The Islands of Benoît Mandelbrot

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The Islands of  

Benoît Mandelbrot:  

Fractals, Chaos, and the  

Materiality of Thinking 

Benoît Mandelbrot and 

Sigmund Handelman, 

programmer. Landscapes 

and Galaxies, series 

of forty-five, 1974–77. 

Polaroids. Collection 

Aliette Mandelbrot.

Exhibition Explores the  

Role of Images in Scientific Thinking

Featuring never before exhibited works on 

paper and objects including dynamic black 

and white drawings, computer print-outs, 

photographs, and computer-generated films

Focusing primarily on the work of one of the most 

notable mathematicians of the twentieth century, The 

Islands of Benoît Mandelbrot: Fractals, Chaos, and the Mate-

riality of Thinking, on view at the Bard Graduate Center 

from September 21, 2012 to January 27, 2013, explores 

the role of images in the development of what has 

become known as fractal geometry and chaos theory.  

Nina Samuel, a visiting assistant professor at the BGC, is 

the curator. Samuel, who received her PhD in art history 

from the Humboldt University of Berlin, is also an asso-

ciate member of Das Technische Bild in Germany and a 

former member of the Swiss national research program 

eikones/NCRR Iconic Criticism. 

For thousands of years, Western thought assumed 

that fundamental geometry consisted of regular, ideal 

forms, such as cubes, spheres, and cones, with straight 

or evenly curved faces and edges. Benoît Mandelbrot 

(1924–2010), however, explored mathematics as he 

saw it— in all its untidiness and irregularity, devoting 

himself to the study, for example, of the forms of the 

coastlines of real islands, with all their unpredictable 

inlets, creeks, and furrows. 

Mandelbrot, in other words, looked at the world. In 

so doing, he flouted what was in effect a prohibition 

pervading much of mathematical thinking against the 

use of visual representation. To reintroduce the visual, 

Mandelbrot took the groundbreaking step of harnessing 

the potential of computers, thereby transforming math-

ematics into an experimental science. The result was his 

invention of fractal geometry, a geometry of actuality 

rather than of abstraction, as exemplified in his classic 

work, The Fractal Geometry of Nature (1982). 

The notion of islands is central to Mandelbrot’s work, 

associated in his thinking with both the inspiring and 

the seductive role of images. They challenge his own 

Benoît Mandelbrot and Sigmund 

Handelman, programmer. “Carved 

Fractal Mountain,” ca. 1975–76. 

Metal object. Collection Aliette 

Mandelbrot. Photo: Bruce M. White.

Benoît Mandelbrot and Mark Laff, programmer. 

Investigations in the complex plane of cubic 

polynomials, series of over 150, 1979. IBM. 

Computer-generated print on photographic paper. 

Collection Aliette Mandelbrot. 

On view 

September 21, 2012– 

January 27, 2013

computer-generated images. These images are often aes-

thetically compelling even if they are initially scientifical-

ly impenetrable. This constitutes another revelation of 

the exhibition: the beauty of material thinking that can 

be found in the visual detritus of scientific investigation.  


The Islands of Benoît Mandelbrot: Fractals, Chaos, and the 

Materiality of Thinking is accompanied by a fully illus-

trated book with essays by Professor Samuel and mem-

bers of the German research group Das Technische 

Bild—Matthias Bruhn and Margarete Pratschke—as 

well as scholars Wladimir Velminski, Jan von Brevern, 

and Juliet Koss. Drawing new connections between 

the material world and that of mathematical ideas, the 

publication offers not only a rare glimpse at the arti-

factual terrain and graphic methodologies of Benoît 

Mandelbrot and his contemporaries but also investigates 

the role of scientific imagery in visual thinking across 

diverse disciplines. Published with Yale University Press 

(October 2012, paper, 160 color and b/w illustrations, 

172 pages), it will be available for $40 in the BGC gallery 

and through the Web site (

dictum that “seeing is believing” and point to the inter-

action between the hand and computer visualizations 

to generate new ideas. Frequently, the computer alone 

is unable to give an insight, and hand drawing becomes 

necessary for transforming a confusing computer image 

into a new idea or theory. 

At his death in 2010, Mandelbrot left a mass of idio-

syncratically organized drawings, computer print-outs, 

films, manuscript scribbles, objects, and polaroids in his 

office in Cambridge, Massachusetts— an extraordinary 

trove to which Mandelbrot’s wife, Aliette, generously 

allowed Professor Samuel access. “To explore it was like 

wandering through the mathematician’s brain,” said 

Samuel. “It was like witnessing the ephemeral traces of 

his very thought processes.” Selections from these mate-

rials form the core of the exhibition. 

Along with this rare look into Mandelbrot’s working 

process, sketches from his contemporaries—the French 

mathematician Adrien Douady and the German bio-

chemist Otto E. Rössler—will also be publicly exhibited 

for the first time. The work of the Massachusetts Insti-

tute of Technology meteorologist Edward N. Lorenz, 

a pioneer of chaos theory, will be represented by loans 

from the Library of Congress.

The Islands of Benoît Mandelbrot: Fractals, Chaos, and 

the Materiality of Thinking allows the viewer to question 

the idea that the illustration of a work must always be 

secondary to the work itself. On the contrary, substantive 

images often play generative roles in the scientific pro-

cess, constituting a kind of material thinking conducted 

by producing and interpreting visual traces, such as 

Benoît Mandelbrot and 

Alan Norton, program-

mer. Quaternion, 1980. 


prints on photographic 

paper. Collection Aliette 


Benoît Mandelbrot. Computer-generated prints with 

scribbles, undated. Collection Aliette Mandelbrot. 

Focus Gallery 

Drawing on the BGC’s academic and gallery programs, 

the Focus Gallery presents small-scale exhibitions 

primarily curated by faculty that embody ambitious 

research and teaching. Each exhibition is part of an 

academically innovative project that also includes gradu-

ate seminars, public programming, and publications 

both in print and online. Graduate students and gallery 

staff collaborate with faculty throughout the research, 

planning and presentation stages. Envisaged as a kind 

of laboratory, the Focus program promotes experimen-

tation in display, interpretation, and the use of digital 

media, and reflects the BGC’s commitment to exhibi-

tions as integral to scholarly activity.

The Islands of Benoît Mandelbrot: Fractals, Chaos, 

and the Materiality of Thinking  is part of a wider 

collaboration between the BGC and Das Technische 

Bild, based at the Humboldt University of Berlin.  

As part of the initiative, an English translation of the 

text, Das Technische Bild (Akademie Verlag, 2008), is 

being published in “Cultural Histories of the Material 

World,” the BGC’s book series with the University of 

Michigan Press.

Gallery Programs

Lectures, study days, gallery talks, and conversations 

are offered in conjunction with the exhibition. For 

more information, please call 212-501-3011 or e-mail

Exhibition Tours

Guided tours for adult and school groups are offered 

Tuesday through Friday between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. and 

on Thursdays until 7 p.m. Reservations are required for 

all group visits. To schedule a tour, please call 212-501-

3013 or e-mail

Benoît Mandelbrot and 

Alan Norton, programmer. 

Quaternion, 1983. Computer-

generated prints on 

photographic paper. Collection 

Aliette Mandelbrot.

The Bard Graduate Center Gallery is located in New 

York City at 18 West 86th Street, between Central Park 

West and Columbus Avenue. Gallery hours are Tuesday 

through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday 

from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. The admission fee is $7 general, 

$5 senior and students (valid ID); admission is free 

Thursday evenings after 5 p.m. For more information 

about the Bard Graduate Center and upcoming 

exhibitions, please visit 

For more press information and images, please 

e-mail or call 212-501-3074.

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