Yale Professor Emeritus Edward Tufte is an expert on the connection between the eye and the brain. His theories on graphic display and information design have had a pervasive impact on our digitized globe; his insights on how we visualize and mentally process data are of fundamental relevance to Microsoft, NASA, and Wall Street. Though it seems highly unusual, it should probably be of little surprise that this influential thinker—the New York Times has compared him to da Vinci—is also a serious artist. And so, if only because of his supremacy in the realm of visual cognition, his artwork attracts our attention and even sparks our hope for a paradigm-nudging learning experience.
Tufte admits that his sculptures are premised, at least in part, on his specialized research in how we think: “Many people nowadays do almost all their visual reasoning and analytical thinking while staring at the glowing rectangles of flatland computer screens,” says Tufte. “I’m trying to suggest ways of seeing effectively in spaceland (and time) that are as intense as the seeing now done largely on flatland screens.”
“Flatland” is Tufte’s word for visual awareness that is derived from paper and computer screens and thus fixated on the duality of figure and background. Appropriately, his first large-scale sculptural work, which was made 10 years ago, is titled Escaping Flatland. The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum is currently presenting the first exhibition of Tufte’s three-dimensional works, “Seeing Around,” including 18 immense outdoor installation pieces. A treatise on sculpture by the artist accompanies the show and details his discoveries: “Sculptors assess the airspaces surrounding the piece, as well as the multiple silhouettes generated by the piece against a background of sky and land.” Tufte’s own need to modulate the silhouettes that are apprehended by strolling visitors led him to reshape the topography of the Aldrich’s sculpture garden, replanting dozens of trees along the museum’s circumference.
Tufte deems the narrative aspects of his works less important than the more basic facts of their existence. “Sculptures are artworks that cast shadows,” he writes. He describes his 25-ton Rocket Science 2 (Lunar Lander), whose weathering steel fuselage is decked with insulation panels recycled from a nuclear power plant, as “a high industrial fruitcake.” The humorous metaphor seems fitting—not only because of the indeterminate fruitcakelike timespan to which the work refers, but also as a mordant capsulation of 20th-century nuclear peril. Tufte, however, sidesteps such “storytelling,” and prefers more grounded descriptions: “The intersection of sculpture and land activates the nearby airspace, and serves as a pivot for shadows flowing around the piece as the Earth rotates.”