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Dynamic squares. (Teaching art with art).

There's really no other shape that is like a square. There's nothing like it in nature--nothing that has four equal lengths, straight sides and four corners that are equal to each other, that is, right angles. The shape had to have been invented by people.

Yet, because we know what squares are and see them all around us, we take them for granted. What we often don't realize is that, in some parts of the world even today, people are not accustomed to seeing straight lines and right angles. That is because they live away from towns and cities, and their homes do not have any straight lines in them.

Because of the unique qualities of squares, most of us think of them as useful shapes, although we may not have too much interest in them to be used in art: they seem unmoving and rather dead. Until about 100 years ago this was largely true.

Squares had been important for centuries, of course, in planning the shapes of buildings and monuments. They were also central to the construction of mosaics because each individual piece of tile, or "tesserae," is usually square. Floor tiles, many of which were beautifully decorated, were also mostly square. Textile designers have also used squares extensively for centuries in decorations of such things as carpets and clothing.

But, as important as square shapes have been, rectangles--square-like shapes with two sides that are longer--have been much more heavily used in art. For example, buildings, windows, doors, pictures and many other objects were--and still are--mainly rectangular.

Squares, then, have a special place in the world. Unlike most shapes that can be squeezed, stretched or bent, squares cannot be changed if they are to remain square. The sides must always be straight and also be of equal length, with all four corners having equal angles. Nevertheless, many artists have discovered that things can be done with squares to create lively works of art.

A number of squares may be used in a single artwork. They may be the same sizes or sized differently. Outlines to the shapes need not always be lines, but may be made in different ways. Squares may be painted or drawn, or they may be cut out and turned into relief sculptures. Surfaces may also be textured differently. And, most importantly, compositions made up of squares may be colored in different ways. In other words, despite the restrictions about the shapes that squares have to be, they offer opportunities for artists to explore. It's because of their shape, that squares must remain square.

The importance of squares in art, together with other basic geometric shapes, changed with the arrival of Modern Art about 100 years ago, especially Cubism. This change caused painters, sculptors and printmakers to become excited about the creative possibilities of all kinds of geometric shapes.

From almost the beginning of Modern Art, some artists became very involved with ideas using shapes that were entirely geometric, and were especially creative with square shapes. As time went on, some artists came to delight in visual effects that teased people's eyes by presenting geometric shapes in ways that were more like visual puzzles.

Because of the visual games, these artists played this kind of art called "Op Art" or "Optical Art." Op Art didn't last very long in painting, but the ideas of these artists continued to influence advertising designers, textile designers, and more recently computer graphics artists.

Students can learn about the presence of squares and other geometric shapes since the beginning of Modern Art 100 years ago--and especially the Op Art of the 1960s--by studying reproductions. To save time and a lot of disappointment, students should be encouraged first to find out what other artists have already discovered about using squares, especially since some artists have used their talent and their lives in learning to explore this shape creatively.

The best way of doing this is to make photocopies or drawings of interesting artworks and for students to add their own notes for later use. To help them get started, this article includes several ideas by well-known artists who have focused their creative powers on the often-misunderstood shape of the square and have arrived at very different solutions. Later, students may want to apply what they have learned to explore the creative possibilities of squares themselves in the creation of pictures, sculptures, textiles, printmaking and graphic design.

Interested students may also want to go a step further and find out about the artistic applications of cubes, that is, the use of three-dimensional squares. That is a subject for some other article, although there is no reason why students should wait.


ANUSZKIEWICZ'S ART IS A REACTION to the extreme kinds of art of 50 years ago. His work is carefully planned, in contrast to the accidental paintings of the Abstract Expressionists who were popular at the time. It is symmetrical rather than asymmetrical. And it does not try and tell about the artist's personal feelings as the other art does. Not least, Anuszkiewicz uses great technical skill in his work, compared with the almost absence of discipline among Abstract Expressionist artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

The overall picture is in the shape of a square with another one near the center. Inside this perfectly symmetrical composition, however, are two other squares that are tipped over to stand on one corner.

Like most of this artist's paintings, the colors contrast so sharply that they seem to glow and shimmer. In this painting most of the area is filled with red or orange, while the center is a brilliantly contrasting green. The complementary green color is painted in solid color for maximum effect, while the other areas are broken up with white lines. The novelty of the green center is increased still further by being tipped on its side.

The artist's delight in the striking use of color is made even stronger by his use of sharply drawn lines and edges: there are no gradual changes from color to another in the painting. Instead of mixing paints together, he uses straight lines that radiate from the central square with white lines and divides up the red, causing it to appear paler in some areas than in others. And although the painting makes use of carefully drawn straight lines, none of them is used to outline the squares. These edges are shown by the line created by the ends of the drawn lines, with the sharpest edge to be seen where the lines get closest at the central green square.


VASARELY'S ART REVOLVES AROUND people's need to create patterns from whatever they are looking at, that is, the need to make visual sense of the world around them. Vasarely uses this basic need when he creates his abstract paintings. His pictures encourage viewers to make sense of intricate arrangements of simple geometric shapes. In doing so, he forces them to make sense of the patterns that are there, which serves to stretch their understanding of visual things.

This painting belongs to Vasarely's early "Black and White" period in which he made use of maximum contrasts. Other periods in his career followed this one, but all of them focus on multiples of simple shapes that are abstract. In them, he explores unusual variations of particular ideas including various geometric shapes and forms.

Vasarely filled this painting with squares that, at first glance, seem all to be the same size. But, this is an optical illusion. In fact, there are 26 more white squares than black squares, although the area filled by the black ones is longer than the area occupied by the white. Students may not want to count the squares, but if they look carefully at the junction between the two sets, they will see that the lines between them do not match up. By doing this, Vasarely prevents the picture looking as though it was built on a rigid grid.

So, from the beginning, the artist is playing games with the viewer's eyes. He does it again and much more noticeably in the way he tilts numbers of squares of both kinds until one of them in the middle lies at right angles to all the others. The effect of this twisting of squares is to create a feeling of rhythmic movement not normally found among squares. Of course, the squares are not really moving, but because the changes were made gradually across each block of eight squares (both black and white), they create a twisting effect that overflows into the areas where no such angling has occurred.


FRANK STELLA WAS BORN IN 1936 TO a family that wanted him to become a professional person, such as a doctor or lawyer. With the help of supportive art teachers, he discovered that his great interest lay in being an artist and, after graduating from college, he went to New York and began to paint. He soon became friends with numbers of the most creative artists of the time, including Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Donald Judd and Robert Rauschenberg.

Stella has always been an abstract artist although, as his career unfolded, the appearance of his work changed dramatically. His earliest paintings consisted of black or gray bands of paint that completely filled the space of his canvases. These bands were separated by thin lines of much paler paint. Later, his interest expanded to painting parallel bands of color that also filled all of a canvas.

Since the 1960s, when this painting was produced, Stella's style changed numerous times, first to circles and subdivision of circles, often called his "Protractor Paintings." From that, he moved on to using more sculptural materials including wood, aluminum and even paper. And, from the geometric shapes that made up his early work, he turned to free-form and curving compositions. Some critics have written that only by changing as he did, was it possible for Stella to remain at the forefront of artistic ideas.

This painting by Stella appears at first glance to be two separate pictures. On closer inspection, however, we realize that the two squares are identical except for certain changes introduced by the artist. An obvious difference is that the pattern of squares on the left is painted in a rainbow of bright colors, while the same design on the right is painted in shades of gray. After a while, it may become clear that the artist did more than just paint two squares, one in color and one in grays. The gray design is painted in shades that are the opposite in lightness and darkness from the colors in the other square.

In a way, Stella has played a game with us. The result is like a black-and-white photo negative, where the light parts are dark and the dark parts are light. So the outer color of the gray design is the lightest shade of gray, although the outer edge in color is black or nearly black. The lighter colors, with yellow as the lightest, appear as the darkest grays in the monochrome design.

While the artist is being playful, he is also teaching viewers that colors have their equivalents in gray. He is also demonstrating his freedom to reverse the lightness and darkness of colors when he so chooses.


THIS PAINTING MIGHT HAVE BECOME a simple checkerboard of squares within a larger square frame. This is exactly what seems to be happening when we look at each side. About two-thirds from the left, however, the squares begin to get narrower from top to bottom and change into ever-narrower rectangles until they appear as simple black and white lines.

Because changes occur smoothly--whether looking from either left or right--it seems as though we are really looking at squares painted on two curved surfaces that first turn inward away from the viewer and then curve outward, toward the original level. Something like this kind of effect can occur when window drapes fall into folds, the difference here being that Bridget Riley paints the shapes as though the surface is hard and quite unlike the appearance of soft, hanging cloth. Further, given the rigid square shapes, some artists might have made the appearance of recession in the middle of the painting rather than to one side, but Riley pushed the apparent curvature off to one side to create an even more lively composition.

The artist has spent her career exploring abstract shapes and forms, creating paintings that reveal many different kinds of visual sensations, including the one seen here. At all times, she has focused on change in order to enlarge people's ideas about the shapes we see and often take for granted. In this painting, the squares change in such ways that there seems to be a vertical furrow running through the painting. In other work, Riley explores rhythms and variations of density with geometric and free-form shapes. This early work is painted in stark black and white, while later work includes color.

The two artists she claims to have had the most influence on her work are Jackson Pollock and Piet Mondrian. Students will quickly see the similarities between her work and Mondrian's, although it may take a little longer to match her ideas with the turbulent dribbles of Pollock's paintings. But like both Pollock and Mondrian, she disregards the visual world of daily life. In fact, she likens her work to the abstract ideas present in music. For this reason, students may find it useful to think of notes, scales, intervals and their relationships when viewing her work.

Guy Hubbard is Professor Emeritus of Indiana University, Bloomington, and is on the Editorial Advisory Board of Arts & Activities.
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Title Annotation:art projects
Author:Hubbard, Guy
Publication:Arts & Activities
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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