A Reflection on Math, Art and Meaning

A photo of Alex Semendinger, Class of 2018, who is re?ected in the glass covering Jim Dine’s Tool Box 3, in his senior-year dorm room.

Alex Semendinger ’18, who is reflected in Jim Dine’s Tool Box 3, in his senior-year dorm room.

During his first semester at Williams, mathematics major Alex Semendinger ’18 borrowed a work of art from the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) to hang on his dorm room wall. He initially participated in the Williams Art Loan for Livings Spaces (WALLS) program because he couldn’t believe the college would lend works of art to students, and he wanted to get in on it. Soon, he was hooked. He loved having a piece of art to study closely over the course of several months, and he decided to participate every semester. As he explains in the following essay, Semendinger, who was also the music director of the a cappella group The Aristocows, came to find the experience central to his education.

Countless things about me changed during my time at Williams, but throughout there was one constant—and it was like a soundtrack to my education. Each semester I was here, I borrowed a work of art from the WCMA WALLS program. Each semester, I got to engage with a piece of art that was there when I was studying for an exam, writing an essay or—most recently—learning how to juggle. These works have formed the background of my college experience. So, in a move of nostalgia, a desire for even more time with one piece, or a combination of both, I selected for the final semester of my senior year the same artwork I borrowed my very first semester. The experience has deepened my connection with the piece and with this place I’ve called home for the last four years.

That first fall, I pitched my tent and gathered with dozens of other students outside the museum on a warm September evening to secure a good place in line for WALLS pickup the next morning. I knew what I was there for—I had walked through the gallery several days before and was struck by Tool Box 3 by Jim Dine. Since I was sixth in line, I went straight to it when the museum doors opened at 9 a.m. I was drawn to the work’s stark simplicity and the eye-catching contrast of the red on black on off-white. As I stared at it, I searched for meaning but found the piece resistant. It felt almost empty, like its expansive, blank background. But it was an inviting emptiness, calling out to be filled with meaning. It seemed a perfect piece to accompany my first semester in this new place, at a time I was ready to reflect whatever meaning I might find for myself.

As I honed in on a mathematics major, always with a museum piece on my wall, I came to realize that math is fundamentally an artistic exercise. My courses came to focus less on real-world applications and more on abstract questions such as: What if we had a different kind of number system? What properties from everyday arithmetic might we want to preserve and why? What would happen if they worked differently?

Math such as this has much in common with the experience of looking at the same work of art over the course of an entire semester. Every so often I see something—a mathematical concept or the photograph Baia Delle Zagare by Franco Fontana that I borrowed my sophomore spring, which makes a three-dimensional beach landscape appear flat and two-dimensional—and I realize that at first it seemed quite simple, but in fact it is deeply complex.

More often, it’s the reverse. I see an equation or a work of art that at first seems convoluted and strange, even incomprehensible, and after long consideration I realize that it is actually quite simple. Both the abstract pieces I borrowed my junior year, No title [Grid Abstraction] by H. Lee Hirsche and Trace 3 by Ingrid Calame, are examples of this, as are countless theorems that once seemed incomprehensible to me and now appear obvious. (It’s a common joke in math that every problem is either impossible or trivial.) In a class on contemporary art my junior year, I gained a framework for thinking about abstract art. That class and those two pieces helped me make a connection between my own work in mathematics and my deepening appreciation of art: To get to the place where I can make the necessary leaps in logic to understand something new, I have to look at it—the problem or the work of art—for a long time.

Which brings me back to Dine’s Tool Box 3. I spent two full semesters with that lithograph hanging  on my wall—that first semester, when I hardly knew myself or my surroundings, and now my last, as I embark on a future I can imagine unfolding in any number of ways. I still don’t really feel as though I understand the piece, but I understand it better than I did.

Perhaps, on the eve of my college graduation, I can say that, just as the Jim Dine lithograph suggests something much deeper under the surface, so too has my Williams experience revealed my own depths.

Williams Art Loan for Living Spaces, which begins its 10th semester in the fall, is a collection of 123 works available for students to borrow and hang in their dorm rooms. Students receive background on the art and artist as well as a journal in which to write their impressions about the work over the course of the semester.

Photograph: Josephine Sittenfeld; Artwork: Jim Dine (American, B. 1935), Tool Box 3, 1966. Print. Williams Art Loan for Living Spaces Program, Williams College Museum of Art. Gift of George W. Ahl III ’82.