Edith Altman

Marianne Deson Gallery

Late last summer I was walking by the lagoon in Lincoln Park, near Lake Michigan, and stopped on the bank across the water from a cluster of magnificent trees. They magnetized me, and as I shivered in the heat a generalized image of Edith Altman’s time/space drawings came to mind. I had not previously thought of these geometric configurations of white conte pencil on black Pellon as representations of nature, but their elegantly mystical energy, like that of the natural world, indicated a simultaneously suave and artless attunement with cosmic forces and principles of control and creation.

Altman exhibited nine of these drawings, which seem to be exercises for the culmination, an installation titled “The Hidden Dimension.” Through the ’70s she has characteristically dealt with chance/coincidence and regulation/fate, imposing systems on materials (determining the “random” folds of a fabric held from one hand), nature (setting snowtraps that could only catch their prize if the weather cooperated), and most importantly herself (recording her voice for 8 consecutive days repeatedly counting to that number while marking paper with corresponding strokes).

Altman’s work is tedious, obsessive, and frequently monotonous. No exception, the recent show literally depicts the time it takes to make art. Using quarter, half, and whole hour standards and their increments, Altman plots, on a grid where one second equals one square inch, visual/spatial proofs of time. Sometimes starting with either a square or triangle, also gridded, she times her strokes, one per second, similarly verifying a specific amount of time and its spatial equivalent.

Both formulas, in which strokes per line increase and decrease according to the problem set forth in each drawing, produce volumetric forms where more time (more marks) creates greater lightness. Despite the carefully engineered procedure and precise draftmanship, the three-dimensionality, which from a distance seems more real than illusionistic, always surprises the artist. What astonishes me is that Altman has unwittingly confirmed that mathematics and form—abstraction and physicality—exist in the same dimension.

We would be mistaken to appreciate her work only as cerebral, for it resonates emotionally and metaphorically. The translucence of material and markings and the Pellon’s crushable softness, matched with the delicate, script-like gestures, evoke ethereality; yet the texture is sensual as are the chiffonlike densities of strokes. Veilings and unveilings, moonlight on foggy nights, undulations of atmospheric light (characteristic of much Chicago abstraction and perhaps influenced by observations of the lake): Altman incorporates these sensations into mandala configurations that call to mind snow crystals, waves from a pebble thrown into a pool, and zodiacal charts.

In Time/Space Rotation in a 15 Minute 32 Second Drawing a square of isosceles triangles is sectioned into smaller triangles forming a double pinwheel, whose nonadjacent vanes are mirror images that conjure up parallel universes, past, future, and continuous present, and reversals of time. Simultaneously we are looking down on an eerily illuminated pyramid that, while seeming solid, also appears X-rayed so that we see into its sepulchral chambers. Here, as in other pieces, the form both looks and “feels” as if it contains energy. The pinwheels demonstrate velocity, and we seem spun to the center, the eye of a storm. Matter loses and gains radiance. Time, as rhythmic as a dancer’s movements through space, observably echoes and pulses.

The multi-conversions of space/time/matter/form can be disorienting, but essentially Altman offers resting places where a central focal point serves to center, situate, and orient us. The Hidden Dimension, a pyramid of two triangles each on the floor and wall, is particularly effective as a hypnotic zone that draws us to its “center”—the point in the corner where all sections meet. The height and width of each one, 63 inches, correspond to Altman’s height and armspan; the 71-hour completion time equals 254,126 square-inch-stroke-seconds. Whispered stroke-seconds (on a tape) seem to build a volume over the piece, adding to the once-again sculptural feeling of a two-dimensional work.

Altman has created a superbly succinct self-portrait in which her drawn and spoken “chants,” like a spell woven with sacred script and numbers, casts us into the concentrated mindlessness that was the artist’s. The aura of that extraordinarily private self-rendezvous almost makes us trespassers into a time and space that are singularly intimate; and yet the pyramid, in which we imagine ourselves both floating and feeling grounded (dreamy and secure), beckons . . .

Joanna Frueh