Pasadena, City of Art and Science

Pasadena, City of Art and Science
By Stephen Nowlin, Director of the Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery, Art Center College of Design

Google the name Edwin Powell Hubble, and you’ll get back over a hundred-thousand links. Hubble, of course, was the astronomer whose observations from Mount Wilson’s 100-inch Hooker telescope produced “Hubble’s Law” in 1929, providing a basis for the development of cosmology’s Big Bang theory. And as Hubble was scanning the sky from his mountain perch, Ernest Batchelder was busy on the edge of the Arroyo Seco below, creating clay tiles that spoke of our relationship to earth—rich gravely ceramics that helped define the growing Crown Valley as a gathering-place for artists and craftsmen.

Pasadena has always been a city of art and science, the two intertwined with its identity like those strands of elusive DNA sought by Linus Pauling at Caltech in the 1950s. Names and places from the region’s history spill into the present: Einstein’s visits in the early 30’s, the current Einstein Papers Project at Caltech, and Stephen Hawking’s recent lectures at Beckman Auditorium; Charles and Henry Greene’s incomparable bungalow architecture, and Craig Ellwood’s modernist icon for Art Center College of Design; Throop Polytechnic Institute where Batchelder taught, which later morphed into Caltech; the Pasadena Art Institute which became the Pasadena Art Museum, which became the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art, which spawned the Armory Center for the Arts and the Pasadena Art Alliance, before finally becoming the Norton Simon Museum; Theodore von Karman’s establishment of the principles of modern aviation and jet flight, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s mentorship today of stunning planetary explorations; the long-standing Pasadena Symphony, and Grammy-award winning Southwest Chamber Music; the venerable Pasadena Playhouse, and newcomers Boston Court Theater and Furious Theater.

Others abound: Carnegie Observatories, headquartered in Pasadena, and their network of Chilean telescopes; the Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena Conservatory of Music, and Pasadena Museum of California Art; Mount Wilson’s new Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy, an interferometer array that can see a nickel from 10,000 miles; the treasures of art and science at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens; The Planetary Society; Pasadena City College, Sidestreet Projects, and NewTown, and…. the list just goes on.

There are larger cities in the world, but few if any are better branded by the impact of art and science or able to replicate Pasadena’s extraordinary blend of institutions engaged in those two explorations.

Perhaps more than any of its other fine qualities, Pasadena’s longtime devotion to the arts and sciences is what makes it a quintessential city for the twenty-first century. Science seems to be confounding humanity’s perception of itself and the world at just about the same exponential rate as Moore’s law predicted for the power of computer processing, similarly driving forward the mechanisms of cultural and intellectual progress. Artists are always drawn to such a nexus of change—searching for its poetry, uncovering its new vocabularies of expression, and exposing its social discourse.

Expressive of our capacity to intuit broad concepts or analyze complex minutiae, and to be driven in our endeavors by deep emotion as well as soaring intellect, art and science together reflect an elemental dualism—a correspondence between creativity and reason, between a sense of wonder and a knowledge of facts, that has been able to produce within our species such individuals as the composer Gustav Holst to imagine the planets in music, and the persistent von Karman to take us there in rockets. From ancient times, the symbiosis of art and science has nourished and sustained our sensations of awe, curiosity, and comprehension. As long as 30,000 years ago, cave paintings by early humans integrated the proto-scientific study of animal anatomy with the art of representation. Much later the architects and sculptors who built such places as England’s Stonehenge were also among history’s first scientists, contributing to our early understanding of astronomy and structural engineering. And in the late fifteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci, self-declared artist and engineer in equal parts, became modern civilization’s quintessential Renaissance Man—a fully integrated individual.

By the mid twentieth century, however, the sciences and humanities appeared to have become distant, their differences sharpened by the Age of Specialization. This mutual alienation was lamented in C.P. Snow’s 1959 treatise The Two Cultures, as a “gulf of mutual incomprehension.” Throughout the last century potential consequences of technological expansion unbridled by humanitarian conscience were glimpsed in the negative products of global industrialization, increased pollution, brutal wars, and social and economic disparities. In Pasadena, the two cultures continued to develop side-by-side nonetheless, weaving a fabric of interconnectedness through the city’s educational, cultural, philanthropic, and business communities, and through such thoroughly-Pasadena characters as the artistically curious Richard Feynman and scientifically inquisitive Jirayr Zorthian.

Today, Pasadena finds itself uniquely poised to blend ideas emanating from the art/science border. Caltech began doing so in a specific way back in 1970, when it initiated its own version of Experiments in Art and Technology—E.A.T., for short. The birth of E.A.T. a decade earlier in New York City was an expression of Modernism’s long and fickle relationship with science and technology, from the early twentieth-century Cubist and Constructivist emulation of science’s search beneath the appearance of things, to the visions of a utopian future-through-technology imagined at the German Bauhaus. Initiated by the artist Robert Rauschenberg and Bell Laboratories engineer Billy Kluver, E.A.T. sought to overcome the Two Cultures syndrome and create an aesthetic emerging from the integration of artist and scientist, rather than from their individual preconceptions. In 1970, Caltech’s version of E.A.T. brought the two disciplines together in a vacated campus building formerly known as the Campbell Plant Laboratory. Directed by South African artist Lukas Van Vuuran, the program included such innovators as computer graphics pioneer John Whitney, and it ultimately spawned Caltech’s Baxter Gallery which lasted several years through funding from the Pasadena Art Alliance. Fast-forward thirty years, and recent collaborations between Caltech and Art Center’s Williamson Gallery have continued the E.A.T. trajectory.

From the Pasadena Art Museum’s 1953 acquisition of the Galka Scheyer “Blue Four” (Feininger, Jawlensky, Kandinsky, and Klee) collection, to The Huntington’s recent acquisition of the exhaustive Burndy Library history of science, Pasadena’s identity resonates around its unique past and its exceptional cultural resources. The future we all confront will require both sides of the brain to forge effective solutions to both local and global challenges engendered by new knowledge, technologies, and rapid change. A path to some of those answers will be found in the spark of creativity that results when the disciplines of art and science are each encouraged to ignite the other.