Susan Sontag, in her essay “The Aesthetics of Silence,” wrote that “As long as a human eye is looking there is always something to see. To look at something that’s “empty” is still to be looking, still to be seeing something — if only the ghosts of one’s own expectations.” We might extend Sontag’s assertion to hearing as well – as long as the human ear is listening, there is always something to hear. It is worth bearing these two ideas in mind when viewing, and listening, to the works in Hauser and Wirth’s exhibition “Nothing and Everything: Seven Artists, 1947-1962.”
The exhibition, located at the gallery’s 69th Street location, focuses on the intersection of composers John Cage and Morton Feldman and artists Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Louise Bourgeois, Joan Mitchell, and David Smith. Not all of the artists worked with, or conversed with, the composers (Cage and Feldman met Guston, and Feldman also composed pieces for Guston and Kline), but all of the works on display coalesce around a shared interest in silence and space, or rather, negative space.
The first thing one hears upon walking in to the gallery is Cage’s soft, humble voice reading “Lecture on Nothing” in a recording from 1980. The lecture is both a lecture in the traditional sense (even if the message might be untraditional) as well as a musical piece in the classic Cage tradition. As you listen to the lecture (and you must strain your ears to do so, it is a quiet piece played on quiet speakers), you can also read the text, printed in 1949. For Cage fans, it’s an incredible artifact, and for those new to Cage’s oeuvre, an instructive one. The lecture is punctuated by long silences, allowing each phrase its own space, its own reverberation. When you see the text, you realize that these spaces are clearly demarcated – the lecture is rigidly structured. As notes on the first page read, “There are four measures in each line and twelve lines in each unit of the rhythmic structure. There are forty-eight such units, each having forty-eight measures. The whole is divided into five large parts, in the proportion 7, 6, 14, 14, 7. The forty-eight measures of each unit are likewise so divided.” Frequently, particularly in the latter parts, Cage will inform the audience of his exact place in the lecture – the part numbers repeated like a mantra.
The piece, like Cage’s more famous “4’33”,” is the perfect entry point into the rest of the works of the exhibition. As Cage’s lecture plays out over the course of 40 minutes, it can do one of two things – enthrall you, or, as Cage suggests in the lecture itself, put you to sleep. That the lecture might be boring seems obvious enough, but its incredible power is a little more deceptive. Something curious happens when you record a spoken phrase and play it on a loop. You begin to become aware of the cadences and pitches of speech, and the spoken phrase begins to sound like a song. So too with Cage’s lecture — the long silences force attention to individual phrases, not just to their word-content, but to their pitch-content as well. What Cage’s various works on silence do (and some of these works, like “0’00”” can be quite loud), is reveal the musicality of everyday life. Scenarios once considered “silent” are now richly full of music, scenarios once considered “unmusical” become musical. After listening to “4’33”” or “Lecture on Nothing” we can no longer drown out the sounds around us (and if Cage is fully successful, we no longer wish to), we become keenly aware of the sound, that is, the music, of the world.
Past the entrance, we are given a “specially designed listening room” in which we can hear, among other things, conversations between Cage and Feldman, and pieces by both composers (what was special about the design of the room remains a mystery to me, and as others have noted, the volume of the speakers is terribly low). Listening to the pieces, one can hear a distinct contrast between the works of Feldman and Cage. From Feldman (who, in conversation with Cage, gives us this wonderful aphorism on silence – “If I’m deep in thought its just to get rid of the ideas”), we have works of sparse, icy beauty such as “For Franz Kline” and “Projection I.” From Cage, the playful, schizophrenic “Aria,” the score of which, itself an appealing visual piece of work, is on display. Other scores from both composers are on view and nowhere is the interplay between the aural and the visual more apparent. The score for Cage’s “Aria” for instance, is composed entirely of colored lines and seemingly random words in a floating space. The performer is instructed to sing the words in various styles. The pitch, duration, and style of the singing is left entirely up to the performer – who, like the viewer, is left to interpret musical information from a soundless, visual page. This is, of course, what one could say of a traditional musical score – the page is soundless, filled with lines and symbols. That the language used for Cage’s “Aria” can be equally applied to a traditional score is precisely the point – just as Cage (and Feldman, in “Intersection 4” for instance – albeit, more mathematically) extended our idea of what sounds could be termed “music,” he also extended our idea of what symbols could be used to signify music.
If this review spends so much time on Cage, it is because his work informs how we experience the rest of the works in the exhibition. Initially, upon leaving the gallery, I was somewhat disappointed that Douglas Dreishpoon, the curator of the exhibition, did not play Cage and Feldman’s music throughout the gallery, instead confining it to the aforementioned listening room. I thought it would have been interesting to hear how, say Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture “The Blind Leading The Blind” might have looked in light of the various pieces – would it appear different, would it expose new meaning to view the piece while listening first to “Aria” and then to “Projection I?”
Upon reflection however, silence seems to have been the wiser choice. Returning for a moment to Sontag – in that same essay, she writes “The notions of silence, emptiness, reduction, sketch out new prescriptions for looking, hearing, etc. — specifically, either for having a more immediate, sensuous experience of art or for confronting the art work in a more conscious, conceptual way.” And after listening to the music of Cage and Feldman on the first floor of the gallery, the viewer is positioned in this heightened stance throughout the rest of the exhibition. When we see the works of Guston, sparse ink on paper (recalling the work of 20th century Belgian artist and writer Henri Michaux) as well as the more energetic “White Painting I” and “Voyage,” we see both the work as a whole as well as the individual lines – their cadences, harmony, thrust. We see, but we are also prompted to imagine – how does this sound?
The silence of Cage and Feldman’s works imbues the paintings with a vibrant energy – they become full of latent, potential music. The works of David Smith provide a prime example. Smith’s egg ink on paper pieces give us undulating horizontal lines, stacked vertically on the page (slight variations in the density and wave of the lines keep things human). The repetitive rhythm of the works is entrancing, and in the context of the exhibition, the lines most strongly resemble sound waves. The pieces become recordings of imagined compositions. Again we ask, how does this line sound?
Smith’s sculpture too is pregnant with sound. “Forging IX” is a thin pillar of varnished steel – again, slight ruptures in the structure keep things from becoming too robotic. Obviously you should not touch the piece, but, looking at the sculpture, it is difficult not to imagine the sound it would make if it were struck with a piece of metal. Its thinness conjures up the sound of a tuning fork, and the piece, still though it is, seems to vibrate internally.
If the works of Guston and Smith are more meditative, sounding perhaps more like Feldman’s “For Franz Kline,” then the works of Joan Mitchell, with their frenetic, energetic lines and color, sound more like the joyous fits of Cage’s “Aria.”
(The works of Kline too, though they could be considered brash and loud with their industrial paint and wide brush strokes, seem here to reveal more of the careful precision with which Kline worked – Dreishspoon suggests a relation to Japanese Ensō [hand drawn circles of ink], which seems fitting, not least because Cage himself was intensely interested in the art form – placing them more in line with Guston and Smith’s works than Mitchell’s.)
The synesthesia inspired by the exhibition continues once you leave the gallery as well. Nearby is Central Park, and the sounds of the rustling trees can be keenly heard along with the sounds of the usual Manhattan traffic. You hear the sounds, but you also see each object as a possible repository, or emanator, of music – the sidewalk becomes a score, a sort of composition emerges. It is the brilliance of Cage and Feldman that they have made, in essence, an utter failure of an apophatic philosophy of music. What is music not, they ask – and, leaving the exhibition, it is impossible to say.
“Nothing and Everything: Seven Artists, 1947 – 1962” can be seen at Hauser and Wirth’s 69th Street Location until April 1st, 2017
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Jake Romm is a Contributing Editor for The Forward. Contact him at email@example.com