Perfect Imperfection

Julije Knifer at Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery

Using symmetry to create a work of art is one way that Mathematics can influence an artist. But what happens when an artists uses symmetry and then makes one small change to upset that symmetry? The resulting work can express very different and exciting dynamics. I saw an exhibition of work by Julije Knifer (1924-2004) at the Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery  in New York. Looking at Knifers drawings and paintings it is obvious that using reflection and rotational symmetries were a major aspect of his work.


APXL – Julije Knifer – 2003-04
Courtesy of Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery

In APXL made in 2003-2004 there is a vertical line of reflection symmetry, but what is also interesting is how each of the “S” like figures would have an order 2 rotational symmetry if the artist had not truncated the outer columns.

Knifer used some type of symmetry in a lot of the work on display at this exhibition, but in much of the work the perfect symmetries were in some way altered.


MK 69-43 – Julije Knifer – 1969
Courtesy of Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery

The figure in the painting MK 69-43 from 1969 has an unblemished order 2 rotational symmetry but the figure is not centered on the canvas. There is an interesting sense of tension in this canvas because of the imbalance.


MS 09 – Julije Knifer – 1962
Courtesy of Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery

In the painting MS 09 from 1962 there is a horizontal reflection line of symmetry running through the center of the figure except for two small lines. There is a line connecting the center columns at the top and a line connecting the two right columns at the bottom. These act like bridges connecting the columns.

What I find so interesting about these works is how they make me think about symmetry. At first I was not going to write about this exhibition because only one painting had a complete and clear symmetry. But I kept thinking about the paintings and drawings and after a while I realized that by creating these imperfect symmetries Knifer has given us a different but inspired way to look at symmetry. There is enough of a framework provided so the viewer is looking for order in the symmetries, but is thrown off balance. Maybe this uncomfortable imbalance is the perfection of this work.

Julije Knifer is is one of the most important Croatian artists of the 20th century. His work is in many museum collections including MOMA in NYC and has had exhibitions at The Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney Australia. In 2001 he was selected to represent Croatia at the Venice Biennale.

– Susan Happersett

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