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Science and Sculpture

January-February 2007

Michael Burke stands amid his artwork as the afternoon suns treams into his New York City studio.

Photograph by Arianna Caroli

Michael Burke stands amid his artwork as the afternoon suns treams into his New York City studio.

Photograph by Arianna Caroli

Behind Michael Burke’s childhood home in rural New Jersey stands a series of his aluminum sculptures. Called Quantum Stream, these seven rectangular parallelepipeds ascend a grassy slope and end in a dark wood. Some are incised with scientific formulas related to magnetism, transpiration/respiration, and the expansion rate of the universe. “The sculptures represent a stream of light,” says Burke ’60, “a series of quantum packets of energy that come at you across the landscape.”

Burke worked as an astronomer and city planner before turning to art full time 30 years ago. He knows a lot about physics, and is fascinated by the interplay among science, art, and emotion. “People are upset when I put anything mystical or romantic in the same sentence with science,” he notes. “Science, to them, is a math test.” But understanding scientific principles, he would argue, can only add to the power, and beauty, of art. When scientists first explained the quantum nature of light, some feared “this elucidation would destroy the romance of the rainbow,” he explains. “But the science of the rainbow is thrilling. It’s produced by light passing at an angle through billions of particles of water, and it reproduces itself in reverse in a second rainbow. That’s a remarkable, magical thing that, to me, is romance. It doesn’t destroy the concept of rainbow, it illuminates it.”

In the backyard of his childhood home in New Jersey, Burke’s Quantum Stream brings out the beauty in physics.
Photograph courtesy of Michael Burke

To the naked eye, Quantum Stream is interesting, even beautiful, to look at. The obelisk-like structures appear to have sprung up out of the ground as bizarre silver trees, or a vertical waterway, among the usual soft and mutable foliage. There is more to that picture. Burke first etched the scientific formulas into the metal with ferric chloride; once he managed to get the light to scatter cleanly off the irregular surface of the etched formulas, he ground the area a bit so that the light scattering itself was affected, making the formulas more difficult to read. “So now you have difficulty seeing the formulas unless you register that the light is scattering,” he says. “I wanted to illustrate the actual process, so that the viewer picks up that science is making this happen,” just as it is happening through the artwork.


Burke, a son of the prolific literary critic and writer Kenneth Burke, grew up in a radically creative, intellectual household. The elder Burke called himself an “agrobohemian” and moved his family to northwestern New Jersey when Michael was young. Musicians, writers, and artists visited frequently, including poet William Carlos Williams, novelist Ralph Ellison (who read from what would become Invisible Man), and literary critic Malcolm Cowley, a longtime family friend who entertained with bawdy songs after dinner. There was no electricity, running water, or telephone, but they did have an Alexander Calder in the outhouse. “He made us a holder for the toilet paper,” Michael Burke says. “It was one of his bent-wire hands, with the middle finger raised.”

The atmosphere fostered a sense “that everyone could just do what they wanted to do,” Burke says. “And what you wanted to do was supported.” In high school, he shied away from writing and the creative arts and felt drawn to the precision of numbers, excelling in math and science. (His older brother, James Anthony Burke ’58, Ph.D. ’65, studied physics and is professor emeritus of astronomy and physics at the University of Victoria. Their late half-sister, feminist anthropologist Eleanor Burke Leacock, attended Radcliffe before transferring to Barnard.)

The Neutrino Chronicles puts modern-day physics into an ancient tomb.
Photograph courtesy of Michael Burke

At Harvard, Michael planned to become a scientist and “jumped in with a heavy dose of physics and math. But it was a bit too heavy for me and I moved into architectural sciences, a background for architects. In truth, I had a renaissance education, which was nice.” He took one or two classes in fine arts, and recalls sometimes drawing machinery (a telescope at Harvard’s observatory, for instance) because he found something “beautiful about devices that are built solely with a function in mind.” He also remembers an advanced calculus course he took with Bernard Dwork, who would fill the blackboard with formulas, remarks, and notations, writing furiously as he lectured. “At the end of class there were all kinds of numbers and symbols, all kinds of formulas, partially written, some half erased—some didn’t really make sense,” Burke says. “It was really quite beautiful to see.”

After graduation, Burke held various posts at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (including a year as a station manager in Iran), ending up as assistant to the secretary for administration in Washington, D.C. Then he earned a master’s degree in urban planning and spent five years working in the field; he also taught the subject at Columbia University. Finally, in 1975, he turned to art.

Burke lives and works in a rambling Manhattan loft with his wife, Julie Whitaker, an English teacher, artist, and writer who recently edited a book of Kenneth Burke’s later poetry. (The couple have two grown children, Shannon and Brendan.) His studio is flooded with sunlight from two banks of windows that overlook West 36th Street. The sounds of cars and trucks filter in from the congested streets below; the 12-story building, bought with a group of artists in 1978 for little more than back taxes owed, is in the Garment District, not far from the Lincoln Tunnel. The studio itself is full of surprising objects: aluminum sculptures that rise nearly to the ceiling, whimsical metal books on the counters, huge canvases on the wall that combine drawings, etchings, or photographs with metal sculpted pieces attached to them, and an array of saws, drills, and a pegboard fitted with screwdrivers, wrenches, and pliers. Scraps of aluminum fill the corners because he rarely throws anything out.

It can take the average viewer a moment to warm up to the beauty in Burke’s work. The pieces are silvery, spare, and filled with singular geometries. There are no bright colors—everything is black or white or metallic gray. (His work is privately collected and owned by several museums, including the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence and the Paterno Library at Penn State University.)

Sometimes his work is displayed for scientists, most recently at a 2004 exhibit at Rockefeller University celebrating mathematical physicist Mitchell Feigenbaum’s contributions to chaos theory. Feigenbaum, who owns a few of Burke’s pieces, commissioned one of the artist’s signature metal books for the show. The hinged sculptures, ranging in size from eight inches to six feet, are made of aluminum, sometimes with paper pages. This one features four pages with cut-out geometric designs; parts of Feigenbaum’s own “chaos constant” formulas are incised, with the digits running off the last page.

Not all of Burke’s fans are science-minded. “I wouldn’t in my wildest dreams begin to understand the formulas and numbers and whatnot he puts in some of his pieces,” allows Robert Edgar ’69, vice president of donor relations at The New York Community Trust. “The fact that they are real formulas adds another level of complexity to the art—as in T.S. Eliot’s allusions—but not understanding them doesn’t detract from the beauty of the piece itself.”

One of Burke’s signature metal books depicts a history of mathematics.
Photograph courtesy of Michael Burke

Edgar has several pieces by Burke in his Manhattan dining room. One consists of a drawing of a male nude and four subsequent images of the figure blown up to the point that they lose any resemblance to a human being. “It’s saying, ‘This is what happens when you look in a microscope,’” says Edgar, who met Burke when their daughters were at the same elementary school. He particularly loves his four-page metal Burke book with cut-out shapes of a male stick figure and an obelisk. “It’s tactile, like so much of Michael’s work,” he adds. “The book begs you to touch it, spin it, and look through it. There’s also something poetic about it, because as the light hits the aluminum and you turn it around, the books gives you different reflections and reflective moments. My wife and I are enthusiastic readers and this sculpture has the same effect as dipping into a wonderful book.”

Burke’s concertina-style Millennial Fable book has hinged aluminum covers, but inside the etched paper pages depict a whimsical history of mathematics that works its way up to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. “The books can stand, as though they were stage sets, allowing a simultaneous reading of the pages,” Burke explains. “A book is read sequentially, but is remembered in a multitude of different sequences. To illustrate this, I make prints from individual pages and show them in a number of different overlapping patterns. In this fashion I can end up with a book ‘installation’—the book, standing as sculpture, surrounded by images that represent the infinite ways the reader keeps the images from the book in his mind.”

In these crafted works, Burke sees the influence of both his parents. Kenneth Burke was a wide-ranging, voracious reader who collected a library of about 7,000 volumes, most of which are still stored in the New Jersey house. “He loved the word,” his son says. “He never drew a picture in his life.” In contrast, Burke’s mother, Elizabeth Batterham Burke, was good at math, but was also a fine artist who competed for wall space for her artwork. “Like many kids,” he says, “I stuck the best of both of them together. The words or the formulas or the schematics are usually there in the sculptures.”

Burke is attracted to the confluence of seemingly contrasting ideas: hard science and romance, numbers and poetry, unreadable picture books, the ancient past and the present. His material of choice, aluminum, is a commonplace, modern metal used most often for industrial—not artistic—purposes.

One of his boldest aluminum pieces, The Neutrino Chronicles, was first displayed in an Etruscan tomb. That was in 2000, during an arts festival in a town north of Rome, and visitors to the tomb came upon what Burke describes as “a shiny, new 14-foot machine—mysterious, but clearly with some kind of scientific purpose—in the middle of this cave riddled with history.” (The piece holds a polished aluminum arc that rises out of a rectilinear metal scaffolding ground to such a high polish that it appears to glow. Beneath the machine lie dozens of angled aluminum pieces, many etched with quantum formulas and/or with Etruscan script.) “Both science and the Etruscans have a mystery that engages people,” Burke asserts. “The formulas and the script mean so much, but both are so hard to decipher. It’s a moment when the unknowns of science and those of the Etruscans interact. I like the conflict between drawings from a distant past and a metal that didn’t exist then.”

It doesn’t matter to Burke whether people understand the formulas; he often reverses them or writes them upside down “to relieve people of the pressure” of “getting” the science. New York City art collectors Mary Anne Schwalbe ’55 and Douglas Schwalbe, M.B.A. ’52, have several Burke pieces, including a tall aluminum tower that sits on their terrace. It contains equations and symbols, but it also has tiny metal squares that can be picked up, played with, and used to cover the symbols. Burke has twice replaced the pieces because the Schwalbe grandchildren have so enjoyed using them on the sculpture. “It’s a magical piece. He’s highly imaginative and also very skilled,” Mary Anne Schwalbe says of Burke. “His drawings as well as his sculptures are technically perfect.” Yet she begs off when asked to translate the scientific formulas. “I don’t understand them, but it is important to me that they are there. I find the art fascinating,” she says. “He can explain it all, and it is very much a part of who he is.”

Burke is intent on celebrating the beauty and power of science in his sculptures, but the art is not agitprop: he weaves science into the sculptures subtly, with style and humor, and in ways that are never doctrinaire. The mischievous burnishing of incised equations, making them hard to read, is a good example: he interferes with the ability of quanta to bring information to us in order to call attention to the phenomenon itself. But he doesn’t insist that people understand the scientific fine print. “I want people to know there’s a logic, a science in the art,” he says, but “there’s no test afterwards.”

~Anne Eisenberg and Nell Porter Brown

Anne Eisenberg writes “Novelties,” a biweekly column for the Sunday Business section of the New York Times. Nell Porter Brown is assistant editor of this magazine.