George Widener’s Time Machine (2011) [1]







If from the Freudian and Lacanian standpoint, the artist precedes the psychoanalyst,[2] between words and images, what are the effects of the act of writing or displaying on him? To encounter a selection of artworks such as Time Machine (2011) and Magic Square by George Widener[3] questions the object of art in our modernity.

These artworks lead the viewer beyond the sense of the conventional as it falls upon the significantised element: the number understood as the letter. Lacan’s key categories add to the comprehension of this work of art.


George Widener is a self-taught American artist who employs his extraordinary mathematical capability to create art, ranging from complex calendars to numerical palindromes. At the age of 32, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.  He initially became a technician for the US Air Force. Then he worked as a painter in the construction industry.

As a child growing up in Kentucky in the Sixties, Widener exhibited exceptional arithmetical skills and an interest in machines. Yet his fixation with calendars has ultimately turned him into a celebrated artist whose striking paintings of numbers, cities, maps and machines have been exhibited all around the world.

Encountering the real

The artist cannot see a number square without running it into a magic square. The work of art emerges in some “squares of numbers such that each line, each column and each diagonal adds up to the same number.” Thus the artist’s knowhow reaches the real of the cause. The work of art teaches us how he recovers the object from his art which is in place of object a.

Moreover, as Jacques-Alain Miller argues,[4] the contemporary man likes to imagine being a machine. He adds: “something happened in his imagination, he wants to be the partner of the machines.”

Likewise, Widener estimates: “around 2050, where machines will become intelligent creatures. They are going to need art too, and I am here to provide it, I am trying to reach out to the future machines.”
The result is the man’s identification to the machine. He wants to be encrypted so that the number gives a guarantee to his being.






The rise of the Very Image

The artworks Time Machine and Magic Square are veil-less. As such, each claims to be the very Thing (das Ding). The artist’s artistry leads the viewer to an iconic image: the number as the letter. As such, it claims to be the very Thing.[5] By the action of the artist, the iconic image is the letter.

Referring to Lacan, the subject is subordinated to language. To illustrate the interval between speech and the letter, the word as an iconic image usually brings into play one’s interpretation.[6] According to the artist, the letter relies on “square of numbers”, which points out a key tension. Lacan defines the number as a master signifier which excludes the signified. In other words, there is an utterance which is excluding enunciation.

In conclusion

Widener’s artwork operates by treating the real as a hollow place with words and images. In addition, his artistry provides a new modality of the visible as a quantified robot’s vision. This work of art is looking at the viewer. Will it become the witness of our century? The artist, in his own way, refers to the hollow place of the Very thing.



[1] On the occasion of THE 3RD EDITION OF THE FAIR Galeristes AT CARREAU DU TEMPLE, PARIS, France (2018).

[2] Jacques Lacan (1965), “Hommage fait à Marguerite Duras du ravissement de Lol V. Stein”, Autres écrits, Seuil, Paris, 2001, pp. 191-192.

[3] Alex Bellos, “George Widener: the incredible life of the man who makes art for robots”, Guardian, 17 June 2013, available online.

[4] Jacques-Alain Miller, “Neuro-, Le nouveau reel”, La Cause du Désir, No. 98, Navarin Editeur, 2018, pp. 111-121.

[5] Freud’s use: das Ding

[6] Jacques Lacan: “Radiophonie” in Autres écrits, Seuil, Paris, 2001, p. 428.

(*) © George Widener, courtesy Christian Berst Art Brut Gallery (2018)

(**) Magic Square 34 (2011), Image: © George Widener, courtesy Ricco/Maresca Gallery