New York

Keith Tyson


“Fractal Dice,” British artist Keith Tyson’s recent exhibition at PaceWildenstein, was the result of a game—one that, like any game, came with a set of rules. Reproduced for visitors on sheets of graph paper, these rules indexed a system by which rolls of a die determined the sizes, shapes, and colors of sculptures. Following in the footsteps of Jean Arp, John Cage, and Luke Rhinehart (author of the 1971 cult novel The Dice Man), Tyson allowed chance to steer the decisions made en route to his works’ final appearances. And, as befit the hands-off approach, he played no part in the making of the fourteen aluminum-and-plastic sculptures shown here beyond sending the initial algorithm to the gallery last year, ordering their fabrication in the manner of László Moholy-Nagy dialing up his “Telephone Pictures.”

So what do the results of Tyson’s not-so-secret formula look like? The initial impression at Pace was of a barn (the gallery’s Twenty-second Street digs are among the most expansive in New York) strewn with mammoth Lego blocks; by limiting himself to straight lines and primary colors, the artist was tethered to a simple, quasi-constructivist look, however many permutations his master instructions may have yielded. The individual artworks might be called cube roots, since they all feature six elements branching off from foundational boxes. Each of these parts has five faces of its own that are then subject to the same randomizing process, resulting in three stages of formal mutation. And while each work is thus unique, it ends up being rather hard to describe the differences between them, the series’ basic elements being interchangeable by design.

Take Fractal Die: Fifteenth Roll and the nearby Fractal Die: Eighth Roll (both 2005–2008). The former is a wall-based variant in which one tight cluster of forms, dominated by upright beams in blue and yellow, is juxtaposed with a rogue yellow horizontal strip placed a short distance to the right. It’s a relatively restrained arrangement that is, like most of the entries in the series, strongly reminiscent of Mondrian and Richard Paul Lohse. Eighth Roll is a fractionally more exuberant affair. A freestanding setup, it is distinguished by a tall, slender, green and yellow column, around the base of which huddles a collection of shoe box–like components, seemingly adhered to one another. There is also a separate irregular m-shaped form that leans away from the main group at an ungainly angle.

The dozen other permutations on display served mainly to emphasize the potential endlessness flagged by the fractal of the project’s title, and the artist’s continuing interest in a kind of semiorganic process by which works are “grown” as much as constructed (there’s more than a hint of the crystalline about these objects). The efficacy of surrendering conscious control as a way of excising irrelevancies is of course one of Conceptual art’s founding tenets; cut away the distracting interferences of taste and “expression” and you get closer to the heart of an idea faster. Tyson has toyed with this strategy before—most notably via his 1995 Artmachine and its numerous unpredictable “iterations”—but “Fractal Dice” seems also to represent a back-to- basics refusal of the complication that made installations such as 2006’s Large Field Array so absorbing. For an artist committed to exploring the highways and byways of the creative process with a distinctive comprehensiveness, the series seems curiously, and disappointingly, one-note.

Michael Wilson