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One thought-provoking passage from the introductory wall panel at the entrance to Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art’s recent exhibition, Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900, read as follows: “Music offered a model to which art might aspire: an art based on a language of abstract form that evokes limitless space and evolving time, in short, ‘visual music.’” This brief passage makes some challenging and complex claims for the broad category of visual art as it relates to the equally broad category of music. One clear precedent for these claims can be found in the writing of one of the twentieth century’s most influential critics. In his seminal essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939), Clement Greenberg declared that to retain its relevance in contemporary culture avant-garde production—specifically painting—must, “imitate God by creating something valid, solely on its own terms . . . something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals . . . [something that] cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself” (Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston: Beacon Press, 1961; 6 [emphasis in original]). Interestingly, Greenberg felt that of all the arts the one most successful in this respect was music. “Today,” Greenberg notes in the same essay, “no art seems to us to have less reference to something outside itself than music.” For Greenberg, music’s formal originality and independence is evidenced most vitally in the “various means of its own composition and performance” (6). It may seem logical, then, that to achieve the same degree of formal purity visual art should aspire to the condition of music, the “purest” medium in Greenberg’s estimations. Yet, the very desire to emulate the virtues of another medium would, doubtless, have struck the critic as an inauthentic gesture, perhaps even one worthy of the label “kitsch.” The premise of Visual Music, as the title of the exhibition immediately suggests, is rooted in this Modernist debate. To varying degrees, and with varying levels of sophistication and self-consciousness, the objects that comprise this sprawling survey each grapple with the problems of form and medium-specificity outlined by Greenberg in 1939: Can there be a productive relationship between visual form and auditory sensation; if so, can visual production—the emulative constituent in this relation—benefit from this exchange?
To illustrate the ways in which artists have addressed this question, exhibition organizers Kerry Brougher, Jeremy Strick, and Judith Zilczer assembled a staggering number of works in a variety of media, dating from 1900 to the present, arranged more often than not in a straightforward chronological fashion, with visually similar objects installed adjacent to one another. While this may appear a logical system of classification for an exhibition built around such a diachronic theme, in certain cases the viewer was left with the feeling that the relationship of image to sound was under-theorized, and that further explication of the artists’ methods and motives would have been useful.
For example, the second major gallery of the exhibition featured the earliest works in the show, namely paintings by artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Marsden Hartley, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, and Morgan Russell. Many of the large, brightly colored works in this room evince an early twentieth-century desire to metaphorize the auditory sensation of music in the movement of paint. This is particularly evident in works such as Kandinsky’s Fragment 2 for Composition VIII (1913) and Daniel Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné’s Capriccio Musicale (Circus) (1913), both of which make obvious visual reference to the arrangement of musical notes on a page as a means to evoke pictorially the sensation of sound. While the dense installation of many like-objects in a single gallery was certainly a visual feast, this rather simple trope left the inquisitive viewer wondering how and why such similar impulses came to bear in Europe and across the Atlantic during the same period. Furthermore, it seemed immediately ironic that an exhibition premised on shared non-visual motivations should fall back on simple visual likeness as an organizing principle.
Perhaps the most successful case made for a direct relationship between image and music was achieved by pairing the nebulous, melancholy cloud images of Alfred Stieglitz’s series of five silver-gelatin prints entitled Equivalents (1929) with the first movement of Claude Debussy’s orchestral epic Nocturnes, Nuages (1912), which was made available at a nearby iPod station. Though Debussy’s work, according to a short explanatory text, provided Stieglitz with the inspiration for his series, the most elegant and revealing evidence for the correlation between these two projects was made clear simply though the simultaneous experience of image and music.
A smaller side gallery featured a group of radiant light projections by the Danish-born artist Thomas Wilfred. In one of these works, Study in Depth, Opus 152 (1959), an array of incandescent colors move wisplike across an indistinct black field, each tendril shifting slowly, morphing and dissolving into one another. A work of formidable ambition, this late project by Wilfred measures six by nine feet; the entire light performance unfolds over an astonishing 142 days, two hours, and ten minutes. Unlike the paintings, photographs, and drawings of the previous galleries, Wilfred’s light installations manifest a desire to incorporate the durational quality of music into a purely visual experience. While the impeccable installation of Wilfred’s work drew just attention to the singularity of his achievement, the pure visuality of his project was unfortunately undermined by the encroachment of unrelated ambient sounds from other sections of the show, which encumbered the experience of his work. Ironically, it was just such literal evocations of sound that Wilfred sought to avoid in his light compositions.
It is revealing that the same ambient sounds that disrupted the sensation of Wilfred’s work actually enhanced the visual experience in an adjacent room that included paintings by Helen Torr, Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keefe, and Francis Picabia. Since paintings such as Torr’s Evening Sounds (c. 1925–30) and Dove’s Chinese Music (1923) evoke—through a conjunction of title and form—a non-specific notion or memory of sound, the presence of unrelated noise actually enriched the visual experience of these works, making the relation of sound to image more plausible and palpable. Wilfred’s work, by contrast, so vividly registers the longue durée of music in strictly visual form that his light projections seemed incompatible with sounds unrelated to the slow, lyrical movement of color that typifies his work.
A small, roughly square side gallery contained Daniel Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné’s clever installation Piano optophonique (1922–23), a large, brown, quotidian-looking structure. Though this device deliberately alludes to the familiar shape of a piano, it is, in fact, simply a wooden box containing an amplifier, a stereo cassette, and a projector. Deadpan and unremarkable, this piano-like structure simultaneously generates lively music and colorful images that are projected onto one of the gallery walls. The contrast between the dynamic output of Baranoff-Rossiné’s structure and its stark, withheld visual character throws into provocative and humorous relief the discrepancy between the often mundane means by which sounds and images are created and their captivating visual and auditory effects. Thus, while quite literally a producer of “visual music,” Baranoff-Rossiné’s “piano” resists the spectacular appearance of the other objects in the show, and instead unveils the source of those effects.
While Baranoff-Rossiné’s installation presents a musical device that itself produces both sound and image, works by Oskar Fischinger and John and James Whitney in an adjacent gallery perform a different, though no less provocative, operation. Drawing on a range of available technology, Fischinger’s Radio Dynamics (1942) and John and James Whitney’s Five Film Exercises, Film No. 4 (1944), achieve a synchronicity of sound and image that dissolves any hierarchical relation of one medium to the other, and instead produces an experience of image and sound that appears mutually constitutive. In both works flickering geometric forms are projected onto a large screen. The forms appear and dissolve in absolute unison with a series of accompanying synthetic sounds. Such is the synchronicity of this process that sound and image become almost indistinguishable.
Projects by two younger artists installed in the last galleries of Visual Music together gesture toward a renewed contemporary interest in the ways in which popular visual forms can engender context-specific auditory and bodily experiences. American artist Jennifer Steinkamp’s computer-generated projection SWELL (1995) is accompanied by a soundtrack written by Bryan Brown. This collaborative effort has less to do with the conjunction of image and music per se, than with that of image and sound. SWELL confronts the viewer with a panorama of bursting color and bracing sound. The relentless effect of this multi-sensory assault evokes the distinctly modern experience of sound and image found in the world of video games, an experience that deliberately absorbs the player’s undivided attention and encourages a visceral participation. Steinkamp’s installation riffs on this contemporary mode of experience to produce a tense, edgy, anticipatory sensation in the viewer.
Australian artist Nike Savvas’s equally impressive work, Anthem (The Carny) (2003), commands a large gallery space and is composed simply of nightclub lights, a mirror ball, a hazer, and a lighting desk. Savvas’s work proposes a kind of inaudible auditory experience made visible, and as such is the perfect endpoint for an exhibition focused on visual music. Taking as its point of departure Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ rock ballad The Carny, Savvas transcribed the musical composition into a light show that “plays” silently on a loop. By evoking the atmosphere of a nightclub in the gallery, and consequently, the memory and sensation of such an environment in the mind of the viewer, Anthem proposes sound as a product of memory and visual experience. It is unfortunate, however, that the relationship between this paradoxically silent musical installation and the work of earlier artists like Baranoff-Rossiné and the Whitneys is nowhere drawn out for the visitor.
Visual Music set out to present an alternative history of abstraction in the 20th century, one built around the notion that artists from the United States to Eastern Europe were inspired in different ways over a period of almost one hundred years to synthesize the sensations of sound and vision in order to generate a rich, multi-sensory viewing experience. The chronological presentation of this alternative history made the exhibition conceptually manageable, but like all general, synthetic histories, ultimately presented more problems than it solved (which can certainly be a virtue in itself). Though contemporary works by Savvas and Steinkamp included at the end of the show were provocative and powerful in their own right, their relationship to the earlier works by Fischinger and John and James Whitney, for example, was never made evident. Where grouping the work of these five artists together (out of chronological order) might have developed an interesting comparison, instead, toward the end, the exhibition seemed conceptually impoverished by a lack of explicit argumentation and didacticism. The premise of Visual Music rests on a presumed conjunction between sound and image that is not sufficiently theorized, explored, or questioned, the result being that when one reaches the conclusion of the show, Savvas’s canny, punning disco facsimile runs the risk of appearing rather prosaic, when, in fact, it is anything but.
In flashes, the individual works in Visual Music explore with savvy erudition the limits of media and the relationship of visual art to sound phenomena. The most compelling of these objects do not evoke the sensation of music or aspire to the condition of pure sound; rather they reach for visual forms that draw on the principles of abstraction inherent in music to create work native to their own medium. Unfortunately, in doing this, too often the objects were left to speak to and for themselves. With a little more curatorial intervention, they could have been made to speak provocatively to each other. While the chronological layout of the show and the lack of convincing argumentation ultimately failed to clarify and motivate the complex premise of the exhibition and its relationship to the debates of medium-specificity initiated by Greenberg, the problems posed by this ambitious, visually captivating show will surely prompt further investigations into the issue.
Curator, Department of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; PhD candidate, Courtauld Institute of Art