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21  |   E A R T H  A I R  F I R E  W A T E R  Æ T H E R
Five panels, 1992
Collage, cut-and-pasted paper on wood  
Each 100 x 100 cm.


In early 1992, I decided to conclude the long series of collage works I’d begun a decade and a half before, by completing just one more group of square “black” panels. On each of them, the concrete surface structure—a pattern, in relief, of concentric squares very similar to that in HERE AND NOW—was to play off an illusionistic representation of one of the Platonic solids that had also been created in two dimensions, using printed paper. What I had in mind was to create images akin to the delicately hand-colored renderings of geometric bodies Leonardo da Vinci had produced for Luca Pacioli’s De divina proportione (a work in which the pertinent passages are generally accepted to have been appropriated from Piero). But what sort of printed matter could provide the exceedingly fine nuances of shade and tint I needed to model the five forms in such a manner?

Over the years, I had discovered that what tended to yield the most paper snippets per page—a major consideration when you are thinking in terms of making weight in kilograms—were the backgrounds of the full-page, upscale advertising that ran in the magazines from which I’d been gleaning material for my “black” and “white” collages. Sometimes, such ads showed off their objects of desire against a backdrop of gradually shifting light and shadow: transitions that, until now, had made those pages useless as sources of material for my monochrome collages, but which here proved ideal for depicting my “skeletonic” Platonic solids—bodies whose edges are solid, that is, and faces void . Using these delicate tints and subtle shadings, I was able to model each of the five figures’ rims, hollows, and perspectives in muted shades of grey out of what was au fond photographed light—light drawn by light—which also goes a long way toward explaining the work’s unsettling, “photographic” quality.

When they were finished, the five panels of EARTH AIR FIRE WATER ÆTHER entered into “Platonic dialogue” with the earlier wall-piece TIMEO, a dialogue in which, surprisingly enough, these two-dimensional shapes—bodies demonstrably devoid of significant mass—seemed more insistent in their plasticity than the actual, tangible objects hanging in TIMEO’s cabinet—so much so, indeed, that even I, as their author, have difficulty resisting the suggestion of three-dimensional space expressed in these “reconstituted photographs” of the regular polyhedral solid: images of archetypical forms contrived wholly of what once was light.

EARTH AIR FIRE WATER ÆTHER with TIMEO at the Berlinische Galerie in Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, 1992.

If you have read the above catalogue entries, you will by now need little convincing either of my preoccupation with these ideal forms or of the fact that I credit them with possessing the key to some kind of arcane wisdom. At the very least, they provide a gateway to an ineluctable gladness and delight of spirit. Through the millennia, and stretching from Pythagoras and Plato to the artist and geometer Piero, and far beyond, the list of those whose not insignificant mental capacities were spent on comprehending these bodies’ mysteries is long and illustrious. Indeed, a century after Leonardo lived and studied with Luca Pacioli—and rendered the fabled illustrations for his book—the allure of the five elemental forms’ perfection could still beguile, no, obsess, a mind as great as that of Johannes Kepler.

From the regular solids’ “divine” proportions and perfection, Kepler deduced—and insisted on believing—that some as yet opaque mathematical manipulation could reveal the manner in which the spheres described by the polyhedra and those by which they were themselves described, matched, or at least explained, the orbits of the six then-known planets round our sun. Indeed, after years of calculation and conjecture had failed to prove him right, he was still loath to spurn his pet conviction that a theory of such consummate beauty must, by rights, be true.

But that is the way one deals with one’s  darlings—and, I’m afraid, with one’s “old shoes” as well. Which is by way of saying that creating EARTH AIR FIRE WATER ÆTHER was, of course, not to be the last time I used my well-worn collage technique after all. In the spring of 1994, I created the “black” surface patterns of the three-dimensional forms of PAR using cut-and-pasted printed paper ; and five years later, the process gave shape, figuratively and literally, to the “white” background settings of the objets trouvés in the wall-piece-in-five-parts that I called IO; MAKING US WORD followed in 2001, as did LIGHT and CUCKOO in 2002—ten years after I’d finished my “very last” collages.