To Become like Music: Late Modernist Painting, Performance and the Musical Avant-Garde 1945-1965

By Ryan, David | Art Monthly, September 2008 | Go to article overview

To Become like Music: Late Modernist Painting, Performance and the Musical Avant-Garde 1945-1965


Ryan, David, Art Monthly


To become like music: late modernist painting, performance and the musical

avant-garde 1945-1965

Mummery + Schnelle Gallery London July 15 to August 16

Music and the visual arts have a long and intertwined relationship that goes back even before the blatant pictorialism of Liszt and Debussy in the 19th Century or the aspiration to musicality in painters such as van Gogh, Gauguin and Kandinsky. It was, however, the theories of the Symbolists, known to each of these artists, that actively developed and celebrated correspondences and relationships between the arts and even the various senses themselves. By the mid 20th Century such ideas were, of course, no longer tenable or fashionable and seen as a rather excessive by-product of the search for new languages and structures of expression vital to the modernist project. But even at this point potential cross-fertilisation of the arts retained a fascination, and kernels of that earlier sense of adventure appeared to inform the possibility of thinking across media. 'To become like music' takes this juncture as its starting point. It is centred around the activities of the European and American Avant Gardes via the key figure of the late Karlheinz Stockhausen, and several correlations are woven in order to bring together both composers and painters, recreating a rich network of connections from the late 1950s to the mid 60s. Stockhausen's Originale from 1961 provides one focal point for the central theme of the exhibition. Essentially a collaborative work--primarily with Cologne-based painter Mary Baumeister, who was to become his second wife--Originale sees Stockhausen moving away from the hyper-formalism of his earlier work and embracing a mode of theatre close to the 'happening'. It included various performers, actors, musicians, models and Baumeister herself creating a painting 'live' together with a theatrical reformulation of Stockhausen's brilliant work of the year before, Kontakte for piano, percussion and tape. If Kontakte explored the means of creating a direct relationship between live and electronically constructed sounds, then its appearance in Originale further elaborates that relationship in a more theatrical or, some might even say, vaudeville manner, with the performers also involved in non-musical activities.

One striking thing about Originale is its lack of originality--literally, in its recycling of Kontakte, but also formally. It appears to have taken its cue directly from John Cage's Theatre Piece of 1960 (with David Tudor performing in both works) which also brought together activities from different art forms. It is misleading, however, as the exhibition caption stated, to suggest that Originale prefigured activities of the Happening in New York. Allan Kaprow (who was the director of the New York presentation of Originale) and others had initiated performance-based activities in 1958/9 and Kaprow had already articulated, very clearly, his position on performance and environmental situations. Certainly, the beatnik chic of Originale possibly owed more to Baumeister's influence, and perhaps reflected the importance of her studio as a creative meeting place for artists and composers, comparable to Yoko Ono's loft in New York at the same time, where these ideas no doubt would have circulated. Stockhausen's own sense of theatre was to become more integrated and ritualistic, and less open-ended, after this piece.

Also present in the exhibition were some important photographic documents of this period, including Originale's premiere, as well as various scores and the opportunity to sample Baumeister's paintings and her 'Painterly Concept', a text score produced in Stockhausen's composition class at Darmstadt's summer course, which reflected a synaesthetic approach to performing sounds.

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