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What Is Modular Art?

By Angela Farrer
Updated May 23, 2024
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Modular art is a type of contemporary art known for the use of one repeating image or unit to create a larger picture or three-dimensional piece. This type of conceptual art has a basis in architecture for its mathematically precise applications of proportion. The visual or sculptural building blocks used in modular art can be as simple as colored squares or as complex as a series of carved marble columns. Artists who create this kind of generative art often have goals of making an image or object that is quite different from the individual pieces that comprise it.

The generative art units used in repetitive patterns are often known as modules. A module for a two-dimensional piece of modular art is usually selected according to certain laws of mathematics such as congruence and equivalence. Knowledge of number theory is usually important for correctly fitting visual elements together so they have balanced proportions of color and shape. Some modular artists begin formulating these patterns by assigning a specific number to each interlocking shape and then piecing the artwork together according to a chosen number order. The resulting patterns in some pieces can be changed around without disturbing this balance, although others are not as structurally or visually flexible.

Some art movements include the use of modular art construction designed to create optical illusions of movement when viewers look at a stationary image. Precise placement of repeating curves in a uniform pattern can create this visual effect for instance. Artists who have created these types of works often have goals of demonstrating that art is fluid and evolving rather than static and unchangeable. Many of these pieces are also created according to certain principles of serial art that give meaning to the whole unit rather than its individual building blocks.

The minimalist art movement of the 1960s included some kinds of modular art as a collective expression of the visual possibilities of endless repetition. Some of the earlier art pieces from this time period consisted of simple colored panels interlocked together in a way that suggested the same pattern could keep regenerating itself into infinity. Similar principles were incorporated into large scale sculptural works that artists would sketch out on paper but then assign to others for the actual construction process. These forms of modular art often reflected the attitudes of postmodernism towards the mass production and uniformity found in many areas of contemporary life.

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Discussion Comments
By Mor — On Mar 22, 2012

@bythewell - One of the things about modular art I've always liked is that it can make it possible to make art out of ordinary objects. Warhol was very interested in doing that, although he didn't always use the object itself, but often just its image.

He managed to help some people look at the world differently though, and I think in some ways that's the highest calling of the artist.

Then there are the modular artists who use actual objects to create an image. I'm thinking particularly of the ones who use food, like toast or even skittles to create patterns or faces.

That is often called pop art as well, and maybe it is, but again it can make you look at the world differently. Sometimes a burnt piece of toast is just cooked bread and sometimes it's the nose of a president.

It's all in the way you look at it, I suppose.

By bythewell — On Mar 21, 2012

@croydon - I always thought of modular art as being the kind like Escher's where a pattern is repeated over and over again in interlocking tiles. It's kind of cool how it can take different forms like that, including origami, or prints, or whatever else.

I guess like anything else in art, it depends on the imagination and creativity of the artist, but this also needs quite a lot of skill to really be used to its fullest extent.

I suppose even those famous face prints made by Andy Warhol count as modular art. I don't like those so much though, as I always thought he worked mostly through gimmicks, and simply drew off his popularity.

By croydon — On Mar 21, 2012

One kind of modular art you might want to try if you are feeling slightly ambitious is the 3D origami egg. You can find instructions for it online.

I saw one at a friend's house and asked about it, because I'd never seen that kind of sculpture before. It's made up of hundreds of interlocking bits of paper that have been folded so that they will fit together.

The end effect is an egg that looks like it has scales and is quite solid and chunky.

You can also make lots of different kinds of shapes but a ball or an egg is the most simple to start off with.

And before you ask, no I haven't tried it myself. My friend told me it takes forever since it is very fiddly and I don't have the patience.

But I think it would look gorgeous if you did it in a bunch of different colors. And it would be a lovely, non-fattening gift for Easter. If anything, you'd probably lose weight in your fingers!

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