Art & Chess
Art & Chess
Art & Chess
Art & Chess
Art & Chess

Art & Chess

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Widely regarded as the “Father of the Op Art movement," French-Hungarian artist Victor Vasarely became entranced by patterns, including that of a chessboard in the late 1930s, which became the quintessential framework for his art. Vasarely initially studied medicine, then turned his focus to art. His love of abstraction began in 1929 at the prestigious Mühely Academy in Budapest—a center for the new influential Bauhaus movement of modern design that was spreading throughout Europe. Immediately upon graduation, Vasarely had a solo exhibition at the Kovaks Akos Gallery in Budapest and soon after relocated to Paris to work in graphic design at the Havas advertising agency. For the next decade, in addition to creating some figural work and experimenting in the Surrealist movement, he began playing with concepts that would go on to be the basis of his signature artistic creations—optical illusions.

Through his exploration of composition, color, light, medium, dimensionality, and linear networks, Vasarely created his well-known zebra, tiger, and checkerboard patterning in his “Graphic Period” (1929-1946). Though it is not discussed whether he was a chess player, Vasarely began incorporating chess imagery—boards, crowns, and pieces—into his chess-related artworks. Through the arrangement of perpendicular lines, Vasarely manipulated shape and the placement of color to create a rhythm or visual vibration.

“What is at stake is no longer the ‘heart’ but the retina, and the connoisseur has now become a study object for experimental psychology. Harsh black-and-white contrasts, the unbearable vibration of complementary colors, the flickering of linear networks and permutated structures…all these are elements in my work whose task is no longer to plunge the viewer into a sweet melancholy but to stimulate him.”

The next two decades became the most productive period for Vasarely as his popularity and reputation exploded. He began revisiting some of his earlier themes, demonstrating that the trajectory of his work cannot be traced linearly by theme or period. What is quite different in these new works, such as "Hommage à l’hexagone," is Vasarely’s addition of the Necker's or Kepler's cube and the axonometric cube to his works. The Necker's cube is a hexagon with parallel lines added to create a three-dimensional cube. The axonometric cube is formed by dividing an equilateral hexagon into three identical rhombuses. Both of these cubes create a visual trick where the cube can switch between being perceived as concave and convex. These cubes are often used in optical illusions.

Between 1978 and 1982, Vasarely designed a dynamic chess set and board that exemplified his signature Op Art style. The oppositionally translucent and transparent pieces underscore his illusionistic methods, as the light playing off the different pieces is received by the unique sensory perception of each viewer. While not truly kinetic art—a work of art that involves actual movement—Vasarely’s chess set, like his earlier Op Art, creates the potential for the illusion of movement within a specified field that takes place in the viewer’s unique optical experience. 

“Chess helps you to concentrate, improve your logic. It teaches you to play by the rules and take responsibility for your actions, how to problem solve in an uncertain environment.” – Garry Kasparov, a world chess champion

In 1925, Aleksandr Rodchenko designed the interior for a Workers’ Club for the Konstantin Melnikov's Soviet pavilion at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industrie' Modern in Paris. The Soviet government wanted the Workers’ Club to make a strong statement about hard work, dedication, simplicity, and collective self-improvement.

Rodchenko's club interior was a public space intended as a place where workers could relax and study. It had areas for games, reading, viewing films, and listening to talks. Rodchenko's Workers' Club interior assumed a political meaning as it was a model of a proletarian lifestyle which opposed the bourgeois ones represented in most of the other pavilions. 

The majority of the objects in the Workers’ Club interior had single functions rather than multiple ones, although some objects had movable parts that indicated efficiency of storage or function. Chess players, for example, could move the chessboard to a vertical position so they could get into their seats. Dictated by spatial economy, the chess table design also eliminated distraction, the chairs are fused as a single “work station,” and the board rotates so that the players can change colors without changing places.

There was also a speaker's platform which could be pulled out from behind a frame as well as a movable screen for film and slide projections. The tight organization that Rodchenko exercised over the interior recalls the ConstructivIst sets that Popova and Stepanova designed for The Magnanimous Cuckold, and The Death of Tarelkin in 1922. This analogy to the theater also supports the interior's rhetorical aim. The objects did not exemplify advances in Soviet industry (they were, in fact, handcrafted from wood) nor did they serve as examples of products available for consumption. Instead, they demonstrated to the exposition's visitors the idealized qualities of revolutionary action through which the government wanted to characterize Soviet life. 

Paul Klee’s first ‘square pictures’ were created during his sojourn as an instructor at the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau. They are among the few fully non-representational compositions in his oeuvre. In the uncharacteristically large Super-Chess, a later square picture from 1937, fields of black, white and grey constitute the basic pattern. Although the complementary colours red and blue apparently designate the opponent’s moves, the winner of the match is clear: the red ‘super-king’ has just felled the last of the opponent’s pieces. 

Imagery of Chess

Marcel Duchamp, along with Julien Levy and Max Ernst, put on a show at the Levy Gallery called Imagery of Chess. The show ran from December 12, 1944 through January 31, 1945. Duchamp was undoubtedly the impetus behind the show which included 32+ listed contributors, one for each man on a chess board.

The groundbreaking exhibition sought to challenge the general conventions of the ancient game. Each contributor created artwork or performances inspired by and challenging preconceived notions of chess. Though a few of the participating artists—Alexander Calder, Man Ray, André Breton, and the organizers—were well known at the time, others such as Matta, Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, and John Cage would emerge as significant figures in the second half of the 20th century. The highly publicized exhibition was well received by the chess, art, and general communities, and the project went on to inspire artists over the last 70+ years to reinterpret the game in an artistic way.  


Midway through the show, January 6, 1945, George Koltanowski gave a blindfold demonstration

A blindfold exhibition fit nicely into Duchamp's conception that the chess board and pieces were a necessary, yet imperfect interface between the mind and the game. His desire to re-design the board and pieces was centered on the idea that the physical elements of chess should interfere as little as possible with the mental elements. A better design would suggest the correct movement by its visual aspects. Blindfold players don't use such a physical interface - a fact not at all lost on Duchamp.

On the brochure, designed by Duchamp, one of the premises for the show was put forth:

“Cannot a new set be designed, that is, without too radical a departure from the traditional figures, at once more harmonious and more agreeable to the touch and to the sight, and above all, more adequate to the role the figure has to play in the struggle?”

The Imagery of Chess exhibition intertwined aspects of Duchamp’s identity: artist, chess master, publicist of art, and curator. The exhibition synthesized the “successive moves” of Duchamp’s career as an artist, chess master, publicist of art, and curator while popularizing European avant-garde art in the eyes of the American art public. The Imagery of Chess also served as a precedent for two subsequent performances in which Duchamp participated in the 1960s: his chess performance with Eve Babitz in 1963 at the Pasadena Art Museum and the 1968 Reunion performance with John Cage.

The Chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes thoughts; and these thoughts, although making a visual design on the chessboard, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem. - Duchamp

Reunion premiered in 1968 in Toronto, when Cage played against Duchamp, who had taught Cage the game himself. Duchamp, of course, was Master strength and had competed alongside Alexander Alekhine for the French Olympiad team in the 1930s, so he won the game in short order despite giving Cage knight odds. Unfortunately, there is no record of the moves, nor any film or video recording. But, in any case, it was the resulting sound generated by the game that was interesting.

Reunion is an event without a score; originally performed by playing a game of chess on a chessboard created by Lowell Cross. The game works as an indeterminate structure: as a game of chess is played, the moves of the players on the board activate four compositions and distribute them to eight speakers surrounding the audience.

The original chess board instrument used sixteen audio inputs connected to eight speakers surrounding the audience in the hall. The squares of the chessboard acted as switches by way of photo-resistors, which were activated whenever a particular square was covered or uncovered via the movement of the pieces.

The life of a chess master is much more difficult than that of an artist — much more depressing. An artist knows that someday there'll be recognition and monetary reward, but for the chess master there is little public recognition and absolutely no hope of supporting himself by his endeavors. If Bobby Fischer came to me for advice, I certainly would not discourage him — as if anyone could — but I would try to make it positively clear that he will never have any money from chess, live a monk-like existence and know more rejection than any artist ever has, struggling to be known and accepted.  - Duchamp

E2-E4, released in 1984, is a solo recording by German musician and Ash Ra Tempel founder Manuel Göttsching. The album consists of one minimalistic, hour-long electronic track that Göttsching recorded in one take using a sequencer, with improvised keyboards, metallic percussion, and guitar playing.

The album is named after the most popular opening chess move 1. e2-e4 (which is expressed in long algebraic notation). A noteworthy pun on E2-E4 exists—when expressed in standard scientific pitch notation, the harmonic range of a guitar's strings extends from E₂ (82.407 Hz) to E₄ (329.63 Hz).

E2-E4 is known for its important role in the development of house and techno music of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Though inspired in part by New York's Latin club rhythms in addition to minimalists like Steve Reich, Göttsching was surprised when he learned that people danced to the track.

A Knight's Tour
A knight's tour is a sequence of moves of a knight on a chessboard such that the knight visits every square exactly once. If the knight ends on a square that is one knight's move from the beginning square (so that it could tour the board again immediately, following the same path), the tour is closed; otherwise, it is open.

The knight's tour problem is the mathematical problem of finding a knight's tour. Creating a program to find a knight's tour is a common problem given to computer science students. Variations of the knight's tour problem involve chess boards of different sizes than the usual 8 × 8, as well as irregular (non-rectangular) boards.

The earliest known reference to the knight's tour problem dates back to the 9th century AD. In Rudraṭa's Kavyalankara, a Sanskrit work on Poetics, the pattern of a knight's tour on a half-board has been presented as an elaborate poetic figure (citra-alaṅkāra) called the turagapadabandha or 'arrangement in the steps of a horse'. The same verse in four lines of eight syllables each can be read from left to right or by following the path of the knight on tour.