Contemporary Art in the South:
The Sound (and the Look) of Silence at The Menil Collection
August 29, 1952. Woodstock, New York. An audience has arrived to listen to a recital of contemporary piano music. David Tudor, an accomplished pianist, takes the stage and sits directly before his piano. He begins his piece by closing the keyboard lid. For thirty-three seconds he sits in silence. He then opens the keyboard lid, only to close it again. For two minutes and forty seconds he sits in silence. The keyboard lid is opened again. Then, it is closed once more. Tudor sits before his piano for one minute and twenty seconds without playing a note. The piece ends.
The audience is flabbergasted and unable to understand what just occurred. It’s as if the air has been sucked out of the room. All of the accumulated historical and cultural logic of the Western musical experience have been overturned in one performance of a score by avant-garde composer John Cage, titled 4’33”.
Four minutes and thirty-three seconds of supposed silence in 1952 forever changed the course of Western music and art—supposed because the silence that the audience thought they were hearing was actually full of sound. During the first movement, one could hear the wind stirring outside. There was a patter of raindrops hitting the concert hall’s roof while the second movement was underway. During the third movement, according to Cage, the people in the audience made “all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked and walked about.” One can imagine that there was some coughing, discomfited shuffling, maybe some sneezing, whispers, possibly even some exclamations of disgust. It’s also entirely possible that audience members heard the sound of their own breathing or their quickening pulses in the midst of Cage’s musical vacuum.
Like all great art, 4’33” simply and elegantly exposed a facet of experience that had been neglected. From any individual’s perspective, there is no such thing as complete silence unless the human ear is somehow defective. Chance operations and ambient sounds have always played a part in the experience of music; Cage just willfully brought those operations and sounds to the foreground of his piece. The performance signaled a paradigm shift, and one can trace a trajectory from 4’33” to practically every subsequent artistic movement from NeoDada, Fluxus, Happenings and Performance Art, Nouveau Realism, Pop Art, Minimalism, Post-Minimalism and Conceptualism.
“Printed score for 4'33", tacet tacet tacet version,” (1960) by John Cage. Copyright © 1960 Henmar Press Inc. Used by permission of C.F. Peters Corporation. All rights Reserved.
What brought Cage to the point where he felt he needed to create 4’33”? By 1952, Cage had years of experience as a Modernist composer, and one could say that the constant sonic experimentation of the first half of the twentieth century led him to the composition. Buddhism and the chance divinations of the I Ching also played into Cage’s thinking when he was composing the piece. The real spark, however, that ignited 4’33” was Cage’s viewing of a single painting by a relatively new and unknown artist to New York City.
Robert Rauschenberg was born on October 22, 1925, in the booming oil town of Port Arthur, Texas, to Fundamentalist Christian parents. In his maturity, Rauschenberg became one of the twentieth century’s most inventive, precocious, and intransigent artists, constantly redefining his art with an unmitigated lust for life, a nonchalant sense of bravado, and a penchant for crossing and erasing the boundaries of various media.
Port Arthur, much like any small town, was no artistic paradise, and one gets the sense that Rauschenberg’s inquisitive personality drove him to stray from the bayous and oil refineries nearby. In 1948, he attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, after studying in Kansas City and Paris. Black Mountain was a hotbed of avant-garde activity due to the presence of a number of refugee artists from Europe after WWII, including Joseph Albers of the famed Bauhaus. Albers was a strict disciplinarian who eschewed artistic experimentation in his own courses. Rauschenberg bristled at this, stating that Albers influenced him to do “exactly the reverse” of what he was being taught. Rauschenberg left Black Mountain and relocated to New York City, which was quickly becoming the new artistic capital of the world thanks to the efforts of the Abstract Expressionists and the bolstering of America’s financial and cultural capital after WWII.
Rauschenberg blossomed and took his first steps into the annals of art history in 1951. He began by reacting to the dominant aesthetics and postures of the older Abstract Expressionists with a mixture of sincere respect and precocious, artistic mischief. If their art was about expressing all that was tragic or heroic in their own personalities and the world around them through idiosyncratic gestures and macho posturing, Rauschenberg would virtually eliminate himself from the artistic equation by offering the world a series of paintings of completely uninflected, white surfaces in serial compositions. “White Painting (Two Panel)” was one of these. It was the painting which incited Cage to compose 4’33”.
In “White Painting (Two Panel),” Rauschenberg reduced painting to its essence—pigment on canvas. The white surface of the painting is completely devoid of any trace of the artist’s hand. Cage referred to the “White Painting Series” as “airports for the lights, shadows and particles” in the spaces they inhabit. The series is the first set of artworks of its kind in the Western tradition—paintings meant solely to register and acknowledge the atmospherics which surround them. The works presaged Minimalism by a decade.
“White Painting (Three Panel),” by Robert Rauschenberg.
One may scoff at the ease of painting a completely white painting. What really matters is the philosophical imperative of the work and the context in which it was made. Rauschenberg’s “White Painting Series” represents a turning point in Western thought. It was an apotheosis of Modernist formal purity—so much so that it was also Modernism’s tombstone. It was also a nail in the coffin of the tradition of painting as a “window into another world” which came out of the Renaissance tradition. White. White. White. In its purity, the “White Painting Series” is laid bare for the world to creep in and change its surface according to atmospheric whim. Of course this sort of occurrence is nothing new. Every painting ever made is subject to local viewing conditions. However, no painting in history ever made this idea entirely visible, asserting it as its raison d’etre.
The ego of the Post-Renaissance/Western art tradition dissolves in the “White Painting Series,” because, for all intents and purposes, the artist shares in the creation of the works with the world surrounding the artworks themselves. The I of individual artistic genius becomes the we of Postmodern plurality and detournement. This is what Cage found in Rauschenberg’s “White Painting (Two Panel).”
Today, the two works, 4’33” and “White Painting (Two Panel),” have been brought together as the centerpiece of an exhibition titled Silence at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, that will be open until October 21, 2012. As the exhibition title suggests, all of the works inside deal with some notion of aural and/or visual voids or negation by artists such as Joseph Beuys, Marcel Broodthaers, John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, David Hammons, Tehching Hsieh, Jennie C. Jones, Jacob Kirkegaard, René Magritte, Mark Manders, Christian Marclay, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Max Neuhaus, Robert Rauschenberg, Doris Salcedo, Tino Sehgal, and others.
The significance of the Menil’s exhibition can be understood against the utter lack of silence in contemporary society. With a world of media at our fingertips and the majority of us living in noisy urban areas, we rarely experience any semblance of silence much anymore in the West. The Menil’s exhibition aims to reframe the notion of silence in the larger culture.
After Rauschenberg finished his “White Painting Series,” he completed one more notable work that dovetails with the notion of silence and negative dialectic. It was “Erased De Kooning”—a completely erased masterwork given to him for the express purpose of erasure by the Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning. It took Rauschenberg a solid month to erase it completely and is proof that silence, whether aural or visual, is a hard-won prize for those who truly seek it.
A preview of some of the works on view through October 21, 2012, at The Menil Collection in Houston.
“Das Schweigen (The Silence)” (1973) by Joseph Beuys. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Alfred and Marie Greisinger Collection, Walker Art Center, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1992. Photo courtesy Walker Art Center.
“Lavender Disaster”(1963) by Andy Warhol. © 2012 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. The Menil Collection, Houston, Gift of the artist. Photo by Hickey-Robertson, Houston.
“Untitled (Monogold)” (ca. 1960) by Yves Klein. © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo by Hickey-Robertson, Houston.
“The Date” (2009) by Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset. © 2012 Michel Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset. Courtesy of Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen. Photo by Anders Sune Berg.
One Year Performance 1978–1979, Life Image, by Tehching Hsieh. © 1979 Tehching Hsieh. Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York. Photo by Cheng Wei Kuong.