Painting and Mathematics: from an interview with Alex Kanevsky

I discovered a new artist (new to me, that is!) when stumbling into this interview a few days ago. The entire article is very insightful, and I encourage you to read it in its entirety! However, these are my take-away thoughts:

In addition to his career as an active, internationally exhibited painter, Alex Kanevsky teaches at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. His life seems to fully revolve around Art, but it wasn’t always like that. Kanevsky actually studied mathematics before becoming an artist, and he (like Einstein) found many relationships between the two subjects:

“Most importantly, it is because much of what it deals with cannot be expressed or even approximately described in words. Getting used to being comfortable in that situation is good training for an artist.”

This sense of exploring the unsettling realm of expression without language is such an exciting aspect of Art creation. Just as one is capable of writing an answer deemed as wrong on a math test (a frequent situation of my younger days), painting, too, can be fraught with the danger of failure. Kanevsky feels that this challenge to succeed propels him forward, that painting should always be in danger of crashing and burning. He strives to keep the practice difficult and threatening failure.

In mathematics, one strives to follow abstract procedural rules so as to conjure the correct numerical answer. The struggle in Art, Kanevsky claims, is to conjure clarity. He compares the practice of painting to “an endless road” and “wandering in the dark with uncertain goals. Not aimless, but not exactly purposeful.” Both of these comparisons conjure images of an abyss: the overwhelming and endless potential of mystery that so relates mathematics and Artistic endeavors.

Despite the potential to continue forever, even on one work, artists lay down the paintbrush and walk away. As Kanevsky says, the struggle is to find clarity, and there is a point when clarity is realized (as at least as realized as it’s gonna get!). How do artists know when to find their footing and turn away? It can be a bit like Alice falling through the rabbit hole. Kandevsky says that the responsibility to judge a finish point does not lie with the artist. Instead, the artist must reign in their fervent attempts to add and alter and perfect so as to recognize the painting’s signals of completion. To Kanevsky, the painting plays an equal role in its own development. He compares his process of painting to experiencing a conflict in a relationship: “When we reach some sort of agreement that makes everyone satisfied, it is the good time to leave it alone.” There is a point, therefore, when the artist begins imposing on the work, “when additions do more harm than good. Or when a roughness and awkwardness left in it ceases being a shortcoming and becomes a vital part of composition.”

So, yes, there is a final stopping place. But it isn’t for the artist to dictate. Just at in mathematics, the human involved seems to be following the rules of his subject. As writer W. Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” In a sense, the artist just needs to learn to sit up, pay attention, and try not to bang into any big objects while falling into Wonderland.


I cannot pass by the opportunity to say a bit about Kanevsky’s art! His pieces frequently feature large interiors and/or single forms. He uses big strokes or even a pallet knife, creating thick areas of color that seem simultaneously deliberate and accidental. There also seem to be many and a variety of layers of paint. Some areas are fragile and thin, looking unfinished with only a few layers or even exposed canvas. Others create spaces that burrow into the page, creating solid, definitive background scenes. Such a balance of form not only gives the subject place, it also heightens the fragility and instability of the subject by contrast.

There is also a stark balance of large dark areas and light areas. I find the places where these two meet to be some of the most fascinating aspects of the paintings! The tone of brushstrokes within the respective dark and light areas are often nicely blended and subtle. There is much more continuity there than in the blast of contrast elsewhere.  The places where dark or bright color meet light, neautral tones becomes choppy and seemingly unfinished. Such battlegrounds heighten the energy of the usually calm subjects.

J.F.H. with Four Doors, oil on wood, 2011

Blue Room with Running Dog, oil on wood, 2011

Annunciation, oil on linen, 2007

Even the large portraits that do not feature background have a fragile sense about them. The in a battle within the form of areas where the paint is smooth and seamless versus areas where the paint seemed to be blotted and scraped on the canvas quickly. The subject seems caught in a storm, in a world uncertain, and they are tied irretrievably to that world, as areas (often abrupt chunks of their form) are overlapped and lost to the paint enveloping them.

J.F.H. oil on board, 2011

R.W., oil on wood, 2011


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