Off the Grid
July 1–September 4, 2022
From windowpanes to sewer grates, mapping tools to city plans, grids are omnipresent in our everyday experiences in the industrialized world. Art critics including Rosalind Krauss began writing about the prominence of grids in twentieth-century art in the 1970s. However, their analysis and criticism include only a small and limited pool of artists of White European descent who use primarily the same media. Artists of various backgrounds and working across multiple media have been riffing off the rigid grid structure in exciting ways throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
Off the Grid amplifies the unique use of grids by diverse artists from across the High’s seven curatorial departments—African, American, European, Decorative Arts and Design, Folk and Self-Taught, Modern and Contemporary, and Photography. The exhibition expands the study of artists using grids beyond canonical Minimalist and abstract artists such as Sol LeWitt to include textile artists such as Gee’s Bend quilter Agatha Bennett, photographers such as Harry Callahan, and many other artists of diverse backgrounds and media-based practices.
This exhibition is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.
"Cross In Square" and "Bear Paw"—Nine-Block Variation"Cross In Square" and "Bear Paw"—Nine-Block Variation
Agatha Bennett (American, 1919–2006), “Cross In Square” and “Bear Paw”—Nine-Block Variation, ca. 1985, cotton, cotton/polyester blend, cotton knit, and corduroy, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2017.34. © Estate of Agatha Bennett/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Agatha Bennett was part of an extraordinary community of quilters active in Boykin, Alabama, better known as Gee’s Bend. Bennett anchored her quilt with a central grid, whose quadrants are marked by the jagged imprints associated with the “Bear Paw” pattern. She improvised when imperfections in her geometry arose: in the far-left middle quadrant of the quilt, she added two bold strips of pink and orange fabric for a jolt of color; and when she repeated the quilt’s central quad of black squares at its border, she included only three, placing them such that the eye is forced to move along the quilt’s outer edge.
Sixteen copperplate etching on paper
Purchase with funds from the Lawrence and Alfred Fox Foundation for the Ralph K. Uhry Collection, 72.11 A–P
Sol LeWitt left detailed instructions about how to present his work, whether it was a large-scale mural like Wall Drawing #729 Irregular Color Bands, on view in the Robinson Atrium, or the portfolio of etchings here. Each page of this portfolio features one or more rectangular forms made up of crosshatched or gridded lines in primary colors of red, blue, and yellow as well as black. Reproduced here is the diagram that LeWitt conceived for how to sequence the etchings so that they would progress through a grid to their most complex form.
Image Credit: Object Files, High Museum of Art, Atlanta. © Estate of Sol LeWitt / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Chicago, ca. 1948, printed later
Gelatin silver print
Gift of the Callahan and Hollinger Families, 1996.223
Harry Callahan took this photograph while he was teaching photography at Chicago’s Institute of Design. With the encouragement of the institute’s director, the Hungarian modernist László Moholoy-Nagy, Callahan experimented with form and process. Through double exposure, he turned an average building facade into a surface layered with intersecting grids of windowpanes.
Off the Grid is divided into four sections: “Systems,” “Grids among Us,” “Containment and Expansion,” and “Sum of Its Parts.” Together, the sections confirm the grid’s centrality in twentieth-century art and provide insight into why humans are drawn to this seemingly simple geometric form. This exhibition offers the widest view to date of the kinds of artists who were interested in working Off the Grid.
Grids are so fundamental to how humans experience the world that they have even been identified within our brain. Scientists recently named a class of neurons “grid cells” based on the geometric patterns they create while determining spatial position. Their presence in our hardwiring may be responsible for why so many artists, from different cultures and working with such different materials, return to them as useful systems for visual representation.
The works on view in this section demonstrate how artists have approached grids as systems that provide clarity and can facilitate more complex experiences. For some artists, the grid is an organizational system for sequencing images and symbols. For others, it can be a starting point that becomes almost invisible or superimposed to create order in a chaotic visual experience. Even such artists as Agnes Martin and Katherine Mitchell, who appear to embrace the stark rationality of grids by leaving them bare, are interested in how the grid’s systematic nature can facilitate less rational sides of human experience, such as meditative states.
Allegory of JusticeAllegory of Justice
Allegory of Justice, ca. 1527
Pen, brown ink, brown wash, heightened with white, squared on pink-tinted paper
Purchase in honor of Mrs. Tench C. Coxe, President of the Members Guild, 1970–1971, 71.9
Artists’ use of grids did not flourish until the 1900s, but the grid was used in previous centuries, especially to facilitate mathematical and scientific processes in art. In Allegory of Justice, Baldassare Peruzzi divided his drawing with a grid, breaking it down into quadrants that helped him proportion his imagery as he copied it onto a larger canvas.
Grid Painting Half Shift: Olive and UmberGrid Painting Half Shift: Olive and Umber
American, born 1944
Grid Painting Half Shift: Olive and Umber, 1977
Colored pencil and acrylic on canvas
The Atlanta-based Mitchell subtly changes the colors of her line in this painting, creating a balance between variation and predictability that is both calming and stimulating.
Screenprint from On a Clear DayScreenprint from On a Clear Day
American, born Canada, 1912–2004
Screenprint from On a Clear Day, undated
Screenprint on paper
After a decade in New York, Martin decamped to an isolated mesa in New Mexico and took a hiatus from painting. During this period, she made her only print series from which this small, slightly imperfect grid is drawn. “My formats are square, but the grids never are absolutely square; they are rectangles. When I cover the square surface with rectangles, it lightens the weight of the square, destroys its power,” she said.
Untitled #69Untitled #69
American, born 1943
Untitled #69, 1974
Watercolor, crayon, and paper collage
As a child, Howardena Pindell went to a store and was told that the circles on the bottom of certain merchandise denoted products only White people could use. This experience of being unable to buy the glassware that she wanted because of her race became a core memory for her, and she reclaimed the form of that tiny circle in works like this one. She applied layers and layers of hole-punched paper that obscure the surface beneath, which sometimes contains carefully drawn grids. Pindell represents visually her desire to blur the seemingly insurmountable and viscerally painful experience of institutional racism with whimsy and beauty.
Adire ClothAdire Cloth
Yoruba Artist, Nigeria
Adire Cloth, twentieth century
Cotton and indigo
Fred and Rita Richman Collection, 1983.87
Adire means “tie and dye” in Yoruba. The designs that appear across the gridded layout of the cloth were added with cassava paste, and the cloth was then submerged in indigo dye. Although many of the individual designs were once rooted in specific symbolism related to spiritual beliefs and historical events, the patterns of adire have evolved according to consumer demand. Historically, they were prepared by Yoruba women of Southwest Nigeria for the members of royal houses, but today they are widely worn across Nigeria and beyond.
Blue and Green Grid with ScriptBlue and Green Grid with Script
John (J. B.) Murray
Blue and Green Grid with Script, 1985
Ink on paper
Purchase with funds from T. Marshall Hahn and Lucinda W. Bunnen for the Nasisse Collection, 1993.75
J. B. Murray began making art in the 1970s while living alone in a remote area outside of Athens, Georgia. He kept a vial of water that he considered to be holy by his bed and used it to create around fifteen hundred drawings like this one. Looking through the water, he became a medium for holy messages that he inscribed in the cursive script seen here. He was not known to be literate but clearly understood the conventions of writing and reading, imposing a system of rows and columns on his messages with bright blue and green lines.
Doubling SquaresDoubling Squares
American, born Guatemala, 1903–1981
Doubling Squares, 1964
Ink wash on paper
Alfred Jensen began investigating Mayan and Chinese calendrical systems in 1960, which led him to embrace layered and color-coated numerical diagrams. Along the horizontal and vertical axes of this work, he records an identical sequence of numbers that begins with six and progresses by six each time. His title refers to the mathematical operations of doubling and squaring—processes of multiplying that are echoed by the many reflections of triangles that form the squares of this dizzying grid.
Grids Among Us
Grids present themselves everywhere in our daily lives, whether in the communal infrastructure that we share or tucked privately into our domestic spaces. As artists in this section show, the grid appears in city blocks, suspension bridges, brickwork, newspapers, sewer grates, and shelving, to name a few of the form’s endless manifestations. Artists chose to foreground the naturally occurring grids they were finding not simply for the grid’s presence but because of their aesthetic appreciation for it. Their aesthetics were nurtured in a range of environments, whether in the cosmopolitan modernist circles that Berenice Abbott ran in or in the Black quilting traditions that shaped Ronald Lockett.
Untitled 28Untitled 28
Sheila Pree Bright
American, born 1967
Untitled 28, from the Suburbia series, 2007
Dye coupler print
Purchase with funds from the Hagedorn Family and the Friends of Photography, 2015.344
People are absent from this photograph, leaving the viewer to wonder who lives here and how the objects on display are related to their identities. The stylish midcentury shelving forms a gridded backdrop displaying books such as The End of Blackness and titles on Frida Kahlo and Pablo Picasso, as well as masks from continental Africa, establishing an air of worldliness and erudition. Sheila Pree Bright intended for this scene to subvert the American media’s projection of the typical African American home. The rigid, carefully curated interior also raises questions about expectations of resilience and perfection in the Black community.
Untitled (Freezer)Untitled (Freezer)
American, born 1939
Untitled (Freezer), ca. 1971–1973, printed 1980
Dye transfer print
Gift of Lucinda W. Bunnen for the Bunnen Collection, 1983.55
William Eggleston is credited as one of the first major proponents of color photography in America. He showed an early interest in the arts and began making color photographs in 1965, when the medium was rarely shown in art museums. His images commonly focus on the mundane objects of everyday life. There is a familiar tension in this scene between the metal framework of the freezer as it attempts to keep the products organized and the unruly assortment of goods and encroaching frost that ultimately push the space into a state of disarray.
Line of Sight DrawingLine of Sight Drawing
Line of Sight Drawing, 1999
Diffusion transfer prints with ink
Gift of Pamela Alexander, 2006.72
Gretchen Hupfel created this work as part of a series on the human condition within the postindustrial world. Photographing signal towers using a Polaroid camera, she was consumed by the fact that “these gigantic structures are everywhere and yet invisible—the proliferation of this architecture has happened without notice.” She assembled her studies in large grids and made intricate, weblike line drawings connecting each tower to make visible their systems of transmission. There is an obsessive quality to the work that seems closely related to the visual and auditory hallucinations she experienced, which were diagnosed as schizophrenia in 2001.
Sunday Papers, New YorkSunday Papers, New York
Edward J. Steichen
Sunday Papers, New York, 1922, printed later
Gelatin silver print
Purchase with funds from Mr. and Mrs. Michael Bernstein, 1998.50
In this scene of a tenement building in New York, Edward Steichen captured many grids nested within each other. The eye is drawn across the image by straight lines, from the brickwork that fills the image to the open window at its center. Beyond the window sits a man, the only loose, curved form within the composition, reading a newspaper—yet another manifestation of a grid. Steichen’s decision to center the image at the top of the window, rather than with the man, emphasizes the way urban environments encompass and dictate the movement of people within them.
Nightview, NYNightview, NY
Nightview, NY, 1932, 1932, printed 1974
Gelatin silver print
Purchase with funds from a friend of the Museum, 74.58
To capture this image, Berenice Abbott hung her camera off an upper floor of the Empire State Building in the early evening. From this bird’s-eye view, she highlights the importance of the grid to a city’s infrastructure, making it clear how ubiquitous it is as a dominant form on both the individual human level and the macro societal level. Her photograph also conveys a social message: in the midst of the Great Depression, the dancing lights and soaring skyscrapers provided an alternative narrative of American strength and progress as respite from the nationwide economic crisis.
Containment and Expansion
The core components of a grid are intersecting horizontal and vertical lines that give it the appearance of internal stability. Some of the artists in this section have used that association as a tool for containing the chaos of their experience and the world around them—such as Frank Jones, who drew a grid of rooms within a home to contain unfriendly “devil haunts” he saw through a milky veil over his eye. Others have turned that stability on its head, disrupting it through optical and spatial illusions that suggest movement—such as quilt artist Pamela Studstill, who painted tiny individual stripes of alternating color, achieving a shimmering ombre effect that seemingly continues to infinity.
The grid’s capacity for containment and expansion continues today through its dominance as a core principle in graphic and interface design, structuring the technology we encounter daily. The gridded formats of our browsers and other applications contain visual information to aid in our processing, but like Frank Stella’s Double Gray Scramble, they also continually expand, drawing us into their potentially infinite depths.
Untitled, ca. 1945
Colored pencil on paper
Bequest of Mr. Bim Franklin, 2008.45
A geometric design floats in the center of the page, dividing and containing the space. Burgoyne Diller’s commitment to the grid was part of a larger set of values with egalitarian aspirations. He understood geometric shapes and primary colors as a universal artistic language that could communicate across social boundaries. He sought this equitable art form as he was working through the Great Depression and World War II. For him, mapping geometric boundaries on a page brought order and control to art, when his outside world was tumultuous.
Vega IIVega II
Victor Vasarely (Hungarian, 1906–1997), Vega II, 1969, silkscreen on silk, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Ferst, 72.1000.11 B. © Victor Vasarely
Victor Vasarely has been hailed as the father of Op Art, a painting movement that embraces visual trickery. His Vega series comprises a checkerboard pattern that is disrupted by the appearance of objects pulsating beneath the surface of the work, stretching the flatness of its gridded surface forward. In 1969, Vasarely licensed his design for silk scarves, like the one on view here, and in early 2022, Paco Rabanne teamed with the London department store Selfridges to offer a new line of Vasarely-inspired scarves.
Double Gray ScrambleDouble Gray Scramble
American, born 1936
Double Gray Scramble, 1973
Screenprint on paper
Gift of the Phoenix Society, 75.96
Frank Stella has been recognized as a canonical grid artist due to his interest in stark geometries. In the 1970s, he began using a technique he described as “maximalist” that involved using thick strokes of bold colors to give a sculptural quality to 2D works. Here he uses color gradients working in opposite directions to contrast two sets of squares. Going from light to dark, the left square pushes outward, while the right square, from dark to light, descends into a square pit. The shades of gray nested between the colorful squares further enhance the optical illusion of depth.
Quilt #77Quilt #77
Quilt #77, 1988
Cotton and fabric paint
Pamela Studstill (American, born 1957), designer and maker
Purchase with funds from the Decorative Arts Acquisition Endowment, 1988.227
“Each of my quilts is a study in light,” says Pamela Studstill. As the eye moves down this quilt, the colors become gradually darker. This ombre effect is inspired by the light reflecting off the landscapes of the artist’s home state of Texas. Studstill achieves a greater range of color and complexity in her gradient effect by painting tiny stripes on her fabric strips. Her repetition of squares brings predictability to the quilt, but the individual color and combined contrast of her fabric strips imbue her grid with motion, allowing her geometric landscape to shimmer into infinity.
Sum of its Parts
The artworks in this section demonstrate how grids can emerge not as a starting point but as a final product, as is the case for Lightbox Armchair, created with antiquated slides of the High’s Decorative Arts collection. For other works in this section, the intersecting horizontal and vertical lines that define the grid are not drawn or painted on the surface of these objects, coming instead from the edges created by paper strips, shadows, woven segments, mosaic patterns, and fabric squares.
Most of the works on view here are by individual artists, but others represent collaborative or communal processes including weaving, quilt making, and mural painting. The sum of the individual efforts as well as the distinct parts of these works come together to create a more complex object. In building up their complex aggregates of form, these artists come back to the grid as a powerful structure for presenting a cohesive whole.
“Cabinet No. 50”“Cabinet No. 50”
“Cabinet No. 50,” 2003
Ettore Sottsass (Italian, 1917–2007), designer
Gallery Mourmans, Dutch, maker
Purchase through prior acquisitions, 2010.102
Ettore Sottsass was one of Italy’s most versatile and expressive architect-designers from the second half of the twentieth century. A cofounder of the irreverent design collective Memphis, Sottsass enjoyed poking fun at the puritanical restraint of International style. Revered in the field of architecture for decades, the style was defined by rectilinear lines and rigid structures. This cabinet defies such rationality on several levels, from its unusual and limited capacity for storage to the way its component parts appear to be in the process of tumbling out of an orderly formation like a grid.
Kente ClothKente Cloth
Asante Artist, Ghana
Kente Cloth, ca. 1900–1925
Purchase with funds from Fred and Rita Richman, 2004.166
Kente is woven on a loom by the Asante people of Ghana and was originally worn as a garment. The collage effect of this cloth is created by arranging narrow strips of woven cloth, then hand sewing them together. Here the grid is formed by an ensemble of rhythmic patterns that carry specific meanings related to the kente’s wearer. Traditionally weaving was only done by men, but today a few women are weavers as well. Although it was once worn only by the Asante elite, kente has now become a symbol of Pan-African and Black identity worn by many.
Friendship QuiltFriendship Quilt
Friendship Quilt, 1910
Unidentified Maker, Midwestern United States
Anonymous Gift, 1980.1000.18
As the name suggests, family and friends constructed and signed quilts like this one together to commemorate their bonds on occasions such as weddings, births, or relocations. The tradition of friendship quilts dates back to the 1840s in New England, and its popularity surged at the turn of the century across the South and Midwest, as people increasingly migrated west or to urbanizing cities for new social and economic opportunities. Each friend created a medallion for this quilt and added their signature to their contribution.
In Black AmericaIn Black America
In Black America, 1971
Screenprint on paper
Gift of Henri Ghent in memory of his mother, 1978.4
Romare Bearden used grid paper to draft a precise design for a now destroyed mural honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the facade of Atlanta’s Kutz Building in the 1970s. This study includes a panel with a black face next to diagonal red stripes. In this design, Bearden deconstructs the American flag, presenting its stars as a blue grid that forms the bust of the Black figure and its stripes clashing against his face.
Untitled, Study for MuralUntitled, Study for Mural
Untitled, Study for Mural, 1976
Watercolor, ink, and graphite on graph paper
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Dobbs and Michelle Jordan in honor of Mrs. Millicent Dobbs Jordan, 2009.62.1
Lightbox ArmchairLightbox Armchair
Benjamin Rollins Caldwell
American, born 1983
Lightbox Armchair, 2014–2015
Acrylic with laser-cut white powder-coated steel understructure, image slides, and LED lights
Purchase with funds from the Friends of Photography, 2014.393
Benjamin Rollins Caldwell is a Southern designer who creates furniture that is often surfaced in a mosaic, grid-like fashion with recycled material such as bottle caps, old trophies, computer parts, and in this case, slides of objects from the High’s historic Decorative Arts collection. The Museum commissioned several pieces of furniture by Caldwell that would utilize old slides after the designer became famous for a similar chair that Lady Gaga made famous while promoting her 2013 album, ArtPop.
Collection Highlight: "Untitled 28" by Sheila Pree Bright
Brantley, Rebecca. “Review: Photographs, Quilts, Op Art and More Enliven ‘Off the Grid’ at the High.” ARTS ATL, August 2, 2022.
This exhibition is made possible by
Premier Exhibition Series Sponsor
Premier Exhibition Series Supporters
ACT Foundation, Inc.
Sarah and Jim Kennedy
Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot
Dr. Joan H. Weens Estate
Benefactor Exhibition Series Supporters
Robin and Hilton Howell
Ambassador Exhibition Supporters
The Antinori Foundation
The Arthur R. and Ruth D. Lautz Charitable Foundation
Elizabeth and Chris Willett
Contributing Exhibition Series Supporters
Farideh and Al Azadi
Sandra and Dan Baldwin
Mr. and Mrs. Robin E. Delmer
Marcia and John Donnell
Mrs. Peggy Foreman
Helen C. Griffith
Mrs. Fay S. Howell/The Howell Fund
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter Jones
Joel Knox and Joan Marmo
Dr. Joe B. Massey
Margot and Danny McCaul
The Ron and Lisa Brill Family Charitable Trust
Wade A. Rakes II & Nicholas Miller
The Fred and Rita Richman Fund
USI Insurance Services
Mrs. Harriet H. Warren
Generous support is also provided by
Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, The Fay and Barrett Howell Exhibition Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, Isobel Anne Fraser–Nancy Fraser Parker Exhibition Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, Katherine Murphy Riley Special Exhibition Endowment Fund, Margaretta Taylor Exhibition Fund, and the RJR Nabisco Exhibition Endowment Fund.