Human beings have been making art with numbers since the Paleolithic Era. Over 17,000 years ago, the world’s first known painters were caught red-handed making art in the caves of Lascaux, France. These early humans, with their hands pressed against the cave walls, blew red pigment over their outstretched fingers, leaving behind a high five to the future. Fourteen thousand years later, mankind used their fingers to settle on a number system divisible by five. Along the banks of the Nile River in ancient Egypt, men and women began counting to ten. Over 5,000 years have passed since then, and this same finger system continues to help artists make art with numbers.
Recently, on walls constructed by man, countless marks have been made to index time. You might see these walls in movies about prisoners who have no choice but to count their days in sets of four vertical lines crossed by a fifth line. This form of tally is called the “five bar gate” and is used in North America, Europe, and Australia. In 1971, the conceptual artist Mel Bochner created a drawing titled “Counting By Fives” consisting entirely of five bar gates. Covering a large sheet of graph paper, the gates were drawn hastily, in a manner that does not over-aestheticize the mark. In this drawing, Mr. Bochner does not specify what is being counted, nor do they add up to an amount of discernible significance. They exist only as hand drawn black marks on paper, leaving the viewer to assign them meaning.
Many years (and many Five Bar Gates) later, I made an artwork based on the five we all know and love, the Arabic numeral “5.” The work, titled “Magic Number Poncho (Five Fives),” (2009), is made of cotton and linen cloth and is adorned by a symbol made by joining five 5s together. The symbol’s shape, a pentagon, is echoed in the cut of the poncho and its neckline. The “Magic Number Poncho (Five Fives)” is made for lovers of five. The work is meant to be worn: slip your head through the pentagonal hole and let “Magic Number Poncho (Five Fives)” guide you through a tour of five-related works. First, there is Rebecca Horn’s performance, “Finger Gloves,” from 1972. Photographs from the performance show Horn wearing custom gloves that extend her fingers to over three feet in length. Next up is Mark Manders’ obsession with fives. In installation works and various peripheral pieces, Manders allowed himself to be subsumed by the number. He would fill rooms with scraps of paper, objects, and pictures all in sets of five or bearing the numeral 5. Manders became a virtual hoarder of five-related news articles, cooking pots, trash bags, chairs, and other quintuples.
I can see you are beginning to tire of the number five. Thankfully, I have a change of wardrobe for you. You see, I made a whole series of numerological works. Let the cloth of “Magic Number Poncho (Four Fours)” sit squarely across your shoulders. Let it bring to mind qualities associated with four. It is a solid number—static, rational, square, and foundational. These qualities can be found in Donald Judd’s comprehensive sculpture installations in Marfa, Texas. Visit the two artillery sheds he has converted into exhibition spaces to showcase 100 works in mill aluminum (1982-1986). In this installation, Judd created 100 aluminum boxes, set in row after row, each with the same outside dimensions but slightly varying interiors. The rectangular nature of these boxes is echoed in the long rectangular buildings they are set within, and furthermore by the boxcar train seen outside the window as it passes through town. An echoing of rectangles can be seen in Frank Stella’s painting “Tomlinson Court Park” from 1967 as it defines the limits of a four-sided canvas. By painting progressively smaller and smaller bands of black concentrically to the center of the canvas, Stella created an artwork about the confines of painting and its reliance on the four-sided picture plane. To escape Stella’s prison, you can stare meditatively at one of Agnes Martin’s eight-inch by eight-inch grids of carefully drawn lines from 1963.
When you bore of four, the triangular nature of “Magic Number Poncho (Three Threes)” will point you in the right direction. Follow the gallery walls until you find yourself in a corner, the point of a room where three planes conjoin. In this intersection, you will see Robert Morris’ “Untitled (Corner Piece)” from 1964, a painted plywood form that fits perfectly in the corner, creating a triangle that slopes down to the floor. The essence of number three can be understood through the corner as a place where the three planes of a room come together. Coming together—unity—is an essential power to three as this number can describe the whole of existence (“birth, life, and death”), and is the complete cycle of time (“past, present, and future”). The triangular three has come to represent equality and is used repeatedly in the iconic work “Dinner Party” by artist Judy Chicago from 1974-79. In this large-scale installation, Judy Chicago has created a dinner table in the shape of an equilateral triangle with each of its three sides measuring 48 feet. Upon the table are 39 place settings, each commemorating an important woman in history. Each setting consists of an individually-styled plate and embroidered runner specific to their role in history. One of these heroines, Hatshepsut, who lived from 1508-1458 BC, so happened to be the fifth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty of Ancient Egypt, the exact place they started counting on their fingers.
We could go on to “Magic Number Poncho (Two Twos)” and take two minutes to view Felix Gonzales-Torres’ “Untitled (Perfect Lovers),” (1991)—on the wall hang two identical clocks, generic in their appearance, white face with black numbers, both set to the exact same time. With their seconds hands ticking in unison these clocks, as indicated by the title, are in love. Two is the number of love.
I could go on and on. There are art works in virtually every movement of art history, in every medium, that reference numbers. And this is because numbers are embedded with deep meaning, and it is the artist’s job to read and respond to these universal codes. Numbers are both mundane and spiritual, because they exist no matter if god does or not. There had to be some way to describe the pattern that cropped up on the extremities of humanity’s hands—the five fingers—and where there’s meaning, there’s art. If you don’t believe me, count again.
Ry Rocklen is an artist living and working in Los Angeles.