An ordered universe

Colorado artist Clark Richert blends art and math to understand reality

Phi Tesserae
Courtesy of MCA Denver

In David Foster Wallace’s book Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, he attempts to explain the possibility of constructing proof of a fourth dimension with a simple framework. He explains to the reader how a 2D drawing of a cube serves as an example of how one could create a 3D model of a hypothetical fourth spatial dimension. As he tries to connect the dots, Wallace shows how maddeningly complex these theories can be. 

“You can feel, almost immediately, a strain at the very root of yourself, the first popped threads of a mind starting to give at the seams,” he writes. 

Currently, this quote graces the wall of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (MCA), serving as a spot-on description of the work of artist Clark Richert. Throughout his career, Richert has joined the ranks of those curious about unknown dimensions. This concept hasn’t just drawn the likes of scientists and mathematicians, but also writers like Wallace and artists like Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. 

By looking at math and science through an artistic perspective, Richert uses his work to delve into hyperdimensions, geometry, systematic patterning and more. 

“He has this tenacity in the pursuit of his ideas that has never waned,” says Zoe Larkins, curator at MCA Denver. “He has an interest and affinity for math and science, and he has this willingness to transgress what many people would think are the boundaries of visual art in the pursuit of his vision. … He’s an incredibly good painter as well as a brilliant thinker and brilliant at manifesting his ideas in visual forms.”

Richert has been a staple of the Colorado artistic community for half a century. During that time, Richert has been a prolific artist, and his work is now the focus of two concurrent retrospectives: Clark Richert: Pattern and Dimensions, guest curated by Cortney Lane Stell and now at Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA) through Sept. 15, and Clark Richert in hyperspace at MCA Denver through Sept. 1. The exhibits encapsulate the artist’s career and feature Richert’s initial dabbling with abstraction, his career-long focus on geometry and his experimentation with figure drawing. 

Courtesy of MCA Denver ‘Black Mountain College,’ by Clark Richert

Originally from Kansas, Richert moved to Colorado in the ’60s. Larkins credits him as one of the founders of the contemporary art community in Colorado with art collectives like Drop City, The Armory Group and Criss Cross. He helped start Edge Gallery in Boulder and Spark Gallery in Denver. And he also 28 years as a professor at Rocky Mountain College of Art Design, retiring just recently. 

With the show at MCA, Larkins wanted to focus on Richert’s talent as an artist, which frequently gets overlooked. 

“Very concisely, I’d say he’s one of the people who brought a more experimental tendency to art in Colorado,” she says. “And he is a painter. So many people here know him for his teaching and Drop City. Not a lot of people know he’s been painting since the beginning of his career. So the exhibition does really reassert him as that.” 

Art has been a lifelong interest for Richert. But the tendency toward math and science in his work is by no means random. 

“I grew up in a very mathematical household. My father was a math teacher, my brother was a mathematician, my other brother was a physicist and my sister was a medical doctor,” Richert says. “So the whole household was kind of scientific and mathematical. I grew up in that setting, and then I decided to be an artist, taking the opposite approach. But then [eventually] my early exposure to mathematical ideas emerged.” 

Courtesy of BMoCA Clark-Richert welcomes Opening Reception guests

It was a burgeoning artistic movement that captured Richert’s imagination and rerouted his path. 

“When I was in high school, I came across the work of abstract expressionists, which was the art movement that was happening in New York at the time, and I got very excited,” he says. “So for my final semester in high school I dropped all my science and math courses and enrolled in art courses.” 

This interest is documented in pieces from the early ’60s currently on display at BMoCA that show his artistic prowess and establish that Richert was on his way to becoming an abstract artist. When looking to further develop his talents, he moved to Boulder to get a master’s of fine art from the University of Colorado, where he also took inspiration from renowned experimental filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Bruce Conner. 

From the start, Richert was curious about dimensionality. While “dimensionality” might sound like a concept best found in a textbook, a simple painting is an example of a dimensional enigma. Many paintings depict a three-dimensional image, but a painting itself is a flat, two-dimensional surface. This paradox interested Richert and would become a foundational element in his work.

Courtesy of MCA Denver “Melencholia” by Clark Richert

He made “Blue Room” in 1964 as a way to analyze the idea of a canvas or artwork as a container of space, Larkin says. The painting depicts a window looking into a room with another window on the opposite wall.

“Clark [Richert] very much engaged in using abstraction to call attention to the flatness of a painting’s surface,” Larkin says. “In that way, [‘Blue Room’] sets us up to contemplate the types of spaces artists create whether on canvas, in drawings or in three dimensions.”

Another factor that contributed to Richert’s lifelong artistic trajectory was a lecture at the 1965 Conference on World Affairs. Inventor and architect Buckminster Fuller delivered a presentation on topics including synergy and a design for a geodesic dome, which is a hemispherical structure composed of triangles — think “Spaceship Earth” at Epcot Center. These theories coalesced into Fuller’s notion of higher-dimensional space, including the fourth dimension. 

Richert was intrigued by Fuller’s ideas about design and efficient use of space. At the time Richert and friends were coming together to start Drop City, an art collective in Trinidad. When making the physical building for the group, Richert created his own geodesic dome.

“The dome was initially going to provide housing and studios, and what we were going to do in the domes was make art,” Richert says. “But being in the domes, in the actual structure, the geometry of the dome affected my thinking about art.”

From then on, his art took a systemic approach. Richert has experimented with patterning and geometry, like his work in the mid-’70s to mid-’80s with another art collective called Criss Cross. Richert and others were inspired by patterns found in mathematics, chemistry, technology and music. While these paintings are flat, they appear three-dimensional with a longer look. 

This ping-ponging between 2D and 3D helped to move Richert closer to the idea of 4D. This thread of investigation continues with Richert’s most recent paintings from the last decade. 

At first look, the paintings might feel unrelated to everyday life. But the patterns are all based on naturally occurring systems found in the world, and Richert believes these systems show how we live in an ordered universe. He explores this thought using the periodic table in his piece “Argon.” 

“The periodic table was developed by Dmitri Mendeleev, and he [correctly] predicted the placement of elements in this table that had not yet been discovered. And I think that’s a huge part of why Clark is fascinated with it,” Larkins says. “The periodic table is a system that explained the organization and structure of these elements in the natural world. Basically, it’s predictive. Therefore, it continues to systemize organic phenomena, even beyond those it already categorizes. That speaks to Clark’s understanding of there being structures that govern everything, and that we can predict characteristics of the world based on patternistic, organizational mechanisms.”

These underlying orders serve to point to unknown realities, like that of a fourth dimension. 

These concepts can feel intimidating to a layperson, especially in an art museum. And Richert realizes his audience might struggle to grasp the theories he works with, but he hopes people can still enjoy his work regardless. 

“I know I work with structures that people don’t understand,” Richert says. “But I love the work of Bach, and I don’t understand his structures. I just like his work without understanding the structure.” 

Art shares a common goal with math and science. Each field of discipline strives to broaden our understanding of the world. Throughout his artistic career, Richert has strove to do just that. 

“I think the best art is art that helps us see differently and changes our perspective,” Larkins says. 

As any artist, Richert applies his lens to the world, offering a unique viewpoint. His work yearns for a deeper comprehension of the everyday patterns and unknown spatial measures — ultimately working toward a better understanding of the world around us.    

ON THE BILL: ‘Clark Richert In Hyperspace.’ Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, 1485 Delgany St., Denver, Through Sept. 1. 

‘Clark Richert: Pattern and Dimensions.’ BMoCA, 1750 13th St., Boulder. Through Sept. 15. 

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