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Crockett Johnson Homepage: Paintings

Resources | Some Paintings

         During the last decade of his life (1965-1975), Crockett Johnson devoted his time to creating abstract geometrical paintings, all of them based on mathematical theorems. According to his article "On the Mathematics of Geometry in My Abstract Paintings" (1972), Johnson began this work in 1961 "upon belatedly discovering aesthetic values in the Pythagorean right triangle and Euclidian geometry" (97). In all, he painted over 100 canvases, eighty of which are held by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, Division of Information Technology and Society. Of the remaining paintings, some are privately held and others have been lost.

Resources

Smithsonain's exhibit of Crockett Johnson's paintings 

         The Mathematics Division of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History has created an on-line exhibit of its eighty Crockett Johnson's paintings. The website includes not only images, but explanations of the mathematics behind the paintings. Follow the link below to see the largest colletion of Johnson's artwork.

         This sentence is a direct link to the main page of the Smithsonian's exhibit of Crockett Johnson's paintings.

        


         To learn more about Crockett Johnson's art, I highly recommend J. B. Stroud's "Crockett Johnson's geometric paintings," in Journal of Mathematics and the Arts 2.2 (June 2008), pp. 77-99. The article reproduces 17 of Johnson's paintings in black and white. The back of the journal reproduces all 11 of these in full color. And, yes, those are photographs of Crockett Johnson paintings on the cover of the journal.

         This sentence is a direct link to the Journal of Mathematics and the Arts.
  This sentence is a direct link to an order form for a print edition, available for the special rate of $15.
         This sentence leads you right to this particular article, where you can purchase a pdf of the article for $28.
Journal of Mathematics and the Arts 2.2

Math Horizons, Sept. 2009 

         To learn yet more about Crockett Johnson's art, take a look at Stephanie Cawthorne and Judy Green's "Harold and the Purple Heptagon." It appears in the September 2009 issue of Math Horizons.

         This sentence is a direct link to the September 2009 Math Horizons issue.
  [If I can find a way, here I will link to a way for you to buy the issue directly.]

         Davidson College has also published a short piece, titled "Emeritus Professor Stroud's art & math work featured in Math Horizons."

 

Some Paintings

Division of a One-by-Two Rectangle by Conic Rectangles | Similar Triangles | Transcendental Curve | Heptagon from Its Seven Sides | Squared Circle | A Construction for the Heptagon | Relativity of Time and Space | Right Triangle, Golden Rectangle and Pythagorean Star | Problem of Delos | Fraction of Pi (to .0000003...) in a Square of One | Projections of Aligned Triangles | Square Divided by Conic Rectangles

         Below, you'll find a few of Johnson's paintings; for a more complete bibliographic listing, see the "Art" section of the Bibliography. To see a larger image of most paintings below, please click on them. Excepting Division of a One-by-Two Rectangle by Conic Rectangles, Projections of Aligned Triangles, and Square Divided by Conic Rectangles, all photos on this page were taken by Philip Nel. Thanks to J. B. Stroud for identifying the titles of Transcendental Curve (Wallis), Problem of Delos (Meneachmus), and Fraction of Pi (to .0000003...) in a Square of One (Tsu Chung Chih). To see images of all eighty paintings held by the Smithsonian, click on the relevant words in this sentence.
Division of a One-by-Two Rectangle by Conic Rectangles (1970)
 
Division of a One-by-Two Rectangle by Conic Rectangles (1970)
Oil on pressed wood, 41 x 24 in. Photo: J. Curtis, Norwalk, CT.
From Visual Art, Mathematics and Computers (Pergamon Press, 1979), edited by Frank J. Malina, p. 306.
Similar Triangles (Thales) (1966)
 
Similar Triangles (Thales, 7th c BC) (1966).
16 x 24 1/2 in. (excluding frame). 

Transcendental Curve (1966) Transcendental Curve (Wallis) (1966).
 
12 x 23 1/2 in. (excluding frame).

A. Each of the line segments represents a toothpick. Angle BAC measures 180/7. degrees. B. Johnson's construction for a regular heptagon using a compass and straightedge with one mark. Angle EDF measures 180/7 degrees, EOF measures 360/7 degrees, and line segment EF is one side of a regular heptagon. C. ABCDEFG is a regular heptagon, with each central angle measuring 360/7 degrees.

Johnson's Cafe Construction for the Heptagon. J. B. Stroud's diagram and text from "Stroud studies Crockett Johnson's mathematical artistry" (1985). Full citation found here.
Heptagon from Its Seven Sides (1973)
 
Heptagon from Its Seven Sides (1973).
23 3/4 x 16 in. (excluding frame).

         In 1973, when Crockett Johnson was visiting Syracuse, Greece, he sat in an outdoor cafe, rearranging toothpicks at his table. Turning his menu and wine list so that they formed the two equal sides of an isosceles triangle, he placed the toothpicks in a criss-cross pattern across the space in between these two sides (figure 1). Johnson then hypothesized that the angle where the menu and wine list intersected would be 180/7 degrees ("Stroud studies..." 7). His supposition was correct. So what? Well, as Professor J. B. Stroud has shown, this discovery permitted Johnson to "construct a regular seven-sided figure using a compass and straitedge with only one mark on it." Stroud, the former chair of Davidson College's Math Department, adds, "As far as I know, nobody thought of trying this until Crockett Johnson. [...] The details of how he did it are high school mathematics, but it's not trivial. It's darn clever" ("Stroud studies..." 7). When Johnson returned to his studio in Westport, Connecticut, he turned his discovery into art, painting Heptagon from Its Seven Sides (1973).


 
 
   
 
Squared Circle (1968)
47 7/8 x 48 in.
Inspired by Johnson's theorem.
 
   
 
A Construction for the Heptagon (Neusis II)
48 x 42 in.

 
 
Relativity of Time and Space (Einstein) (1966)
48 x 48 in. (excluding frame).
 
 
Right Triangle, Golden Rectangle and Pythagorean Star (1972)
37 3/4 x 47 3/4 in. (excluding frame).

Problem of Delos (Meneachmus) (1968)
 
Problem of Delos (Meneachmus) (1968).
23 3/4 x 23 3/4 in. (excluding frame).

Fraction of Pi (to .0000003) in a Square of One
 
Fraction of Pi (to .0000003...) in a Square of One
(Construction of the 113:355 Ratio of Tsu Chung Chih, 500 AD).
23 1/2 x 23 1/2 in. (excluding frame).

 
Projections of Aligned Triangles (1969)
 
Projections of Aligned Triangles (1969).
Photographer unknown.

 

Square Divided by Conic Rectangles (1970)
 
Square Divided by Conic Rectangles (1970).
Photographer unknown.

In December of 1999, I noticed the above two at The Modhaus ("an online gallery of unique furnishings and decorative artifacts from the 1950s-1970s"). I had linked to both paintings (Projections of Aligned Triangles and Square Divided by Conic Rectangles ); however, since both are no longer visible at the Modhaus site, you can instead see them above.

 


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Last updated September 8, 2010 .