Clark Richert can be described as a painter, mathematician, social architect, and shelter maker. Since the 60s his artistic practice has moved between the creative currency of environmental and experimental communities and the isolation of his studio. To generate and apply his concepts for living and perceiving Richert has looked to some of the many principles and designs of the futurist polymath Buckminster Fuller.
Fuller remains an infinitely complex figure. Described as a quasi-universalist[i] his range of interests spanned from here to the moon. The self-taught Fuller found traction for original investigations into art, science, and design—all fields that Richert actively pursues—by largely operating outside academia. Richert, Head of the Painting Department at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, is an educated insider in the world of knowledge production and visual culture. The backgrounds of Fuller and Richert differ but it is through kinship with Fuller’s ideas of social and built structures that Richert’s work gains its historic grounding.
Many of the inventions and designs accredited to Fuller were based in the historic ideas of other mathematicians and inventors. For example, Fuller is known for inventing the geodesic dome. The dome arrived from Fuller’s observation of the wire-spoke wheel, a monopolar structure. It was Fuller’s student Kenneth Snelson at Black Mountain College who discovered the principle of multipolar tensegrity.[ii] From this principle Fuller created the Necklace Dome in 1949, named for the way it assembled like pearls on a necklace. The modular and mobile shelter design for the Necklace Dome was the predecessor to the geodesic dome.
To understand Richert’s relationship to Fuller we look in the quirky book Nine Chains to the Moon first published in 1938. In this early writing, Fuller put forward a range of proposals for life on what he called Spaceship Earth. He described one of his leading principles in this statement: “The very character of simple mathematics indicates that all progressions are from material to abstract, by which we mean intangibility, non-sensoriality, ephemeralization.”[iii] Ephemeralization, a way of seeking to do the most with the least, became one of Fuller’s main tenets, a way of seeking to do the most with the least. Here we find the geodesic dome structure—a lightweight, transportable, cost effective, reusable, and easy-to-assemble shelter. For Fuller, the geodesic dome was a mirror image of twentieth century industry. With its scientific human effort-coordination,[iv] the geodesic dome was a model of productive collectivity for a new society on Spaceship Earth.
Richert has been working with Fuller’s concepts such as ephemeralization and the mathematics of vector equilibrium (a basic building block of the universe) since his famed days at Drop City, a 1960s artist-driven commune in southern Colorado. At Drop City, handcrafted geodesic and other Fuller inspired geometric structures, such as Steve Baer’ Zome, were constructed for housing. Far afield from the plastic sheeting of Fuller’s Necklace Dome and his later airy geodesic domes, the artists of Drop City sealed Fuller’s pneumatic architectural design by building the domes from heavy found car parts. Success at Drop City relied on a certain degree of scrappiness; Richert, and the other artists, were progenitors of the now pervasive reclaim, recycle, and reuse movement. The artist’s designs for the rusticated and colorful auto-part-domes were elegant in concept and image. That image was architectural: a domesticated uniformity and utopian expression of human effort-coordination. The dome was also responsive to the conditions found in the open spaces of Colorado where weather disrupts without warning.
Drop City offers us a glimpse into Richert’s historical alignment with Fuller as a social architect and shelter maker, yet it also presents his most problematic narrative. Drop City was an experiment in collectivity, largely one about building and living in geodesic domes. Richert and fellow Droppers designed and built structures that were ecologically and environmentally forward thinking in relation to the complex social structure of Drop City. The communal living environment at Drop City has been criticized for easily falling along gender lines with women doing much of the domestic labor.[v] Perhaps examination of the sociopolitical dynamics at Drop City has been overshadowed by its image in photographic representation—the elegance of the dome design made evocative pictures. Pictures of the domes embolden a certain stereotypical narrative of the 1960s’ radical culture. In these limited photographic documents, mostly from the personal archives of various commune members, the domes read more as signs of utopian place-making than as living environments.
Beginning in the early 1960s artist-driven communities also emerged in neighboring northern New Mexico near Taos. Distinctions between the Colorado and New Mexico communities—worthy of noting in this brief essay—center on the types of shelter that each commune took as their symbolic and transformative model for a new society. At Drop City, artists occupied geodesic domes, an authored design of Buckminster Fuller. In 1979 Richert wrote, “We built ‘Drop City’ an experimental artists’ community incorporating Fuller’s structural ideas into the very houses we lived in.”[vi] The Taos experiments looked to vernacular adobe structures and ancient tepee dwellings both based on the anonymous designs of Native Americans. The Taos area communes were not drawn together on a singular site but they were identified with architecture that collectively engaged society.
What was it really like to live at Drop City? Expanding the story of Drop City might test the adaptability of Fuller’s ambition to achieve global equality through design solutions. Moreover using Drop City as a beta model could influence the rising tide of those looking to create new relational and participatory conditions. Richert’s own ambition is to recreate Drop City into a twenty-first century version called Artists Residential Environmental Area (AREA). With Richert’s design of AREA he moves beyond Fuller’s Dome, but still holds to his credo of empheralization with an architecture that remains easily built.
Most important to thinking about the relationship between Richert and Fuller is the question: does ephemeralization offer us a way of looking at art? As an artist, Clark Richert explores the limits of spatiality and human perception by painting motifs often set in an ineffable Rothko-blue. The coloration of Richert’s paintings has remained consistent with the palette of Rothko and other Abstraction Expressionists. However, Richert breaks with the emotional expressiveness of those colors by limiting them to a contained sensuality, a displayed math. This turning of the abstract into a concrete definition of the physical world is straight-up Fuller.
Unlike the seemingly infinite configurations of the neckless-geometry for geodesic domes, on canvas, Richert’s geometry is held in space by four corners with little depth. Here, he creates a sense of the physically perceptible reality that expresses the aesthetics of Fuller’s ephemeralization—lean and efficient in its materiality. We also see Richert’s mathematical ego-system as more materially congruent and abstract than what Fuller might have considered creating. In Richert’s work, worlds of lush content create a visual mobility that cannot be contained in a mere image.
Richert was once aligned with the 1970s’ movement Pattern & Decoration through the journal Criss-Cross. Wanting to move pattern beyond its historic theoretical associations with the mechanistic and rule bound, the contributors to Criss-Cross often argued the term. Here the term pattern worked into two directions: the histories of craft such as knitting where stitches follow universal rules and processes hewn to nature, science, or mathematics. To Richert, pattern could be emptied of the procedural towards more conceptual terrain. In Criss-Cross Richert wrote, “the paintings are illustrations of a theory; the theory is an attempt to describe reality as patternistic.” [vii] To Richert, the term patternistic is plastic. By deploying patterns in the paintings Richert creates aesthetic recognitions of complex information. In a way, Richert foresaw this era of post-visualists, adaptors of complex visual information systems seen through patternistic digital fields. Today the patternistic has become the mechanism or processor of reality—interaction, interpretation, and consumption.
Publics now call for works that utilize the tactics of realism—site specific location; e.g., we are in a museum having a museum experience—to create a sense of hyperspace that is in reality an illusion; we are not in a museum, we are somewhere else. Often produced through redacted artificial light these works can generate a naturalness that draws audiences into the performance of seeing. Two main artists working with these techniques are James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson. While Richert’s illusions are produced from paint not light, making them something other than the environmental installations of Turrell or Eliasson, they aim to achieve the same ocular fantasy, a type of perfection of perceiving and reacting. According to Richert, “Humans are under an evolutionary pressure to absorb larger and more complex orders of information, and that this absorption is a necessity for survival does not seem an overstatement. Pattern work is, possibly, one of the means by which complexity can be brought within a human scale and can be understood directly as perceptual experience.”[viii] To Richert post-visual reality cannot be encapsulated in momentary and singular aesthetic experiences, it exists in a world of coordinated human-effort.
October 28, 2013
[i]Joachim Krausse, Claude Lichtenstein eds.,Your Private Sky: R. Buckminster Fuller: The Art of Design Science (Baden: Lars Müller Publishers and Museum für Gestaltung Zurich, 1999), 11-20.
[ii] The multipolar tensegrity principle moves Fuller’s findings in the wire-spoke wheel from monopolar to multipolar. “ Fuller stated, “I saw that the exterior of the equatorial compressional island rim-atoll of the wire wheel must be cross-sectionally in tension as also must be its hub-island’s girth.” Krausse, 326.
[iii] R. Buckminster Fuller, Nine Chains to the Moon (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), 256.
[iv] Fuller. “Patrons of Art: Death and Life,” Nine Chains to the Moon. 110.
[v] Eva Díaz, Under the Dome Architecture of Networked Engagement from Drop City to Rockaway Beach, July 25, 2013. http://rhizome.org/editorial/2013/jul/25/under-dome-drop-city-rockaway-beach/
[vi] Clark Richert, “Clark Richert” Criss-Cross #10, September 1979, 33.