Galleries

When Experimental Music Resonated with Abstract Art

The exhibition includes scores by John Cage and Morton Feldman, paintings by Philip Guston, sculpture and works on paper by Louise Bourgeois and David Smith, and oil paintings by Joan Mitchell.

‘Nothing and Everything: Seven Artists, 1947–1962,’ installation view (image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth; photo by Genevieve Hanson)

Next to the signature on Philip Guston’s “Untitled” (1952) is the dedication “for Morty.” This hangs in the central gallery of Hauser and Wirth’s 69th St. show Nothing and Everything: Seven Artists, 1947 – 1962, curated by Doug Dreishpoon. In the back room, recordings of compositions by Morton Feldman and John Cage play on loop, including Morty’s “For Franz Kline” (1962). Upstairs is a selection of paintings and works on paper by Kline. This ricochet of dedications is one of the more explicit modes of social and aesthetic networking that bind together the composers and artists in this rich exhibition.

The title of the show accentuates what composer Christian Wolff — the last living member of the New York School of composers and briefly a student of Cage’s — characterized as the “interesting differences, held in a kind of cheerful suspension” that can be heard in “Radio Happening I” (1966), a conversation between Cage and Feldman. Excerpts of that revealing exchange alternate with a recording of Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing,” quietly looping at the entrance of the gallery. The exhibition spans three floors and includes original and facsimile scores by Cage and Feldman, paintings by Guston, sculpture and works on paper by Louise Bourgeois and David Smith, and oil paintings by Joan Mitchell.

Philip Guston, “Untitled” (c. 1951), gouache on paper, 44.5 x 57.8 / 17 1/2 x22 3/4 in (image courtesy the Estate of Philip Guston and Hauser & Wirth; photo by Genevieve Hanson)

The tension between the worldviews of Cage and Feldman immortalized in “Radio Happenings” is representative of the show’s variety. These artists and composers gathered together at The Club and the Cedar Tavern, talked, and supported one another, but they had divergent aesthetic outlooks that were allowed to stand because of the friendship. Recently, while visiting Brigid Cohen’s “Musical Experimentalism: Poetics and Politics” seminar at NYU, Wolff said he wasn’t sure the artists liked their concerts very much, but they were supportive and would show up. The slender monoliths of Bourgeois’s “Breasted Woman” (1949–50; cast 1989) and David Smith’s “Forging IX” (1955) represent contrasting approaches to the gendered social positions of the artists: Culturally embedded into Smith’s title, masculinity enlists a deceptive neutrality; Bourgeois hangs the feminine body on the work.

Louise Bourgeois, “Breasted Woman” (1949–1950; cast 1989), bronze, paint, and stainless steel, 137.2 x 8.9 x 8.9 cm / 54 x 3 ½ x 3 ½ in (© The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York NY; courtesy Hauser & Wirth; photo by Christopher Burke)

Looking at Bourgeois’s sculpture “The Blind Leading the Blind” (1947–49) strains my body into a perpetual tiptoe as I both carry off a body and am myself borne away. The wood tapering vertically to the floor plunges me into the vertigo of modernity of which Baudelaire wrote; the horizontal elements direct me to a vanishing point from which I came or to which I am being led. Like a sound, her works radiate their effect beyond visual boundaries.

Kline’s works of black paint on newspaper have a fascinating parallel with Cage’s ideas about listening. At 13:00 of “Radio Happening I,” Cage tries to convince Feldman that the transistor radios that so bothered Feldman were only “making audible something that you were already in.” For Cage, the radio actualizes a selection of the noise in which we are immersed. In the history of Kline’s work, a projector stands in for Cage’s radios: At de Koonings suggestion, Kline projected a drawing of a chair onto the wall at an enormous size, and he found “the strokes expanding as entities in themselves, unrelated to any entity but that of their own existence.” Kline’s black figures seem to be the actualization of some subset of the virtual noise of newsprint on which they stand. As in Feldman’s vanishing instrumental works, the materials become isolated amid space or silence, depending on your medium.

Though Kline’s works may zoom in on isolated existence, they look good together, taken in at a glance, just as Cage found it congenial to have his works played simultaneously. In contrast, Mitchell’s paintings are lonely, asking you to get lost in the frame as if nothing else existed in the universe: Enter with only your memory of life. We are meant to engage them with a question on our lips, as is the case with Feldman’s music from this period. Later in his career, Feldman’s works ask the questions for us, but at that point we don’t mind, thanks to the hard-won eloquence of the later pieces such as “Triadic Memories” (1981).

‘Nothing and Everything: Seven Artists, 1947–1962,’ installation view (image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth; photo by Genevieve Hanson)

The press release presents the show as a group of artists pushing “their respective mediums to new realms of abstraction.” But the notion of “abstract music” is a troubled one; music becomes “abstract” mostly by association with art that is so named. Feldman’s sparse instrumental works actually throw us back to the material — a single pluck of a cello string sounds, unmoored from its aesthetic symbolic order. Cage’s cacophonous “Williams Mix” (1952) hurls the material at us: horns, frogs, and voices ordered by many flips of the coin and assembled through a score that functions like a dressmaker’s pattern. (The original score on display is well worth examining.) In the works presented, it is primarily the absence of an intelligible grammar of melody that prevents the familiar and emphatically abstract structures of music from cohering; it renders the sounds starkly and concretely associated with their bodily sources. There is no attempt to enlist virtuosity to transcend the instrument, to make a piano sound either happy or sad according to a recognizable code.

The exhibition text’s comparison of silence and space is a more fruitful theoretical joining of the disciplines, but the leap from sound to space is not so easily made technically. I found the audio volume in the “specially designed listening room” frustratingly low and uneven. Sitting there on a rainy day, I could hear the sniffles of other visitors better than the music. I kept getting distracted by someone talking in another room and only later realized that it was Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing” chiming in over Feldman’s “Projection I.” I think Cage of the “Radio Happenings” era wouldn’t have minded any of that — he thinks he wrote it all anyway. (Listen to 5:00–5:30 for that side of Cage and 0:00–2:15 for the backstory.) He probably wouldn’t even have minded when another visitor sitting in the room with me answered her phone (“…you’re a wonderful daughter, see you at the restaurant…”) and then made a few more calls (arranging meeting Dorothy and Thomas at the restaurant). But it’s a shame that the fast-ride-in-a-loud-machine that is Cage’s “Williams Mix” recedes into the silence of the gallery.

‘Nothing and Everything: Seven Artists, 1947–1962,’ installation view (image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth; photo by Genevieve Hanson)

Feldman’s music is particularly poorly served by the aural intrusions, but even more to the point, in this snapshot of New York c. 1950, the artifacts presented are incomparable. We look at the actual paintings and sculptures. We listen only to recordings of the music. Feldman’s “Projections I” is for cello, not a recording of a cello. The difference is as significant as that between a sculpture and a photograph of a sculpture. Cage once quipped, “I’ve always been a proper member of the musicians’ union, in favor of live music.”

Happily, the programing that accompanies the show offers two very different types of live performances. Coming up on March 16, Janine Antoni, Petah Coyne, Rona Pondick, and Jeanne Silverthorne will read from Louise Bourgeois’s writings at Hauser & Wirth’s 22nd St. publications space. On March 1, Christian Wolff curated a performance of music by Cage, Feldman, and himself at the Jewish Museum that presented nine works dating from 1950 to 1956 and Wolff’s “Six Melodies Variation” (1993), which was written as part of a memorial after Cage’s death in 1992. Wolff, who met Cage and Feldman in 1950 when Wolff was only 16, heard a couple of these pieces for the first time. In fact, it was Wolff who gave Cage a copy of the I-Ching, which Cage used to compose “Music of Changes III” (1951). At the beginning of the program, Doug Dreishpoon asked the 100+ person audience how many people had seen the exhibition — about five of us raised our hands. From listening to the chatter around me, it seemed that this was a crowd of music lovers. Where were the art lovers? I wonder how many experimental music fans will go to see the sculpture and painting.

‘Nothing and Everything: Seven Artists, 1947–1962,’ installation view (image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth; photo by Genevieve Hanson)

Nothing and Everything: Seven Artists, 1947–1962 continues at Hauser and Wirth (32 East 69th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 1.

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