Morton C. Bradley, R. (1912–2004)

 

Photo by Stan Sherer.
Taken at the Shaping Space Conference,
Smith College, April 1984

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Early Silkscreen

 

 

Dodecahedron

Small Stellated Dodecahedron

Great Dodecahedron

Great Stellated Dodecahedron

Composite Small and Great Stellated Dodecahedron

Constellation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vega

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whirling Pentagons

The Maze

Morton C. Bradley Jr.

by Rachel Huizinga

 

The geometric sculptures of Morton C. Bradley, Jr. (1912–2004) seem to float in the air like models of unknown, beautiful stars. As each one slowly revolves, its orderly and intricate structure is transformed by a progression of evolving colors that reveals a new side of its character. Then, seamlessly, it returns to the same form and color as were seen at first glance. Depending on the viewer’s own orientation, the words that come to mind may include: crystal, kaleidoscope, snowflake, pattern, virus, flower, prism, great stellated dodecahedron, or perhaps, simply, “wow.”

 

FOUNDATIONS

For those who knew the artist, Bradley’s sculptures are a perfect reflection of his fascination with the science of color, his admiration for traditional patterns, his exploration of mathematical designs—a reflection of his genius. Bradley himself would only accept authorship of the integration of these foundations of his work. He was quick to acknowledge the many minds throughout history—and many he learned from personally—that built the platforms from which his inspiration and the body of his work took shape.

As a child, Bradley was taught by his mother to do animated cartoons. He began painting at twelve. As a young man, Bradley attended Harvard University, where he studied fine arts under Arthur Pope, whose book The Language of Drawing and Painting was described by Bradley as “absolutely essential to the study of color relationships.” Pope’s studies had been inspired by the work of his Harvard mentor, Denman Ross. Pope, in turn, was impressed by Bradley’s writing in journal articles and book reviews about the technical side of art, especially by Bradley’s essay on the subject of color theory, which surveyed systems of color classification devised by Ross and Pope, as well as by Albert Munsell and Wilhelm Ostwald.

At an early age, Bradley’s scholarly ambition was firmly established. He was an extremely motivated researcher and theorist, an intellect never at rest. In addition to further analyses in color science, Bradley also studied and developed original research, theories, and proposals on such diverse subjects as sentence structure, teaching methodology for foreign languages, cadence, anthropometry, and music theory.

Bradley graduated from Harvard University magna cum laude in 1933. Over the next six years he spent two in Europe on fellowships and four engaged in rigorous independent study under the supervision of Arthur Pope. He would later credit Pope’s theories on aesthetics, color, representation, and design as primary influences on his work as a sculptor.

Bradley’s ongoing discussions with Pope and other art scholars at Harvard also impacted his professional work. In 1944 he became a conservation apprentice at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum; its restoration studio was one of the first in the country. By 1949 Bradley’s skill and experience led to a year as the Fogg’s acting painting conservator, during which time he also trained several apprentices and graduate students. At the end of that year, he went into private practice, beginning with conservation referrals from the Fogg and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Around 1945, while working at the Fogg, Bradley met Carl Foss, a renowned color consultant and the president of the Munsell Color Corporation. The Fogg’s conservation lab collaborated with Foss in his testing of light-fast synthetic paints. In the decades that followed, Foss’s unique knowledge of color systems contributed to Bradley’s growing understanding and ideas about color. Bradley’s own research on color included his development of color orders. A color order is a list of numerical designations for colors in a series systematically selected to produce a specific visual impact.

Bradley began to consider the relationships that could be drawn between color orders and geometric forms. Within each was a logic—a symmetry—that could be merged with the other. His interest in geometry may have been influenced by his father, who had studied advanced mathematics. Morton Bradley Sr. was also a collector of rugs, which covered the floors of the family home and may have been an early source of inspiration for Bradley’s lifelong interest in pattern and design.

In 1948, Bradley began work on his first experiments combining color orders and geometric pattern. He commissioned artists Eleanor Mott Berg and Kahlil Gibran (the latter [namesake of the poet] was one of Bradley’s dearest friends over the rest of his life) to work with him on several series of silkscreen prints . In this early two-dimensional work, one can already see the seeds of the sculptural work that would follow.

Bradley’s book The Treatment of Pictures was published in 1950. It remains an historic reference for painting conservators. Over the next fifteen years, Bradley’s conservation practice grew steadily, as did his collection of ideas about the spatial configuration of color.

 

BEGINNING

In 1966, Bradley travelled to Florence, Italy joining a team of international restorers after floods devastated many of Italy’s great artistic treasures. The same year, he began work on the designs for his first sculptures. From the start, his objective was to systematically display color orders in space. With the input of Carl Foss, he began using the numerical notations of the Munsell color system, which Bradley had studied during his Harvard years. Foss also gave him a list of colorants, which were used to mix the paint for the sculptures.

Bradley’s first pieces were colorful reliefs with patterns of applied geometric forms. These evolved quickly into an exploration of regular polyhedra: the tetrahedron, the cube, the octahedron, the dodecahedron, and the icosahedron. These forms are often referred to as the “platonic solids,” named after Plato, who hypothesized that each form corresponded with a natural element: earth, air, water, and fire.

From the symmetries of these basic forms, Bradley’s interest expanded into stellations of regular polyhedra. A stellation occurs by extending outward the faces and edges of a form until they meet again. For example, a dodecahedron’s first stellation is a small stellated dodecahedron. When its faces and edges are extended to meet again, a great dodecahedron is the result. And in stellating faces and edges of a great dodecahedron, the great stellated dodecahedron emerges.

During this time, Bradley’s then-assistant in conservation, artist Bill Georgenes, saw Bradley’s growing collection of polyhedral prototypes and suggested he try working in a larger scale and interlacing the forms. Bradley did just that. Soon composite forms emerged, such as the result of combining a small stellated dodecahedron and a great stellated dodecahedron which share the same center point . Or, by connecting the vertices of many of the same forms, Bradley would create a “constellation,” an apt term for a series of star-like forms connecting to create a larger pattern. Interestingly, the dodecahedron was the one regular polyhedron that Plato did not link to an element of nature. Instead he supposed that “the god used [it] for arranging the constellations on the whole heaven.”

The expanding variety of geometric forms in his work created new contexts in which to explore color theory, his first interest in making the sculptures. Bradley adapted the Munsell system to maximize the chroma (saturation) of colors and developed series of colors to correspond to the geometric forms. These series included sets of 12, 20, 30, or 62 colors, which were applied to the sculptures in configurations of adjacent planes or vertices, or remote planes or vertices.

The discussion above covers only the first six years of the evolution of Bradley’s sculptures. Still, it provides a sense of the rapidly increasing complexity of his vision at a time when he was truly just getting started. Over the following 31 years of the evolution of Bradley’s work, his pace and progression rarely slowed.

 

WORKING PROCESS

From morning until late into the night, Bradley worked on the restoration of paintings. He often said that his best ideas for sculptures came between midnight and three a.m. The variety and intricacy of his ideas required a range of very specialized talents to realize them as finished sculptures. Over the years, several skilled specialists helped Bradley in the fabrication of his sculptures. He called them his “loosely knit renaissance workshop.” Each has noted that no one could better visualize the end result of a complex adaptation or combination of geometric forms than Bradley could. He rarely did sketches or calculations because he didn’t need them to develop or describe a concept. And his memory was so exceptional that he would retain details about sculptures long after their completion.

Bradley would discuss his ideas with the fabricators, who, over years of assisting him on projects, learned to speak what would sound like a secret language to nearly anyone outside Bradley’s world. For example, he might ask for assistance in developing a sculpture that combined a small stellated dodecahedron with a great stellated dodecahedron sharing the same center point, with the great stellated dodecahedron removed (Vega, left) . From there, the fabricators would work on three-dimensional sketches of the form, and Bradley would carefully monitor progress. When there were complications, he was known to say, “All I want is perfection,” and in times of difficult decisions he would insist that they “let the math decide.” It should be noted that computers rarely came into use in the making of Bradley’s work. The incredibly precise nature of both the geometry and color theory was achieved by the meticulous work of minds, calculators, and hands.

Bradley’s sculptures were publicly displayed more than a dozen times in solo and group exhibitions. The MIT Museum maintained several very popular installations of his sculptures over a period of fifteen years. Despite opportunities to sell the sculptures, Bradley refused, seeing each one as a crucial part of his analysis of the integration of color theory and geometric form, a record that should not be lost.

 

INSPIRATION

Over time, Bradley devised many complex and inventive geometric forms. For the average viewer, these sculptures may be seen as elegant, intricate, or a challenge to make. For the mathematically inclined viewer, they are a challenge to decipher. This was Bradley’s intention. He wanted them to appear effortlessly perfect, yet require a great effort to be “solved.” If it could be done too easily, it meant he hadn’t “won the prize.”

The viewer may sense connections between some of the sculptures. In fact Bradley produced many series of sculptures that are related in features, technique, inspiration, or motive. For example, the series of pieces known as “semi-circle connectors,” with similarly curved outer lines that resemble flower petals, all share an internal geometry: the curved lines connect the vertices of an invisible dodecahedron or its stellation at the center of the piece. Or, in another series, known as “polylinks,” the faces of polyhedra are rotated. Instead of meeting edge to edge, they overlap and link together. After producing one single polylinked dodecahedron, Whirling Pentagons, a related, but more complex form, The Maze, followed, made of twelve rotated dodecahedra within a dodecahedron.

Traditional two-dimensional patterns from around the world were a rich source of inspiration throughout the progression of Bradley’s work. He translated patterns from Italian cathedrals, Egyptian and Arabic architecture and tapestries, from Mughal architecture like that of the Taj Mahal, designs by Florentine artists Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, and Andrea Pisano, as well as Mirza Akbar, a master-builder to the Shah of Persia in the early nineteenth century. By converting these two-dimensional patterns onto multiple intersecting planes, Bradley created beautiful new three-dimensional forms, as well as new terrain for his examination of color relationships.

Bradley had many friends and admirers in his life. By all accounts he was a gentleman, a good friend, and a great mind with knowledge on nearly any conceivable subject. Through his work as a painting conservator, he had many longstanding connections to collectors, institutions, and the art world in general. His many other interests brought additional circles of friends into his life, in a way that has been suggested could be diagrammed to very closely resemble one of his sculptures. Nonetheless, he never married, and he rarely left his home. But this was his choosing. By living and working in such a controlled environment, he found a way to accomplish what would have required several lifetimes for another person. As Curator Ted Stebbins, of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum put it, Bradley was “a monk-like person whose shrine was art.”

At ninety, Bradley’s mobility was impacted by a hip injury. But mentally and creatively, he travelled the world, studying two-dimensional geometric patterns from around the globe in design books he read cover to cover during his period of recovery. These sources inspired him to create plans for some of his greatest works, and his fabricators remained busy helping him complete them. Though many have noted that Bradley was not the kind of person to dwell on his mortality, he was considering source designs from world cultures that were not yet represented in his work in order to round out the list of cultural influences revealed in the sculptures. One of his last completed sculptures drew inspiration from a Native American design.

 

THE ARTIST’S PERSPECTIVE

Though proud of his sculptures, Bradley would not fully assume responsibility for their creation, since geometric forms had been studied for many centuries before his work with them. In a 1983 MIT article about Bradley’s sculpture, he summed it up, saying, “In a sense, they were waiting to be discovered by someone. They are impersonal. That means it’s okay to think they are beautiful—even for me.”

This is a characteristically modest statement by Bradley, who died in 2004. In a recent interview with Linda Priest, one of Bradley’s primary fabricators and the person who most intimately understands his work, Priest pored over photographs of sculptures, revealing their color orders and polyhedral foundations. Knowing them with such clarity, her explanations were very matter of fact. But then, periodically, she would look up from a photo and say, “This is pure Mr. Bradley,” and explain the originality and elegance he brought to the sculpture.

Bradley may have seen himself as a discoverer of something beautiful, rather than its architect. But in example after example of his work merging the symmetries of color and geometric form, a unique and perfect beauty is the undeniable result.