Let me begin by dispensing with Walter Pater: occasionally the plastic arts do indeed achieve the condition of music. You can go hear for yourself at two concurrent museum exhibitions in New York City, one for Harry Bertoia, the other for Stuart Davis.
Bertoia is well known for his furniture, an icon of 20th-century design. At the Museum of Arts and Design (through September 25), some of that is on display—you can even sit in it—as is a revealing collection of his jewelry, which shows the same aesthetic for fluid delicacy as his furniture. The two collections form one part of the show under the heading “Bent, Cast & Forged.” The literally hands-on musical part is “Atmosphere for Enjoyment: Harry Bertoia’s Environment for Sound,” a modest but plangent set of his sound sculptures, augmented by a charming listening room.
Working as a sculptor, Bertoia heard the sounds inherent in the metals he was working with, and began making a series of sculpted percussion instruments that have a natural elegance and produce marvelously rich, sonorous sounds. In what became a complex and deeply personal journey for him, he built his instruments then recorded improvisations on them in the Pennsylvania barn that was his studio. His twenty years of exploring sounds culminated in his Sonambient recordings, a series of LPs that has been reissued as an absorbing, 11-CD box set on Important Records.
To say Bertoia and his Sonambient project were unique doesn’t get at the essential details of what he actually did. There have been, and continue to be, singular musicians who build instruments in order to realize their vision, like Harry Partch and Tristan Perich. But Bertoia wasn’t a musician, and he wasn’t trying to make pieces of music that were organized and/or notated, and that could be recreated. He was sculpting sound. The sound of the instruments is not just the point, but the only thing that matters. Bertoia’s sculptures are not for playing in ensembles, for producing organized rhythms and harmonies, discernible melodies. You play them by touching them with your bare hands, pushing, stroking, gathering groups of rods together and then releasing them to bounce off each other and produce sensual, resonant waves of sound.
The concept and means are also unlike the ideas of John Cage and instruments like the wind harp. The physical immediacy of the Bertoia sound sculptures elicits a desire for sound and contact—a subversive mischief, as opposed to Cage’s objective, contemplative diffidence. The flavor of metaphysics that comes through Bertoia’s sounds is the apocalyptic variety, à la Scelsi and Radulescu. And the wind harp is an instrument that one witnesses; nature plays it by its own rules and on its own timetable.
Beyond delivering the singular experience of Bertoia’s work, the exhibit accomplishes something that is atypical for the museum experience. Going to a museum and looking at pictures and sculptures is a private experience, even with a companion or in a group; the channel through the eye to the brain is a one-way route to a private and essentially incommunicable reaction. Making music, in contrast, is a social activity, one that gathers people together in common participation. You may or may not strike up a duet with your friend, or a friendly stranger, but your hands tickling that sheet are following scores of other hands, and the vibrations you produce will reach out and, infinitesimally, shake the walls, following scores of other sets of vibrations. Sound, which is a wave of energy and thus a manifestation of the physical matter that produced it, will reach out and touch everyone in the gallery, a neighborly greeting and a gathering together in common values.
And Bertoia has touched these sculptures, made them move and shake. The vibrations he set loose have been caught inside them, and you will be letting them loose in turn. His barn is currently, and unfortunately, caught up in a legal battle between heirs over the disposition of the studio and the instruments within. The building may be lost, the instruments within stored away, out of sight and touch. Don’t miss this opportunity to play them for yourself. (On July 8 and 15 at 7 p.m., Lizzi Bougatsos and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, respectively, will be performing on the instruments.)
Stuart Davis is a more traditional subject—at least in the way we view the visual arts—but also unique in the sense that his visual art is intrinsically related to music. There’s a new show of his work at the Whitney, Stuart Davis: In Full Swing (also running through September 25) which, while organized as an informative and perceptive overview of his entire career, reveals the explicit and implicit musicality of his painting.
Davis was neither the first nor foremost painter with an intentional, close connection to music (honors remain with Kandinsky, up to the point where his anti-Semitism ruptured his friendship with Schönberg). But Davis, in American culture, is the most successful jazz painter. Different from painters like Archibald Motley (whose recent Whitney show was full of marvelous paintings of the jazz scene) and Mondrian (Broadway Boogie Woogie has a player-piano rhythm), Davis’s musical paintings burst with musicality. His Swing Landscape mural (commissioned by the WPA for a basement meeting room in a Williamsburg housing project) hits the eye with the visualized sounds of the Fletcher Henderson band, pumping with swing and full of the bright brassiness of vintage 78s.
Davis loved jazz: he painted to jazz on the radio, and he painted a jazzy mural for Studio B at WNYC (another WPA commission from 1939). These aren’t genre scenes, but abstract works full of pop color and vitality; he didn’t paint what he saw, he painted what he heard. (The catalog has a modest but resonant photograph of Davis and Duke Ellington, in front of one of Davis’s paintings, at a gallery opening of the painter’s work in 1943.)
Beyond the surface—and with Davis, the surfaces do vary from mundane to brilliant—are the essential jazz values of his work. Davis embraced his identity as an American artist, he loved the American-ness of the burgeoning pop and commercial culture he saw all around him, not just jazz on the radio, but advertising, automobiles, the homey populism of Al Smith. Radio, for him, was not just something that delivered the music: the invisible transmissions that manifested as sound waves were, in his words, the “essence of abstraction.” He saw no distinction between abstract art and popular art, between high and low culture. That is the birthright of the American artist, and that is the fundamental quality that makes jazz, both a popular and an abstract music, the great American invention.