creating “X”s, zigzags, and “Z”s to a percussive soundtrack. For a particularly satisfying moment, one of the sticks strikes the surface, revealing that the background was all along two sheets of canvas and breaking our assumption of a static plane.
Bass’s current sculptures have their origins in props and costumes. Ladders have been a part of her performance work for years, and her 2012 Untitled (Brutal Set) at Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum was populated by both ladders and a selection of denim pours. During the performance, a chorus, including Bass herself, moved through and rearranged the props in the space, recombining in harmony and rhyme elemental lyrics written by Bass, and at one point, intoning “One,” Harry Nilsson’s 1968 melancholic pop song: “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.”
A crooning saxophone in one of Bass’s videos shouldn’t surprise. The improvisatory structure of jazz is well suited to her repetitions and combinations of basic visual forms. Butt Behind (2012), composed of a series of four filmed shots, includes images of rulers that cross a plane of stripes as in Sticks, and a garbage bag waving as if it were a flag. Before the final minute, the four frames are superimposed as a collage of rectangles, the waving sticks move across the whole screen or in sections, sometimes in tension, sometimes in resolution. When the saxophone quiets, we hear the director’s off-screen instructions: “That isn’t out of the frame. . . . You can see your hand.” Describing the movement of a bulging garbage bag, a voice remarks, “You can tell there’s a person in there.”
Body No Body Body (2013) was originally a costume. Canvas draped around a boxy form, painted with green and salmon stripes reminiscent of the Sticks backdrop, it maintains the easy illusion of a person huddled on all fours. It isn’t identifying with the subject beneath the canvas that makes this work compelling, but what it invites from us as a viewer: to curl up alongside it. Of course, what is a person besides a form you might wrap your own body around?
1. “Math Bass: Off the Clock,” at MoMA PS1, New York, May 3-Sept. 7, 2015.
2. All Bass quotes from an interview with the author, Los Angeles, June 2015.
3. All Salomo Friedlaender quotes from Alice Lagaay, “Mind the Gap—of Indifference: Approaching ‘Performance Philosophy’ with Salomo Friedlaender (1871-1946),” Performance Philosophy Journal, vol. 1, 2015, pp. 65-73.