Listening to Rothko

In a stimulating Duncan Phillips Lecture, “John Cage and the Question of Genre,” which served as a keynote to this year’s International Forum Weekend dedicated to the confluence of art and music, the novelist and musician Rick Moody praised Cage’s chance works, such as his ineffable composition 4’33”, as a “a breath of fresh air in the midst of bourgeois individualism.” According to Moody, Cage disregarded any notion of genre in favor of “creative work whose primary intention is simply that it is creative, so that it might simply give a name to creativity itself.” 4’ 33”, first performed in 1952, was designated by Cage as a “composition for any instrument (or combination of instruments).” It consists solely of potential sound: the random noise that occurs during the duration of its “silent” performance.

Halfway through, Moody intermitted his lecture with a cunning act of bravura by playing the sounds of paintings and photographs he recorded in various museums with his iPhone: the incidental noises created by the crowds moving past them.

Afterwards, Moody took me aside and asked if he might be able to spend a few minutes in the Rothko Room in order to record the sound of Rothko’s paintings. I happily obliged, and we both intently listened to the paintings. Rothko may have approved: he once compared his paintings to the voices in an opera. And for a moment, ever so faintly, I thought I heard Rothko’s beloved Mozart emerge from the depth of the silence in the room.

Rick Moody in the Rothko Room

Rick Moody recording the sound of the Rothko Room. Photo: Klaus Ottmann

Surfing in Bavaria and Other Impressions from Germany

As the end of summer is approaching, here’s a digital postcard from my recent trip to Germany. Adjacent to the Haus der Kunst, the infamous exhibition space in Munich built by Hitler in the 1930s as a showcase of German art, now a temporary exhibition space devoted to cutting-edge contemporary art and blockbuster historical exhibitions, runs a tributary of the river Isar where surfers practice their skills in freezing water hundreds of miles away from any coastline.

Isar surfers

Isar surfers. Click for movie.

Inside, an exhibition on the history of the Haus der Kunst displayed several paintings Hitler had purchased for his personal art collection from the annual exhibitions of German art, all very much in the anti-modernist style of the national-aestheticism propagated by the Third Reich.

For the National Socialist ideologues, the aestheticization of politics, was crucial, as Hitler’s secretary of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, stressed in 1933 in an open letter to the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, written in response to Furtwängler’s protest of racial discrimination: “Art must not only be good, it must also be conditioned by the exigencies of the people or, rather, only an art that draws on the Volkstum [i.e. the “Arian,” character of the German nation] as a whole may ultimately be regarded as good.”

Hitler’s art purchases on view at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, August 2012. Photo: Klaus Ottmann

Cuban Impressions, Part 3

Pictures taken in Havana, Cuba, during our second Phillips Collection trip to visit the 11th Havana Biennial, May 21–28, 2012. The (pre-revolution) building in the center was designed in 1958 by the Cuban architect Antonio Quintana Simonetti. It houses the Ministerio de Salud Pública, the Ministry of Public Health, as well as murals by Afro-Cuban surrealist painter Wifredo Lam and the Cuban revolutionary artist Raúl Martínez.

Calle 23, Havana, Cuba, May 27, 2012. Photos: Klaus Ottmann