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Important Update

February 5, 2023 to August 27, 2023 | Opatrny Gallery, Sound Gallery, South Gallery, Balcony Gallery

Prima Materia: The Periodic Table in Contemporary Art

All art forms, even music and literature, are partially dependent on the material world. The visual arts, however, are more linked with materialism, as the field is primarily defined by objects, which are made of physical matter. Even digital media is contingent on matter, whether it is the silicon that makes a microprocessor, or the lithium that comprises the battery in a cell phone. For thousands of years humans have speculated on what the world is made of. “Prima materia” was a concept first put forth by Aristotle to describe the primitive, formless base for all matter. Later, Plato in his treatise Timaeus, wrote “The body of the world is composed of four elementary constituents, earth, air, fire, and water, the whole available amount of which is used up in its composition.” The alchemists of both medieval Europe and those of the Islamic Middle East and North Africa were the first who began to doubt the primacy of the ancient four elements and their speculation led to the transition from alchemy to chemistry that began in the Renaissance. The names given to the eras in human history–stone, bronze, iron, and now silicon, are indicative of how our understanding of matter has transformed culture.

Prima Materia: The Periodic Table in Contemporary Art is conceived of as a group exhibition that links individual works of art with an element from the periodic table which each work incorporates. Superficially, the exhibition’s foundation is science, but through expansive curatorial choices the project will reveal the material basis for sociological, emotional, political, and even spiritual subject matter. Artists use specific materials for a reason, quite often for their metaphoric potential, and Prima Materia will explore hard facts as well as alchemical conjecture. There are currently 118 elements in the periodic table, many of them extremely rare or man-made. The exhibition will not try to be inclusive, but rather will focus on approximately twenty common elements that are linked with significant and diverse works of art. A subtext that will be explored in the project is resource extraction, which will be incorporated through works that speak about the mining and refining industry and its legacy. As a society we are woefully unaware of the trail followed by common materials as they go from the earth into our hands, and the goal of the exhibition and its associated programming will be to give the viewer a greater appreciation of the basis of the material world, reveling in both the beauty and convoluted history of our understanding and manipulation of physical matter.

Participating Artists:

Matthew Barney
Edward Burtynsky
Rachel Berwick
Dove Bradshaw
Julian Charrière
Compound Interest
The Dufala Brothers
Ashley Epps*
Philip Grausman
Tom Lehrer
Bryan McGovern Wilson
Jeffrey Meris
Myra Mimlitsch-Gray
Cornelia Parker
Katie Paterson
Simon Patterson
Beverly Pepper
Winston Roeth*
Peter Selgin
Sunny A. Smith*
Edward Steed
Carlos Vega
Eleanor White*
Robert Williams

*Artists commissioned by the Museum to specifically make new works for the exhibition.

Prima Materia: The Periodic Table in Contemporary Art is curated by independent curator and artist Richard Klein, The Aldrich's former Exhibitions Director.



Generous support for Prima Materia: The Periodic Table in Contemporary Art is provided by The Aldrich Council, Anita and Nick Donofrio, Liz and Steven Goldstone, and The O’Grady Foundation. Significant support is provided by Pam and Jack Baker and Barbara and Tod Hamachek. Additional support is provided by Anonymous, Francie and Hank Ashforth, and Bobbi and Barry Coller. The catalogue is supported by the Eric Diefenbach and James-Keith Brown Publications Fund. Production support is provided by the Diana Bowes and Jim Torrey Commissions Fund.

Related Events

February 4, 2023 at 3:00 pm | Exhibition Opening

Private Event | Exhibition Opening: Prima Materia, Hangama Amiri, and Kathleen Ryan

Invitation only. Members and friends, please join us for a first look at Prima Materia: The Periodic Table in Contemporary Art, Hangama Amiri: A Homage to Home, and Kathleen Ryan: Head and Heart before the exhibitions open to the public.

February 8, 2023 at 1:00 pm | Group Tours

Seniors-Only Tour

Join us for this in-person gallery tour of highlighted works from our current exhibitions, guided by Museum Educator Holly Lapine, reserved specifically for senior adults ages 60 and above.

February 18, 2023 at 10:00 am | Third Weekend, Free Admission

Third Saturdays

Visit the Museum for FREE the third Saturday of every month. Participate in a Story Time at 10:30 am, an all-ages Discovery Tour of our current exhibitions at 1 pm.

February 18, 2023 at 1:00 pm | Group Tours

All Ages Discovery Tour

From Hangama Amiri’s large-scale textiles and Kathleen Ryan’s larger-than-life sculptures to the varied works featured in Prima Materia, explore artworks big, small, and everything in between during this in-person tour of our current exhibitions guided by a Museum Educator.

Top image: Matthew Barney, Bayhorse, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery.