From 1963: Why settle for ants on a log when you can have ants on a Mobius strip?

As an aging member of Generation X, I can attest to the existence of certain rites of pop culture passage that have shaped our perception of the world. Eating Pop Rocks, for example. Acknowledging the profundity of Dark Side of the Moon. Attempting to reconcile a Rubik’s Cube. Discovering the Three Stooges. And surely somewhere in there, as our brains expanded to fathom the limitless wonder of human history and the unknowable infinity of our universe, we were all exposed to prints by the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher.

You know the work, if not the name. The famous pair of hands emerging from a flat sheet of paper to draw each other. The self-portrait of the artist as seen in the reflection of a hand-held sphere. Tessellations of birds, fish, and other creatures. Impossible architecture in which columns defy logic, stairs descend endlessly within a closed loop, and strange beings walk upon every surface of a convoluted interior. All were the creation of Maurits Cornelis Escher, who was born in the Netherlands on this day in 1898.

Adorning the walls of classrooms and dormitories, Escher prints are also reproduced in mathematics, science, and psychology textbooks. They have a place in remaindered compilations piled up in the bargain aisles of Barnes & Noble among the other “cool” art by the likes of Dali and Magritte. Is it, indeed, art? Perhaps not in the sense of creative work that engages our emotions or challenges our beliefs. But Escher’s work does reframe reality in a way that makes us appreciate the limits and flexibility of human perception. It also exalts the beauty of graphically represented mathematical ideas. In short, it’s art for geeks.

For example, consider Moebius Strip II, the 1963 woodcut pictured above. It’s about one thing and one thing only: a Mobius strip has only one surface, as demonstrated by the continuous line of ants walking all over it. Not much of an artistic statement, is it? However, it is a fascinating and beautifully crafted illustration of the concept. Or to put it in the words of the average Escher enthusiast, it’s just plain cool. As are hands drawing themselves, impossible buildings, and clever tessellations. The value of Escher is cool content rendered with amazing graphic precision.

That also describes what many bands are looking for when choosing album artwork. Time and again, almost to the point of cliche, the Dutch artist’s captivating illusions and mesmerizing patterns have become the pretty packaging that helps to sell music:

It’s not a bad strategy, really. If a kid’s trying to decide between two albums, he might just buy the one with the coolest cover art.

Of course, these days, if it works as cool album cover art, some people are bound to part with big bucks for the privilege of having it permanently displayed on their own bodies:

Personally, I think that’s taking it a bit too far, but then I’ve never been able to understand the ever-escalating tattoo phenomenon. Still, if your art is forever inked on the front and backsides of the proletariat, you know you’ve truly reached the people.

Apparently, that was all that mattered to Escher anyway. “Ideas came into my mind quite unrelated to graphic art, notions which so fascinated me that I longed to communicate them to other people,” he wrote in the introduction to The Graphic Work of M.C. Escher. “This could not be achieved through words, for these thoughts were not literary ones, but mental images of a kind that can only be made comprehensible to others by presenting them as visual images.”

Seen through that lens, one can make the case that M.C. Escher’s work has as much artistic validity as that of anyone else. Like any great artist, he was blessed and cursed by a profusion of brilliant ideas that haunted his mind for as long as they remained uncommunicated. Escher’s creative output was the only way to exorcise his obsessions. He chose his medium because it was the best method of efficiently conveying his thoughts. Thanks to his accomplished draftsmanship, he succeeded so well that his work continues to influence new generations.

Yet for all of his popular appeal, there is something about Escher’s work that has kept it on the fringes of the art world, stuck in a unique limbo between illustration and museum pieces. Part of it must be the nature of his preferred media: woodcuts and lithographs, printed in black and white or with a limited color palette. Another component is Escher’s treatment of his subject matter. Though not devoid of the occasional touch of humor, his work is mostly clinical and emotionless. In seeking to translate his ideas about perception, mathematics, and the division of a plane into concrete visuals, he employed his skills in the manner of an engineer. Escher’s prints engage the intellect, and perhaps that is why they find favor among the scientifically inclined.

There must be more to the Escher equation, however, because whereas I look at most mass-produced “illusion” artwork with a somewhat disinterested eye, appreciating the gimmick but disliking the aesthetic, I never have the same dissatisfaction with Escher. One never gets the sense that his works are flaunting their cleverness or calling attention to themselves. Escher’s work has a marvelous subtlety about it. When we gaze upon his creations that challenge our perception, it is as though we are viewing not a distortion nor an impossibility but rather some alternate reality. In an Escher world, multiple perspectives coexist as naturally as wandering architectural columns do what is only possible in two dimensions. There is neither wink nor nod, but there are cognitive riches as a reward for our patient exploration.

So happy birthday, M.C. Escher. Like the ceaseless parade of ants along an endless Mobius strip, the appeal of your work has no end. Somewhere out there, right now, a teenager is encountering an Escher image for the very first time. And in a moment, in whatever language comes naturally, he or she will utter, “That’s cool.”