Art at AAAS: "Chemography III, A Symbiosis of Art and Science"

Rüdiger Haugwitz's fascination with the chemistry of color began with an aggressive case of blood poisoning, when he was 6 years old and living on a farm in Germany. He was rushed to a distant hospital by horse and buggy, treated with brick-red tablets and quickly released as cured.

More than 10 years later, right as World War II came to an end and the military retreated, among the equipment and weapons left behind that the children could get their hands on were bright yellow flare-like sticks, which, when ignited, burned beautifully with a charcoal flame.

Much later in life, as a chemist, Haugwitz realized that the beautiful red that saved his life must have been prontosil rubrum, the first sulfa drug discovered in the early 20th century by the chemist Gerhard Domagk. The sticks, which burned beautifully with a smoky flame, Haugwitz also discovered later, must have been TNT, a very powerful explosive. Fortunately for him, the German army didn't leave behind any primers, which are essential for detonation.

Haugwitz's long-time fascination with the chemistry of color infuses "Chemography III, A Symbiosis of Art and Science," an exhibit of 50 images. The artwork will be displayed through 29 July in the AAAS gallery at 12th and H Streets NW in Washington, D.C.

The exhibit was organized by Virginia Stern, director of the AAAS Art of Science and Technology Program, and curated by Shirley Koller, a local sculptor who curates the rotating art exhibitions at AAAS and also installs art throughout the AAAS headquarters.

Stern said Haugwitz' artwork satisfied the program's selection criteria perfectly. "We often seek out scientists who use their knowledge of their discipline to create art," she explained. "Roger Haugwitz is a chemist and uses those materials and techniques to create his art."

Haugwitz was born in Germany in 1932, emigrating to the United States in 1956 to pursue his Ph.D. in chemistry and microbiology at Indiana University. He did post-doctoral studies at the Royal Technical University in Stockholm, Sweden, and then returned to the United States to do research in the pharmaceutical industry. Since 1982, Haugwitz has worked at the National Cancer Institute developing potential anti-cancer drugs.

His chemographs — which Haugwitz defines as the creation of dyes and pigments by reacting inorganic compounds such as metal salts, with complexing agents such as nitrogen, sulfur and oxygen — are the result of extensive experimentation. When he realized that the rich colors created by chemical reactions in test tubes he was constantly observing in the lab could be recreated in beautiful shapes and textures on paper, his experiments moved beyond the lab and into the studio.

"I'm a chemist," Haugwitz explained in comments to AAAS. "I have at my disposal what other people don't." Bottles of zinc, cadmium, copper salts, pyridine derivatives and acrylic sprays all can be found in his studio.

He is inspired by nature and the outside world, which is evident in his piece entitled "Contemplating the Eclipse," a depiction of two fish on a copper sheet looking up at the sun. In this piece, Haugwitz also uses gold-plated zinc wire, latex, copper salts, composition gold and acrylic.

His mantra, and the key to his artwork, is "experimentation, experimentation, experimentation." He says that probably fewer than 5 percent of his experiments yield interesting results, but he just keeps trying different techniques and mixing different materials until something interesting evolves. Because, as Haugwitz quotes the famous maxim, "without science there is no art."

Lonnie Shekhtman

2 June 2005


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