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Painted Black: Robert Motherwell

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At the request of reader Molly, today we'll take a look at Robert Motherwell, the first abstract expressionist to be covered by "Feel Art Again" (unless you count DuanPen). The American painter, writer, and collagist was both the youngest and the most prolific of the original group of abstract expressionists.

1. Robert Motherwell's paintings may not look very complex, but there is much more to them than what is noticeable upon first glance. With a B.A. in philosophy from Stanford, a year of doctorate philosophy work at Harvard, and art / art history studies at Columbia, Motherwell was an extremely well-educated artist, which is apparent in his works. Titles for paintings, drawings, and prints were inspired by James Joyce works; his Hollow Men series took its title from a T.S. Eliot poem; and his artist's book A la pintura (To Painting) was a response to Spanish poet Rafael Alberti's verses celebrating painting.

2. One of Motherwell's most successful and well-known series is Elegy to the Spanish Republic, comprised of more than 200 works. Motherwell took the series' theme from a poem by Frederico García Lorca, a Spanish poet, and used the series to express his "nostalgia for the lost cause of the Spanish Civil War," an apparently common nostalgia among his generation.

3. Not only is Motherwell credited for coining the phrase "New York School" (a group including Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning), but he's also credited with bringing shy, reclusive artists like Rothko to the public eye. With his background in philosophy and rhetoric, Motherwell was able to articulate his artwork and motivations, and those of his friends. Rothko and others probably would not have become as well-known as they are today without Motherwell's speaking tours around the country.

4. Two Motherwell quotes help to explain his artwork: "You don't have to paint a figure to express human feelings. The game is not what things look like"¦" and "Generally, I use few colors"¦ Mainly I use each color as simply symbolic"¦ I guess that black and white, which I use most often, tend to be protagonists."

5. Interesting coincidence: Motherwell, known for his frequent use of black in his artwork, taught at Black Mountain College (North Carolina) in 1950.

A larger version of "Africa 4" (1970), from Motherwell's Africa Suite, is available here.

Fans of Robert Motherwell should check out the large collections at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Walker Art Center; this YouTube video of Motherwell works; and the Robert Motherwell Scrapbooks in the MOMA archives.

Current Exhibitions featuring "Feel Art Again" artists:
History of Artelier Brancusi, feat. Constantin Brancusi (Paris: through October 6, 2008)
Monet to Picasso, feat. Monet, Picasso, Degas, van Gogh, Dali, Matisse, & Renoir
(Salt Lake City: through September 21, 2008)
Frida Kahlo (San Francisco: through Sept. 28, 2008)

"Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with artist suggestions or details of current/upcoming exhibitions.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]