[Paleopsych] NYT: With Music for the Eye and Colors for the Ear
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Fri Jul 1 17:39:23 UTC 2005
With Music for the Eye and Colors for the Ear
New York Times, 5.7.1
[Another review of the exhibit, whose terrific introduction by the curators,
and which was atteneded by 150 people, perhaps a record at the Hirshhorn, I
reported on earlier.
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
Washington "Visual Music" is a fine-tuned, highly diverting,
deceptively radical exhibition about the relationship of music and
modern art, lately arrived here at the Hirshhorn Museum. In its
hippy-trippy way, it rewrites a crucial chapter of history.
Its subtitle is "Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900." Aristotle
formulated the idea that each of the five senses - smell, taste,
touch, hearing and sight - had its own proper and distinct sphere of
activity. There were overlaps, he said (movement pertained both to
sight and touch); and he speculated that the mysteries of color
harmony might have something to do with musical harmony, an idea that
would resonate for centuries. Musical harmony, as an expression of
geometry, was thought to be useful to the study of art and
architecture from the Renaissance on.
But the notion that there was an essential separation among the
sensual spheres persisted into the early 19th century.
At the same time reports began to emerge of rare people who said they
experienced two sensations simultaneously: they saw colors when they
heard sounds, or they heard sounds when they ate something. The
condition was called synaesthesia.
It's no coincidence that scientific interest in synaesthesia coincided
with the Symbolist movement in Europe, with its stresses on metaphor,
allusion and mystery. Synaesthesia was both metaphorical and
mysterious. Scientists were puzzled. People who claimed to have it
couldn't agree about exactly what they experienced. "To ordinary
individuals one of these accounts seems just as wild and lunatic as
another but when the account of one seer is submitted to another
seer," noted the Victorian psychologist and polymath Sir Francis
Galton in 1883, "the latter is scandalized and almost angry at the
heresy of the former."
I have come across via the color historian John Gage an amusing
account from some years later by the phonologist Roman Jakobson, who
studied a multilingual woman with synaesthesia. The woman described to
him perceiving colors when she heard consonants and vowels or even
"As time went on words became simply sounds, differently colored, and
the more outstanding one color was, the better it remained in my
memory. That is why, on the other hand, I have great difficulty with
short English words like jut, jug, lie, lag, etc.: their colors simply
run together." Russian, she also told Jakobson, has "a lot of long,
black and brown words," while German scientific expressions "are
accompanied by a strange, dull yellowish glimmer."
"Visual Music" is full of strange, glimmering yellowish and other
colored shapes. What might visual art look like if it were akin to
music? That's the question the various artists here asked themselves -
a question that goes back to Richard Wagner, the Symbolists' patron
saint for his dream of a Gesamtkunstwerk, a universal artwork uniting
music and art. Painters like Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Mikhail
Matiushin (he was a Russian composer, influenced by Arnold Schoenberg,
who like Schoenberg also painted) and Arthur Dove, with whom "Visual
Music" begins, elaborated on Wagner's theme. They painted pictures
that claimed to have the condition of music - pure abstractions with
occasional shapes that resembled staves, musical notes or violins.
Through the medium of musical metaphor, in other words, synaesthesia
gave birth to abstract art.
This is the show's quite radical, if not altogether original, point:
that abstraction's history is not just the familiar sequence of isms
(Constructivism, Suprematism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism) but
also the consequence of a particular idea. The idea is synaesthesia.
And its protagonists, while including a few famous names like
Kandinsky, were on the whole cultish and now forgotten figures or
total outsiders to the art world: they were filmmakers, animators,
computer geeks and 1960's psychedelic light show performers.
Blurring high and low, their legacy represented not a corruption or
cul-de-sac of traditional modernism but a parallel strand of it, which
has made its way, willy-nilly, right up to the present. The show here
ends with digitally enhanced multimedia works by Jennifer Steinkamp,
Jim Hodges and Leo Villareal.
Organized by Kerry Brougher and Judith Zilczer at the Hirshhorn, and
Jeremy Strick and Ari Wiseman at the Los Angeles Museum of
Contemporary Art, "Visual Music" originated in Los Angeles, aptly,
since much of what's on view consists of films and other moving
images, made by artists from California, a few of whom also worked for
Hollywood. This was inevitable. Abstract painters in the early 20th
century tried to emulate musical attributes, like rhythm, harmony and
tonality, but music is temporal. It moves through time. And to suggest
temporality or movement in two dimensions via staggered lines,
vortices, cones or whatever spatial device, doesn't suffice.
So it fell to experimental filmmakers like Léopold Survage, Viking
Eggeling, Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger to pick up from where
Kandinsky left off and devise abstract movies, at first silent, then
animating musical scores. The shapes they used were pretty much the
same as the ones in the paintings - swirling lines, concentric
circles, zigzags, confetti bursts that now pulsed, shimmied and
A slew of devices and charming gimmicks followed. The color organ was
a clunky box with a silent keyboard, prisms, mirrors and a projector
that let a player compose an abstract moving picture. Painters like
Daniel Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, one of
its inventors, having come up against the limitations of painting,
tried their hands at color organs.
New oscilloscopes produced wavy moving patterns that filmmakers like
Hy Hirsh could set to jazz or Afro-Cuban music. Len Lye produced
cameraless animations by painting straight onto filmstrips. There's a
wonderful hand-painted animation by Lye from 1935, "A Colour Box," set
to a jaunty tune, which ran as a hit short before feature films in
British theaters; it includes, midway through, an advertisement for
the postal service, which sponsored Lye, the initials for the post
office dancing briefly across the screen.
Among my own favorite confections here are ones by Thomas Wilfred, the
Whitneys and Jordan Belson. Wilfred, a Danish lute player by training,
born in 1889, contrived an instrument he called the clavilux that
produced light displays, which, to modern eyes, resemble lava lamps
and Hubble space photos before the fact. From Los Angeles, John and
James Whitney exploited nascent computer technology, starting in the
1950's, to compose hypnotic, multiscreen abstract films set to raga
and other forms of zone-out music. At the Hirshhorn you can recline in
the darkness on huge, cushy ottomans, while the Whitneys' images play
retinal games with your eyeballs.
And from San Francisco, Mr. Belson collaborated on polymorphous
audiovisual concerts in the late 1950's and early 1960's that set the
stage for the era's psychedelic light shows. A few of these, by
collectives like Single Wing Turquoise Bird and Joshua Light Show, are
screened in a room at the Hirshhorn, minus only the bongs. In turn,
such events inspired Mr. Belson toward more mind-bending,
kaleidoscopic films suggesting cosmic swirls and mixing different
brands of music. Nearly 80 now, he was commissioned by the Hirshhorn
to produce a new work for this show, "Epilogue," its lush and misty
optics synchronized to a score by Rachmaninoff.
All these swimmy works begin to blend together after a while, but
what's remarkable about seeing them in one place is precisely that
they do look so similar. I said earlier that the experimental films
from the 1920's on used the same vocabulary as the paintings from the
turn of the century. Likewise, the newest computer-generated
installations. "Visual Music," aside from rewriting history, is also a
show about failure - the failure of metaphor, which no technology may
In all this time, no perfect way to make art into music has been
devised. Squiggly lines and pulsing colors approximate music but they
can't ever become it. Aristotle was right. The senses do have their
own domains. Music is moving in ways visual art isn't and vice-versa,
and that's why they're both necessary. Like Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk,
the dream of making one art that's like another is just a utopian
fantasy, born of a peculiarly modern impatience with art's limitations
and a misplaced notion that, like science, art needs constantly to
advance or else become irrelevant.
But art is not science. Its limitations are its virtues. In the
meantime it gives us the works here, the best of which are dizzily
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