It's odd that at just the moment in time that time is freezing in moments, that things are becoming more visible and definable, that the world of art, in its way, became less so. Etienne Marey and Ed Muybridge displayed the acts of motion in slivers of itself, captured and presented for study, images that had never been seen before, while shortly after this William S. Hart transformed their intellectual heritage and wrestled it into train robbers and kissing thieves at 16 frames per second. And just as the segmentation of motion had reached it highest modern heights, Marcel Duchamp, the great artist-like chess master and comedian, presented the world, in 1912, with his Nude Descending. This painting continued on the steady track laid down in the 1860's by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, building on their sense images, their descending denial of "detail", and made the human figure almost disappear.
It was Wassily Kandinsky in the next year who actually made everything disappear--everything that is but color and disparate forms. In his painting Improvisations there were no human or natural forms--it was the first non-representational painting in history, with nothing at all being recognizable in his epochal work, showing people for the first time the "other" side of the mirror. Making things disappear, en plein air, performing an emparquementage, if you will, is truly quite a work of art.
Kandinsky tried to relate the philosophy of his approach in an inner-secretive, mysterious, occulty work called Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912). It is a lovely book, with thick paper, very wide margins, beautifully printed, sumptuous even (in the original)--but it makes the innovation of his art ever more unreachable, more wispy--smoke without color, at least for me. The great Kasimir Malevich made a similar attempt with similar results--at least, again, to me--trying to explain how he eliminated natural forms and replaced them with rectangles, squares and circles. Later, Malevich would begin to replace color, working in white. He was sublime.
Disappearance is not necessarily sublime. Ralph Alpher and Bob Herman got disappeared. With George Gamow they hypothesized the Big Bang and predicted where the remnant of the heat of the explosion (the so-called background radiation) would, could, be found. Alpher and Herman were basically correct in thei research (over the period of 1939-1949 figuring it would be about 5-degrees Kelvin), but were basically a little sleepy over their results, or at least until the numbers proved out to be good, when the background radiation was “discovered” in 1964 by Penzias and Wilson with the Big Ear at Bell Labs in Holmdel, NJ. It all bore out, except, of course, their contribution—Penzias and Wilson got the Nobel for their work, and Alpher and Herman got, well, nothing. (For a long, lovely article about Alpher see fellow Asheville resident Joe D'Agnese's article in Discover.)
Penzias and Wilson did arrive at their findings independently of A+H, but that’s another story—that they were “Gone”, even when their contributions were made known in the thrill of the more modern discovery, was just not right. I met Alpher and Herman together in the late ‘80’s, coming into my store for a visit with books. Herman was pleasant and chuckly; Alpher, not. His pissed-offedness at the sleight of the background radiation work shone right through when discussing Penzias and Wilson. Herman was philosophical in discussing the great oversight: “Yes, this is true, but we’ve been given plenty of honors since then”, he smiled, content. “Um. Yes. But not the Big One”, garumped Alpher.
Einstein too slipped away a bit in what could have been a moment of monumental insight. Max Wertheimer, a colleague of Einstein’s who had a background in physics and was one of the founders of German gestalt psychology, had a chapter in a book of his called “Einstein: the Thinking that Went into General Relativity”. The chapter is coercively bland; basically nothing. Too bad, since Wertheimer was present at the creation, was friends with Einstein, had some sort of background and grasp for the material, and was a trained observer. The great historian Arthur I. Miller in his book Insights of Genius: Imagery and Creativity in Science and Art (Copernicus, Springer-Verlag, 1996) thought the *promise* of the chapter heading to be phenomenal—he was deeply disappointed with the very little that was offered, which was basically a gestalt interpretation of E’s being at the time. (And psychology happened to be a “science” that Einstein would not admit into the scientific field—he had little use for the discipline.) The creativity, the intuition, the explanation, of some of the most creative thinking of the century, which was most probably on display for Wertheimer, was lost. Disappeared.
Sometimes when things disappear they illuminate, as in the case of Kandinsky and Malevich and Duchamp and company. Sometimes when they disappear we see the forms of the missing, making them further suggestive and capable of initiating inquiry. (A very bald example being The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse, a work by south-Philly-born-Emmanuel Radnitzky, otherwise known as Man Ray, the great Dadist, photographer and Rayographer, and 40 years before the work of Christo. He made Ducasse disappear and become mysterious by wrapping up a singer sewing machine, creating art and inquisition.)
And sometimes when things disappear, they just, well, disappear.
I can heartily recommend the following books by Arthur Miller, who has a very deep knowledge of numerous fields, and who brings them beautifully to bear in his books, as follows:
Empire of the Stars: Friendship, Obsession and Betrayal in the Quest for Black Holes (Little Brown, UK edition; Houghton Mifflin, USA edition, 2005).
Shortlisted for the Aventis Prize
Einstein and Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty that Causes Havoc (Perseus Books, 2001). Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Insights of Genius: Imagery and Creativity in Science and Art (Springer-Verlag, 1996 cloth; MIT Press, 2000 paperback).
Albert Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity: Emergence (1905) and Early Interpretation (1905-1911) (Addison Wesley, 1981: new edition SpringerVerlag, 1998)
Imagery in Scientific Thought: Creating 20th-Century Physics (Birkhäuser, 1984; MIT Press, 1986; reprinted 2003, Dover Publications)
Frontiers of Physics: 1900-1911 (Birkhäuser, 1986)
Early Quantum Electrodynamics: A Source Book (Cambridge University Press, 1994)
Editor, Sixty-Two Years of Uncertainty: Historical, Philosophical and Physical Inquiries into the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics (Plenum Press, 1990)