[Paleopsych] NYT: With Music for the Eye and Colors for the Ear

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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.


    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
    whole words:

    "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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