Haynes Ownby's Kruztrax

Originally Published in ArtsEditor, Boston, October, 1999


Haynes Ownby was the only abstract painter in Dallas in 1952 when, fresh out of the University and longing for a community of like-minded artists, he left Texas for New York City.  He studied four years with Hans Hofmann in New York and Provincetown, then moved to Taos.  In Taos, Ownby was exposed to the 12-tone system of composer Arnold Schoenberg, giving him the idea to use a grid system in his own work.


During this same time, Ownby began to read the novels of Herman Hesse.  Ownby explains, “I was very much taken with Hesse's books -- Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, Narziss and Goldman, all of them, all great books and all about art and the artist, the role of the artist in society.  The Glass Bead Game takes place in a remote future society.  What struck me was that in this society, the game has become a substitute for art.  It isn't about winning; rather, the spiritual experience that comes from playing.  It uses math, the visual arts to play the game.  I've always thought about art that way, as a spiritual discipline."

Back in Texas by the mid '70's, Ownby began working with "platonic bodies," making studies and maquettes from conglomerations of polyhedrons inspired by the work of Buckminster Fuller.  Fuller's influence caused Ownby to change from a diamond grid to a grid of triangles, which he continues to use today, and which, circuitously, inspired the dice for Kruztrax, the art game he invented.

Even though Ownby "never expected to do anything like this," one hot summer night in 1976 he found himself sitting around the house thinking about making a pair of dice.  "I thought - why do you have to have the dice the same shapes, why not have them two different shapes?  So I made an octahedron and a tetrahedron.  The dice just sat around until the fall of 1982, when Ownby began making paintings that would lead to a game board.  He had been doing geometric paintings for years.  "Some think when they see geometric paintings that it's all calculated, but Mondrian is just as intuitive as Hofmann," Ownby insists.  "Art cannot be done other than intuitively.  Otherwise it's no good."

Ownby left Austin behind and settled in Provincetown for good in the spring of 1983.  The game had been percolating since 1961.  He worked like a demon to get ready for a large exhibition in Texas the next March.  The new paintings, some of them as large as 6' x 8', presented blocks of color in a complex arrangement of tracks circling a field with inner parks, and served as studies for the developing game.

"Now the game is a hell of a lot of fun to play, but in 1984," Ownby says, "it was a drag."  The rules were too cumbersome, there were too many tracks on the board, the strategy was too complex.  In 1985 he redesigned the game, added a couple of playing pieces (small polyhedron sculptures), created one color-coded die and revamped the rules.  In the winter of 1987, four friends played on a regular basis, refining the rules as they played.  That became the final version, now copyrighted.  Once Ownby played with a group including John Schwartz, the great, great grandson of the founder of FAO Schwartz.  He beat everybody.

Last fall, an exhibition game of Kruztrax was played at the Schoolhouse Center's “Utopia” show. This fall, Ownby begins teaching Design on the faculty of the new Provincetown International Art Institute.





©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved