ESCHER IN SPACE: ANTON BAKKER, “VIRTUAL REALITY SCULPTOR” OF THE HAMPTONS VIRTUAL ART FAIR
By Peter Frank
In a year crowded with surprises and calling for innovation, the Hamptons Art Fair has metamorphosed into the Hamptons Virtual Art Fair, an on-line version of the vibrant tent fair that has been a Hamptons summer highlight for the last decade. Since we can’t safely come to the tent, the tent has been brought to us.
No offering at the Virtual Art Fair may be more appropriate to the on-line alignment than Walker Fine Arts’. For years, at exhibitions around the United States and globally, Rock J. Walker has advocated for the work of famed Dutch printmaker M. C. Escher. As owner of one of the largest collections of Escher’s intricate graphics in the world — a collection that brims with discoveries for even the most enthusiastic Escher fan — Walker has striven not just to keep the artist popular among the general public, but to demonstrate the substance and profundity of the work in the eyes of the art world.
The latter has been a harder sell than the former. The appeal of Escher’s optical gamesmanship, enhanced by his graphic exactitude, has engaged and even inspired lovers of paradox and lovers of precision alike — to the point where many art sophisticates have isolated and dismissed Escher as puzzle-playing kitsch. Walker’s presentations argue against that regard: they show the artist in full retrospect, featuring not only his best-known and most elaborate prints, but his earlier, more straightforward but no less masterful works, including landscapes and architectural studies realized during Escher’s youthful sojourn in Italy. Where possible, Walker pairs prints with original drawings to illuminate the development of a visual idea and its transfer from visual notation to finished image.
Science and mathematics – notably the science and mathematics of human perception – are at the heart of Escher’s aesthetic, even his ethos, and this relationship with natural knowledge speaks to us at a time when we feel acutely dependent on, and uncertain of, such knowledge. There may be no cure for COVID-19 at the core of Escher’s oeuvre, and only the glimmerings of climatic calamity (he died in 1972), but his life and work spanned the machine age and the nuclear age, so he knew that his species was capable of remarkable invention and terrible destruction, such as the Internet now affords us. Escher built his pictures equally on effects of the natural world and of the human one – and in particular on those phenomena where the natural and the human conflate, where human nature is revealed to be part of nature overall.
M. C. Escher is the featured artist in the Walker Fine Arts virtual booth. In a separate space the gallery collaborates with the Hamptons Art Fair itself to present a sculptor who might be called Escher’s artistic “grandson.” Anton Bakker, a Dutch-born resident of Norfolk, Virginia, never met Escher, but was close with, and inspired by, someone who had. As a student of mathematics, Koos Verhoeff, a family friend of the Bakkers’ and father figure to Anton, had several mostly informal meetings with Escher, sharing with the artist a passion for solid geometry, paradoxical relationships, and other mathematical phenomena. Later in life Verhoeff, well known in Holland as a computer scientist, began fashioning in three dimensions the elaborate but logical geometric structures proposed by Escher in two. Verhoeff passed on to Bakker his Escherian concepts and passion for a mathematically driven art. After his own successful career in data management, Bakker, until then a “Sunday sculptor” like his mentor, turned full time to the realization of mathematically grounded sculpture.
As opposed to Verhoeff’s relatively rough-hewn objects, Bakker’s evince an elegance that emulates not only Escher’s mathematical thinking, but his seamless execution as well. Symmetry is key to Bakker’s mindset: as he professes, he seeks a “dynamic symmetry,” in which form remains balanced from whatever angle the object is perceived, but the form itself changes radically. The loops, curves, and interlacings of Bakker’s “Path Perspective” series, for example, propose a graceful kinesis from any given angle — but from one angle the confident swoops can describe a bulbous, almost botanic form, while from another those sensuous waves align with and hide one another to describe a nearly perfect square. The viewer’s position relative to the object does not have to change that much to effect that much change. All these forms, and their seemingly infinite changeability, result from Bakker inscribing a single line across a lattice – a three-dimensional grid – connecting edge and join points in spatial patterns.
This is the same kind of optical magic, part biology, part architecture, and part choreography, that animates Escher’s pictures, both the famous illusory works of his postwar period and the relatively conventional earlier works. And, like Escher’s, these conjurations strain the possibilities of the physical, almost demanding a virtual presentation that allows them space to unfurl and space to breathe. Indeed, taking advantage of his digital experience and resources, Bakker has designed a virtual space for the sculptures’ display. Currently, many of his works are on view in a virtual reconstruction he has made of New York’s Museum of Mathematics gallery space. But for the Hamptons Virtual Art Fair he has devised a much more ambitious presentation, a grandly scaled space modeled on classic European buildings that have been repurposed as museums. This has earned Bakker the appellation of “VR Sculptor of the Fair” – that is, the designated virtual-reality object-maker (and space-maker) of the virtual-reality art fair. The virtual surreality of M. C. Escher’s art has been re-embodied here, at two degrees of separation, by his countryman Anton Bakker.