Counting and Dreams: Jonathan Borofsky as Scribe

Jonathan Borofsky
Self Portrait, 1979
Jonathan Borofsky (b. 1942) is an American artist best known for his wall drawings, installations and public sculpture. He studied at Carnegie Mellon University, Ecole de Fontainebleau in Paris, and Yale University. After graduating from Yale in 1966, Borofsky moved to New York City, and, preferring “to think about art rather than to make it …. began writing––random thoughts about the universe, philosophical truisms, conceptual diagrams, and numerical notations––a process that for him was a regimented activity.”[1] Borofsky bound these pages up into a “Thought Book,” but became dissatisfied with this exercise and began counting on paper. He later exhibited a 3-4’ stack of these pages as “Counting from 1 to 3227146”  (aka “Counting from 1 to Infinity”).

Jonathan Borofsky
Counting from 1 to 3227146, 1969/1976
Borofsky is not the first to explore the counting concept. A year or so before Borofsky began “Counting from 1 to Infinity,” Roman Opalka (1931-2011), a French-born Polish painter, began painting his “Opalka 1965/1 – ∞,” a series of 233 “detail” paintings that would be his life’s work. In distinction to Opalka’s counting, which was the sole focus of his life, Borofsky’s counting was “a break from [his] thought process,” one that might be construed as an escape resulting in boredom (i.e., the later “break from the counting”).[2] Addressing the theme of boredom with Borofsky and Opalka in view, James Elkins has noted:

Boredom is about two hundred years old, young by historical standards. It’s younger than Titian or Rembrandt. Boredom … is part of our modern middle class malaise, a sign of our anxiety, of the fragmentation of our lives, of our compulsive need for continuous, intensive distractions. Modern and contemporary artworks take less time to make, on average, than older artworks, partly because we have become skittish. We’re impatient. We’re easily bored.[3]

But perhaps this is to put things too negatively. Borofsky and Opalka have spent years counting, and more recently, Borofsky has reversed his previous account (i.e., the counting as break), noting: “I didn’t see it as a break from art as much an (sic) innovation. I saw myself as an innovator, stretching the boundaries of art.”[4] And elsewhere he has referred to the activity of counting as his “anchor.”[5]

So what are we to make of Borofsky’s counting? Does it evince impatience and boredom or something else altogether? I intend to argue in favor of the latter. What follows is a brief sketch of the argument.

  1. His counting might be seen as a sort of contemporary parallel of ancient Jewish scribal training and practices.[6]
  2. Numbers and spirituality have a long history stretching back to the Pythagoreans, and the Pythagorean influence on art in Antiquity and the Middle Ages has been well documented.[7] And that’s to say nothing of Jewish or Christian numerology, or the influence of the Pythagoreans upon contemporary art. For Borofsky, “numbers are like God. They connect us all together in a way nothing else does.”[8]
  3. Shortly after Borofsky began counting, he started writing down his dreams. He recollects: “It became almost a balance to the counting.”[9] Dream art has a long history, and it seems fairly straightforward to situate Borofsky’s dream records within this genre.[10] That said, I wonder if, instead of reading Borofsky through Freud, we might see his dream records, like his counting, as a sort of scribal activity. Dreaming was, after all, related to scribal activity in ancient Jewish culture.[11] And the two activities are clearly related for Borofsky.

Now, it may seem strange to read Borofsky through ancient Jewish scribal practice, but I would argue that it is no more strange than reading him through Freud. What’s more, the reading I’ve suggested above unites his counting and dreaming, and provides a context for reading his later work with religious implications for our own day, a subject that I will address in my next post.

Christopher R. Brewer is pursuing a PhD with David Brown and he is exploring the possibility of an imaginative natural theology.  Along these lines, he is the founder and director of  gospel through shared experience as well as the editor and publisher of Art that Tells the Story.

1. Marshall, “Jonathan Borofsky’s Installations: All Is One,” in Mark Rosenthal, ed., Jonathan Borofsky, (Henry N. Abrams, 1984), 89.
2. Borofsky, marginal comments, in Rosenthal, ed., Jonathan Borofsky, 33.
3. James Elkins, “Are Artists Bored by Their Work?” HuffPost Arts & Culture, 15 December 2010. 
4. Ann Curran, “Jonathan Borofsky: Nobody Knows His Name, Everybody Has His Number,” in Carnegie Mellon Magazine, Spring 2002.
5. Rosenthal, “Jonathan Borofsky’s Modes of Working,” in Rosenthal, ed., Jonathan Borofsky, 18.
6. See Emmanuel Tov, Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert (Brill, 2004); Karel van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Harvard University Press, 2007).
7. Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier, Measuring Heaven: Pythagoras and His Influence on Though and Art in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Cornell University Press, 2006).
8. Curran, “Jonathan Borofsky: Nobody Knows His Name, Everybody Has His Number.”
9. Ibid.
10. Lynn Gamwell, ed., Dreams 1900-2000: Science, Art, and the Unconscious Mind (Cornell University Press, 2000).
11. Frances Flannery-Dailey, Dreamers, Scribes, and Priests: Jewish Dreams in the Hellenistic and Roman Eras (Brill, 2004).

Image Credit: Jonathan Borofsky


  • Christopher R. Brewer (PhD, St Andrews) is a Program Officer of the Templeton Religion Trust, Nassau, The Bahamas. He has edited or co-edited six volumes, including Art that Tells the Story which was named one of Hearts & Minds Best Books of 2011. He is now working on a book for Zondervan Academic provisionally titled Understanding Natural Theology, and an additional edited volume (for Routledge). His current research has mostly to do with questions at the intersection of theology, philosophy, and contemporary visual art, but also includes Anglican ecumenism.

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