Press Releases

Date of Release: 
Thursday, May 14, 2015
Contact Info: 

Erika Monroe-Kane, Director of Communications
608.257.0158 x 237 or

Order and Disorder Exist Harmoniously in Coordinates

Order and Disorder Exist Harmoniously in Coordinates

New Exhibition on View June 6 through August 23, 2015

Opening Reception, June 5 from 6 to 9 pm


 MADISON, WI—Coordinates draws upon the museum’s permanent collection to examine the use of numbers in modern and contemporary art. The word “coordinates” refers to a numerical system, developed by René Descartes in the seventeenth century, to locate a point on a plane or in space.  Numbers are for counting, measuring, labeling, coding, and theorizing on reality. Galileo, the father of modern physics, famously declared that “Nature is writ in number.” Without number, he continued, “one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth.”

Artists have long explored numbers and systems, utilizing them, eschewing them, and delving into their meaning; a tradition modern and contemporary artists have continued. Coordinates charts this exploration through the work of Alice Aycock, Jennifer Bartlett, John Cage, Al Held, Claes Oldenburg, Sol LeWitt, and Donald Lipski, among others. By incorporating grids, perspective systems, mappings, diagrams, and even images of randomness, many artists continue to create works of art poeticized by numbers.


Components of larger systems, numbers originated in ancient Mesopotamia and became foundational elements in mathematics and its various branches, including arithmetic and geometry. They have been critical to the symbolic languages of philosophy, religion, and the sciences, which attempt to describe the underlying, often mystical, nature of reality. Numbers have also had a major place in the history of art. They have shaped proportional systems for rendering the human figure, architectural designs, and the world around us—both visible and invisible.

In Lane Hall and Lisa Moline’s Four Corners (1999) a political map, situated behind a superimposed and seemingly out-of-place image of a chair, shows four southwestern states whose latitudinal and longitudinal boundaries meet at a quadripoint. Adjacent to this simple map of governmental borders is a very different kind of system. A more complex polar coordinates graph paper is used to situate the constellations in the nighttime sky, thereby contrasting the clearly understood terrestrial geography in the adjacent panel with a more mysterious celestial realm.

Playing upon the logical conventions of Renaissance linear perspective, Sylvia Plimack Mangold complicates the deceptively simple space of her 1974 watercolor.  The diagonal lines of the floor planks and two base boards do not converge on a single vanishing point but rather send the eye out of the framed image in various directions. The logical spaces in these works, with their underlying numerical systems, are challenged in William Weegee’s Cowomonoco (1979). A filigree web of darting, multicolored lines conjures up a world incapable of exact measurement, one defined, perhaps, by the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics.

Coordinates was organized on the occasion of an international humanities conference hosted by the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities. This year’s theme, “Humanities by the Numbers,” provides an entry point to discuss the variety of ways in which numbers have a place in the humanities.


Funding for Coordinates has been generously provided by The DeAtley Family Foundation; Sara Guyer and Scott Straus; Nancy and Tom Mohs; Sara Guyer and Scott Straus; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and National Endowment for the Arts; and MMoCA Volunteers.


Housed in a soaring, Cesar Pelli designed building, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art provides free exhibitions and education programs that engage people in modern and contemporary art. The galleries offer changing exhibitions that feature established and emerging artists. The Rooftop Sculpture Garden provides an urban oasis with an incredible view. The museum is open: Tuesday–Thursday: noon – 5pm; Friday

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