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String as contemporary art medium

String - one of the humblest yet possibly most versatile art mediums - enjoys something of an unacknowledged art historical pedigree, having featured prominently in the work of many influential artists. And it continues to make its mark on contemporary practice in a surprising number of ways.

Art purists will be happy to know that we're differentiating work featured here from so-called 'string art' - a decorative craft in which thread or wire is wound around nails - although distinctions are frequently blurred and inevitable overlaps occur.

Similarly, we'll be (generally) avoiding reference to the many artists who utilise crafts such as embroidery, crochet, macramé, weaving and knitting. Not through any wish to downplay their importance, but simply because such practices are so widespread that to attempt coverage within a single article would prove impossible.

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Former threads: historical highlights of string in art

Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp's iconic installation Sixteen Miles of String (above) was conceived for the influential First Papers of Surrealism exhibition held in New York in 1942.

Marcel Duchamp

Apparently named due to the artist's purchase of sixteen miles of yarn expressly to adorn the exhibition space (although ultimately only a small part was used), the resultant webbing defined visitors' experience by simultaneously impeding access to the works while physically, visually and conceptually connecting them.

Decades earlier, string had likewise featured in Duchamp's 3 Standard Stoppages (1913-14, below), the artist's fêted "joke about the metre".

To create the multi-part work, metre-length cords were dropped onto canvases from a height (purportedly) of 1 metre, the sinuous shape they assumed on landing defined as "a new image of the unit of length".

Glued into place to permanently record their position, the resultant curves were then used as the basis for shaped wooden templates, an absurd undermining of the linear logic of the standard ruler.

Marcel Duchamp

Sculpture, string and the mathematical model: Henry Moore

Henry Moore: Stringed Reclining Figure, 1939
Henry Moore: Stringed Figure: Bowl, 1938

From 1937, British sculptor Henry Moore began work on an extensive series of sculptures prominently featuring threaded string or wire.

Although at the time the artist had almost certainly encountered similar elements in works by new acquaintance Naum Gabo, the Russian-born Constructivist who moved to Britain in 1936, (see below), Moore himself cited mathematical models found in the London Science Museum (below) as his source of inspiration: "It wasn't the scientific study of these models but the ability to look through the strings as with a bird cage and to see one form within another which excited me".

Science Museum, London: String surface model by Fabre De Lagrange, 1872
Henry Moore: Bird Basket, 1939

Naum Gabo

Whatever the truth behind Moore's stylistic evolution, the exquisitely worked objects he refers to - which had been produced in the late 19th century as visual aids for mathematicians - are, in fact, equally implicated in Gabo's own oeuvre.

Naum Gabo

It's fairly likely that the artist first came across them while studying medicine in Munich in 1910 - the Technical University, where he attended extra courses, was a principal centre for the production of a wide range of mathematical models.

The spatially radical works Gabo produced just a few years later could well have been influenced by such an encounter, but what's indisputable is that later sculptures drew from the models directly: Gabo's influential Construction (1936) , for example, almost exactly replicates an illustration to an entry on mathematical models featured in the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Naum Gabo: Linear Construction in Space No. 1 (Variation),  Lucite with nylon thread

It's worth adding here that Gabo's brother, Antoine Pevsner, also produced several complex stringed sculptures (below) during the 1930s, although always denied any direct mathematical influence on his work.

Antoine Pevsner
Antoine Pevsner

Barbara Hepworth

Barbara Hepworth

Like Henry Moore (above) British sculptor Barbara Hepworth introduced string and wire to her work in the 1930s; influenced, it's generally assumed, by Moore and / or Gabo.

Barbara Hepworth

In fact, in a 1935 letter, Hepworth mentions that she'd been told of "some marvelous things in a mathematical school in Oxford - sculptural working out of mathematical equations - hidden away in a cupboard" which she intended to look at.

Could Hepworth have subsequently alerted Moore himself to the existence of similar models in the London Science Museum?

Whatever the case, Hepworth continued to utilise stringed constructions throughout her career, defining a particular style of post-war sculpture which itself contributed to the popularity of string art as a decorative item throughout the 1960s.

Barbara Hepworth, Stringed Figure (Curlew), 1956

The Surrealists and Man Ray

The fact that the stringed mathematical model permeates the development of avant garde art to a remarkable degree is further illustrated by its adoption by the Surrealists.

In 1936, several examples were exhibited as artworks at the Parisian 'Exposition Surréaliste d'Objets'; a move which Duchamp (above) would certainly have been aware of.

In the same year (apparently at the urging of Max Ernst), Man Ray executed a series of photographic studies of the models held at the scientific Poincaré Institute.

Entitled Mathematical Objects, a selection of these photographs appeared in a 1936 issue of Cahiers d'Art alongside an essay on mathematics and abstract art by Christian Zervos.

Stringed mathematical models

A historical overview of string as art medium: next >

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