These are photographs of artist Torkwase Dyson’s solo exhibition Scalar, curated by Anne Thompson, at the Suzanne Lemberg Usdan Gallery, Bennington College, in 2018. Dyson uses the visual language of abstraction as a site of artistic intervention for renegotiating the effect of aesthetics on defining infrastructures of social control and spatial politics. Heretofore unclassifiable, the compelling, generative character of her works offers potential for cultivating new aesthetic vocabularies toward remapping histories of art—and, by extension, redefining society.
At Bennington, Dyson’s creative and intellectual pursuits in aesthetics and abstraction gained ground in a series of newly commissioned works related to the long history of modernist abstraction at the college, with such figures as Pat Adams, Paul Feeley, Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski, and Tony Smith.
Smith was an instructor from 1958 to 1961, teaching courses in painting and architectural design. In 1961, aided by students, he built a huge, semi-architectural work based on the tetradecahedron. Bennington Structure (1961) was a three-dimensional illustration of his studies in the organic evolution of forms and structures found in nature, such as the close-packing principles in bubbles or the hexagonal formations in honeycomb.
Smith’s tenure at Bennington, and this work in particular, represent an important transitional moment in his career in which he began to move away from the applicable function of architectural design to experimentations in pure form. The affinity for modular constellations that informed his architecture of the 1950s would influence his teaching, and eventually, the “structures” he made would become sculptures—namely, the polygonal forms of the 1960s and ’70s for which he is best known.
Comparable to Smith, Dyson is interested in systems, mathematics, and geometries as ways to reflect artistically upon the properties of scale and dimension. Indeed, the term scaler, which she used as her exhibition title, refers to a quantity that has magnitude but no direction. In mathematics, a scaler is a single real number, attached to nothing, an entity all its own. It is without the constitutions and conditions of others. In art and in society, a scaler can be equated to abstraction—an ever-shifting, elusive mass: conceptual, material, spatial, social. Removed from the function to represent, abstraction becomes unstable and incomprehensible acquiring a political position in Dyson's artistic process toward, as she has stated, "African-American liberation."
While aspects of Scaler are in conversation with these histories at Bennington College, Dyson has remarked that she was not necessarily thinking through or with Tony Smith and his contemporaries so much as seeing them in terms of moments of abstraction to use towards other ends. Abstraction, in this light, is a fertile space for interrogating conventional aesthetics, for exploring how infrastructures thus write (and have progressively written out) histories in the processes of social and structural inequities. Scaler, then, as a suggestive exhibition title, offers both method and metaphor for the potential impact of developing infrastructures and thus new ways of defining history.
James Voorhies, January 11, 2022, New York