All the Possibilities of Art and Science

The Gregg Museum unveils Vernon Pratt’s never-before-seen Magnum Opus.

By Ruhama Wolle

Art and science: Is it possible for a work of art to be a work of science, or vice versa? In Leonardo da Vinci’s time, when expertise in art and science had not yet matured to the polarized state in which they exist today, they coexisted naturally.

This idea that innovation resides where art and science connect is not new. The late Vernon Pratt, a prolific artist, had an appreciation for greater learning through the interplay of art, science, math, and music. An associate art professor in Duke University’s Department of Art and Art History for more than 30 years as well as a well-known improvisational jazz artist, Pratt incorporated his love of music, mathematics, and the study of systems to elevate his art.

In the late 1960s, he stepped away from color altogether and began limiting his palette to black and white. This systematic approach to his creative process led him to explore the various gradations of gray. The ratios of black and white to make gray were all done mathematically and scientifically through trial and error, a notion Pratt described as “simple is complicated enough.”

vernon pratt at work in his studio.

vernon pratt at work in his studio.

Through efforts to make Pratt universally recognized, the Gregg Museum of Art & Design at N.C. State University is revealing a never-before-seen work called “All the Possibilities of Filling in Sixteenths (65,536)”. Relating to his study of gray, this is Pratt’s most massive and ambitious piece, exploring a rich array of possibilities within a given set of parameters.

Showcasing 256 panels, the exhibit stands at 18 feet high and 110 feet wide. Each panel is divided into 256 small rectangles, with each rectangle broken up into sixteen units. The sequence ultimately reveals every possible combination between black and white. Like cell division, arithmetic, or even textile design, “Pratt aimed at making art that let viewers see exactly how it was accomplished,” says Roger Manley, director of the Gregg Museum.

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When you step into the enveloped room of panels, you will see a work that is beautifully and meticulously made—but, even more than that, it is made obsessively. The larger pieces in the exhibit were seeded by tiny drawings. At a closer look, the individual rows expose a lack in perfection, but attest to the humanity behind the painter.

“There is a certain complexity to Pratt’s art, yet there is a simplicity,” says Scott Lair of the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics. To honor Pratt’s themes of jazz, mathematics, and systems, Rich Holly, the executive director of Arts N.C. State, composed a 114-minute original musical piece that plays on a loop in the gallery where Pratt’s exhibit is displayed.

Pratt left a cultural legacy in the way that he approached art. A transdisciplinary thinker, he recognized that the relationship of form can only be appreciated to the extent that the original ideas and materials are recognizable. His original intention for the installment of the 256 panels was to have them displayed on one wall standing at 40 feet high and 47 feet wide. “An experience akin to visiting an Egyptian tomb, where hieroglyphs cover the walls in the same all-over patterning with a heightened awareness of time—past, present, and future,” says former N.C. Museum of Art curator Huston Paschal.

Pratt’s systematic abstraction will be on display at the Gregg Museum until February 10th. Information about the Vernon Pratt exhibit and other Gregg Museum offerings can be found at

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