Nelson Saiers' artwork—seemingly arbitrarily-placed circles, lines, and colors—might look open to interpretation, but the mathematician-turned-artist will tell you that they contain precise meaning.
Saiers new exhibition One-On-One isactually filled with Greek philosophical ideas, references to artists who inspire him, or, in the case of the Paradox in Abstract installation, jokes about Tom Brady: "My pieces tend to have a minimalistic aesthetic, but are dense, in terms of the ideas within them," Saiers tells The Creators Project. That's why the titular one-on-one experience of his new exhibition is so important. A recording of Saiers speaking explains every hidden detail, relationship, and concept in each of the seven installations as they rotate through The Hole Shop in New York City, one setup per week.
Paradox in Abstract centers around a crayon-on-paper illustration consisting of several concentric circles floating in negative space near a series of smaller dots. A football "signed" by Tom Brady clinches one of his hidden jokes: an elaborate jab at the "deflategate" scandal from the beginning of the year. Just when he thought it was behind him, a successful mathematician pulls off what could be the highest-brow Brady spoof the world has ever seen.
Saiers is inspired by constantly making connections between his own life and concepts he deals with as a mathematician. "I'm always attempting to interrelate various concepts," he explains. "Once I've got an interesting thesis, I begin to craft an aesthetic around it."
Last June, a 39-year-old Saiers stepped down from his position as chief investment officer at Saiers Capital LLC, a hedge fund managing $688 million in assets, to pursue a full-time career as an artist. Today, he unveils the second installation, Connect the Dots: A Counterexample in 3D. It's an examination of the societal barriers faced by women in STEM fields, centered around Exclude Exclude #2, two black canvases covered in colorful dots, one much larger than the other. We spoke to Saiers about how he designs these incredibly dense installations:
The Creators Project: When exactly did you decide to begin practicing art as math? Can you tell me about the events that sparked it?
Nelson Saiers: When I was a child working on multiplication tables, I started thinking what would happen if you multiplied yellow by blue—and the first thing that came to my mind was a very abstract image. I wish I could have painted it, but it was at a very young age that I started to blend the two. I can't say that there's anything specific that sparked it, I just always saw them as intertwined.
How do the two interact in your daily life? Do you find yourself making new breakthroughs or changing your thinking about one while practicing the other?
Great math focuses on relationships and analogies so when I'm daydreaming about math I'm trying to interrelate different theories and ideas. When I added art as a mode of expression, I now had a large new world of ideas with which to compare and describe by mathematical theories including morality, history, and literature. When you take, for example, my piece Equality, it's a topological expression of the fundamental human truth—that while every person has a unique appearance we all are actually equal at our core. The objects in the piece appear different but are topologically equivalent.
Can you tell me your personal definitions of art and math?
Math is concerned with idealized objects, but art adds a tangible or practical element which introduces the complexities of the human condition. I'm trying to use math, in my art, to take a more rigorous approach to exploring the mysteries of our world.
What's the deal with the Tom Brady football in Paradox in Abstract Art?
The football with the Tom Brady signature was part of the installation the first week. The main piece was a large sketch made of crayon on paper called Paradox in Abstract Art. This piece focused on a handful of paradoxes and theories of Aristotle. The final element was a reference to Robert Boyle. Boyle using his famous gas law and other insights was one of the first people to really bring in to question Aristotle's theory of the four classic elements. The references to Boyle included a broken red balloon hung next to the main piece and the football with Tom Brady's signature. Boyle's law is the mechanism behind how we breathe (and hence blow up a balloon) and behind how a manual air pump works used for pumping up a football. The popped nature of the balloon and deflated football points to Boyle deflating or popping Aristotle's theory of the elements.
Why did you decide to hide an elaborate joke about deflategate in an installation alongside Aristotelian philosophy and physical theory?
I had the idea the night before the piece was being installed as Brady was making headlines everywhere. I felt it was a very natural and seamless way to add humor to a piece that was academically very heavy.
Why is it important for people to see your new set of installations—as it says in the name—one on one? Is it experiment and do you think it would work with art made by a non-mathematician?
My pieces tend to have a minimalistic aesthetic, but are dense, in terms of the ideas within them, and this both affords viewers the luxury of and forces them to take their time with each piece, and really get to explore the deeper meaning.
Do you see mathematical values in other artists' work? How does that affect your own practice?
I do, but often in unexpected places. Someone like Brunelleschi, for example, is known for his use of geometry to present three dimensional perspective, and naturally I see more ratio than I see form and figure in his pieces. But when I first saw Matisse's painting The Dance at the MoMA, I was with a tour guide who told us to close our eyes before going into the room. She described the piece, and I was surprised when I opened my eyes. Most people think about the motion, the vibrant colors, the shapes, and the brush strokes—all I could think about was the number five. Five is important to math (number of Platonic solids, length of the hypotenuse of a 3-4-5 triangle, double twin prime, an important degree for solving polynomial equations, etc), but to me more importantly it represents geometric abstraction. One of the origins of geometrical abstraction was a result of mathematicians work on Euclid's fifth postulate. While certainly just a coincidence I couldn't help but wonder if Matisse, one of the fathers of abstraction in painting, considered that in choosing the number of dancers (and for that matter was it a motivation for the number of women in Picasso's iconic Les Demoiselles d'Avignon).
When I view the art of others, I often consider how I might riff on them using physics or math. I carried that out in one of my pieces titled Pollock Stymied. I see a lot of Jackson Pollock's work as a function of gravity. I used this as the motivation behind one of my explorations of the still life form. In these works, a zero gravity scenario is created for objects within an elevator by cutting its cable. Pollock Stymied showcases an environment in which paint will perpetually hover, making his style impossible.
Are you working on any other projects right now? What's next for you as an artist?
I'm always trying to create new pieces, and I'm expecting my next works of art to be displayed in some form by the Hoerle-Guggenheim Gallery later this year. But one thing I'm working on right now is the creation of geometric descriptions for complex, abstract, but deeply human ideas. For example what does the geometry of evil or the geometry of love look like? I want viewers to understand my geometric vocabulary. A simple example would be for Selfishness, I've chosen a Klein bottle. It's a shape which folds in on itself ad infinitum to the point where the outside is identical to the inside, this gives a physical shape to the quality of always putting one's own interests ahead of others.