Recalling a Notable Logician-Philosopher Connecting with the Art World

By the 1950s, there was much fallout in the air from developments in scientific reasoning. Trendy humanities faculties taught even the youngest undergraduates that it was best to first digest Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World before approaching T. S. Eliot, Proust, Matisse, Cubism, Kafka, and the full range of creativity emerging in the 20th century. It made a big impression when my freshman class was required to read Whitehead before going further with modern literature, art, and criticism.

Drawing by Kelsey Mitchell, 2016.

For ambitious artists, the investigations in science, logic, and philosophy became welcome reinforcement, and sometimes validation, for pioneering experiments in new directions. In January 1951, members and guests at the Artists’ Club (on 8th Street in New York City) heard their invited lecturer, the quiet visionary logician-philosopher Jean van Heijenoort (1912, Creil, France – 1986, Mexico City), speak on “Space, Math and Modern Painting.” Willem de Kooning gave the introduction.

Van, as he was usually called, was then living in Greenwich Village and teaching in the math department at NYU and in the philosophy department at Columbia. He frequently visited the Club, and his name appears on its mailing list of “regulars.” Three of his close friends from his Partisan Review years, Harold Rosenberg, Nicolas Calas, and Lionel Abel, were also Club regulars.

His route to the art world touches on aspects of international political history, intrigue and passion. As a Paris-based university student, his left-wing activities and his proficiency in at least seven languages came to the attention of the exiled Stalin enemy, Leon Trotsky, who asked Van to serve as his secretary and bodyguard. After multiple changes of sanctuary for the household, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo arranged refuge in Mexico and provided the hospitality of Kahlo’s just vacated home and studio. When André Breton visited the country on a speaking tour, Trotsky saw an opportunity to advance his political cause with a proclamation that would be jointly signed by Rivera and Breton. Van was given the task of carrying out the project and having it published in New York, where it would be noticed by intellectuals who might further the Trotsky movement. Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art appeared in the Partisan Review in 1938. A year later, Van transferred to New York to serve as International Secretary of the Fourth International, leading all North American supporters of the movement. His publishing activity continued, although always under one of at least thirteen pseudonyms because of Stalinist threats on his life. In 1948 Van gave up politics and returned to his career path in logistics, mathematics, and philosophy, initially specializing in curves, planes, shapes, and surfaces. Those in the arts saw him as the professor clarifying links between forms that were considered to be subjective and forms that could be empirically proven.

The van Heijenoort name kept popping up everywhere when, decades later, I was researching the Surrealists and their friends who spent time on Long Island during WWII. He was especially close to Breton and was a regular with the artists and writers who summered together on eastern Long Island. Those who knew him praised his brilliance while also noting his quiet personality. There seems to have been a mixture of awe and warm friendship. While spending a weekend in 1948 as Harold Rosenberg’s guest in Springs, Van decided to purchase thirteen acres nearby. His biographer, Anita Burdman Feferman, comments on some of his interactions with the area’s artists, including Jackson Pollock. In the early ’50s he sold a section of his property to the painter Perle Fine.

Van’s Springs cabin became his writing base and there he completed From Frege to Gödel: A Source Book in Mathematical Logic, 1879 – 1931, the survey that brought international renown in his field. Academic affiliations were at NYU, Brandeis, Harvard, and Stanford, where he built a legacy as a contributor to set theory, to the meaning of language, and to the clarification of the discourse relating sensory experience to the philosophies of logic and the mathematical sciences.


Phyllis Braff

PHYLLIS BRAFF is an art critic and independent curator.