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

Doig’s Ravens, Meet Braque’s Bird

Peter Doig’s Corbeaux series (2011) hangs in conversation with Georges Braque’s Bird (1956), a work in the permanent collection (Photo by Claire Norman)

It was imperative to our founder, Duncan Phillips, to engage with living artists. He felt that “artists speak not only for themselves but for those of us who are intensely interested in other ways of seeing than our own.” Maintaining our connections to living artists has become an intrinsic part of the museum’s philosophy and mission.

It’s in this vein that we asked the artist Peter Doig to, in addition to delivering the spring 2011 Duncan Phillips Lecture, create a painting or a series that responds to a work in the permanent collection.

Georges Braque. Bird, 1956. Oil on canvas; 18 x 19 1/2 in.

Peter chose a work by the French painter Georges Braque, Bird (1956) – a painting whose image of a dove has become an iconic symbol for this institution – as his inspiration for the Corbeaux series.

It was particularly satisfying to watch Peter’s reaction to the Braque painting for the first time in person. While working with our staff in the gallery on his installation he kept returning to the Braque work, fixated on the figure of the dove suspended in air. It was evident Peter hoped to capture this feeling of stilled movement in his raven series, and the experience of the works in conversation is certainly kinetic: you feel as if Doig’s ravens take flight with Braque’s dove, transcending the gallery walls to transport you to a place in nature.

Visitors observing two works in Peter Doig’s Corbeaux series (Photo by James Brantley)

After his lecture, Peter enjoyed the opportunity to speak with students and young artists (Photo by James Brantley)

To learn more about Peter Doig’s work, visit the Michael Werner Gallery and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. For behind-the-scenes photos of his installation in progress at the Phillips, check out this Flickr set.

Megan Clark, Manager of Center Initiatives