PARIS — Arty, esoteric, noise music may not be for everyone, but the Velvet Underground arose from just such obscure subgenre territory. Of course, buying into the art music context of the Velvet Underground is not necessary in order to be deeply affected by their look and their music. Their buzzing sound seems to bypass cognitive faculties en route to the realm of sensation.
Curated as an immersive, impressionistic experience by Carole Mirabello and Christian Fevret — the latter of whom, at age 22, founded France’s answer to Rolling Stone, the magazine Les Inrockuptibles — the show The Velvet Underground: New York Extravaganza at the Philharmonie de Paris is certainly an educational exegesis and deep dive into the underground Babylon that was downtown New York City in the 1960s. Here, avant-garde musicians, experimental filmmakers, poets, and artists challenged the dictates of habitual form and heterosexual power. In this unique context, the verses of the Beat poets, the harmonics of La Monte Young, and the experimentation of underground cinema rubbed up against Lou Reed and John Cale as they came together and brought to life the Velvet Underground by fusing pop music with conceptual art theory and drugs.
New York Extravaganza can be read as a walk-in, flushed-out biography of the Velvet Underground and thus of particular interest to those involved in transcendental black metal, experimental electronica, psycho-acoustic drone, and difficult noise music. Skipping over the People Magazine-meets-Pop art posing of the black clothes and sunglasses to get into the hub of what made the Velvet Underground what it was artistically, this exhibition runs up against a whopping contradiction.
The dazzling show, as shaped by Matali Crasset’s exhibition design, presents massive quantities of archival material, all of it of great interest and spread out in an enveloping, saturating fashion suited to the stylings of the pop happenings of Andy Warhol’s art-music group, Exploding Plastic Inevitable (which included the Velvet Underground). As just seen in the Warhol Unlimited show at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the audience and the players/performers were embedded in an overwhelming light, sound, and film show that dominated the entire performance space. This immersive arrangement strove to achieve a traumatic restructuring of ontological consciousness based in excess.
But the key artistic feature of the Velvet Underground is the merging of Reed’s post-Dylanesque lyrics and song structures with the loud, held drone produced by Cale — which Cale obtained through his participation in Theatre of Eternal Music, the group of the famous but elusive avant-garde composer La Monte Young. (Full disclosure: I worked closely with Young and his partner and collaborator Marian Zazeela on archiving Young’s extensive Fluxus-era art collection, his scores, and tapes in the late 1970s and early ‘80s for the Dia Art Foundation.) The basis of Cale’s sound is sustained and deep concentration on one relatively simple structure at a time — to the point of revealing its latent complexities. There is a timeless spirituality in this non-distracted approach that fights against the aesthetics of clickbait distraction that are taken as the indisputable condition of culture today — as evidenced in the display choices made for this exhibition.
Cale became familiar with the technical aspects of Young’s harmonics, which had their roots in Young’s love of sustained everyday sounds — like the intriguing wind in the cabin where his Mormon family lived in Bern, Idaho, and the continuous buzz of electric transformers at a Conoco gas station that his grandfather managed. Young’s “Trio for Strings” (1958) was the breakthrough composition in terms of sustained tones. While Young was still in graduate school, his noise work “Poem for Tables, Chairs, Benches etc.” (1960) was championed by John Cage, who performed it widely. The piece is an early noise-scape of howling screeches produced by continuously sliding furniture over the floor. I highly recommend it, as there are many immersive levels to infinity on which you can enjoy its simple complexity.
The key to Young’s deep drone aesthetic (which begat Cale’s) was to hold fast to something and follow it deeply. New York Extravaganza does the opposite. It opens with “America,” a wonderful long poem by Allen Ginsberg that hovers on a wall near a giant screen projection immersing onlookers in Lower East Side ambience. This is followed by six films, including Barbara Rubin’s amazing 16mm montage made up of two separate black-and-white reels projected simultaneously with color filters placed on the projector lens, “Christmas on Earth” (1963), which she filmed in Cale and Tony Conrad’s Ludlow Street apartment. It features several painted and masked performers, including Velvet Underground members, engaging in a variety of gay and straight sex acts and is a ball to watch. Among the other engaging films included are Allan Rothschild’s on the legendary Warhol ‘banana’ album cover for The Velvet Underground & Nico, Edward English’s 1966 film on The Fugs, and the Nam June Paik video masterpiece “Beatles Electronique” (1966–69).
However, the overall sensory onslaught of New York Extravaganza works against the deep concentration that is of paramount importance to the hard, minimal aesthetic that brought Downtown New York its initial success. The exhibition includes hundreds of photos taken by Nat Finkelstein, Donald Greenhaus, Lisa Law, Fred W. McDarrah, Gerard Malanga, Billy Name, Adam Ritchie, Steve Schapiro, Stephen Shore, and others, mostly of the band’s members (Reed, Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker) and the beautiful Nico. Along with this spread, the show offers a collective impression of the New York underground via copious cameo appearances in the form of personal niches on Young, Ginsberg, Warhol, Candy Darling, Piero Heliczer, Angus MacLise, Jonas Mekas, Edie Sedgwick, and Danny Williams, among others. There is also a listening cabin — too full to even enter during my visit — ringed with posters and news clippings in need of inspecting where one can lay down and take in the sounds and sights of the Velvet Underground. The exhibition’s final gallery has contemporary artworks paying homage to the Velvet Underground by Léo Dorfner, Nan Goldin, Douglas Gordon, John Giorno, and others.
We expect a degree of enriching leakage in any cultural study, but New York Extravaganza is ridiculous — though it is fun as excess. Art exhibitions inspired by pop sensory overload have come a long way in terms of merging challenging beauty, factual history, and the pragmatic re-organization of the work. But here, the show seems to be killing off the very thing that made the art music it is celebrating special in the first place: prolonged radical attention applied to the previously unnoticed.