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Higher Beings Commanded

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Untitled (Quetta, Pakistan), by Sigmar Polke, 1974/78

Untitled (Quetta, Pakistan), by Sigmar Polke, 1974/78

Just when you might have thought that the Museum of Modern Art had become little more than a voracious real estate investment trust with a sideline in maintaining a great art collection, it wrong-foots you with an exhibition program that couldn’t be more nourishing for the soul. I’m thinking, for one, of “There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4'33",” a small gathering of works from the collection (on view through June 22) organized by the museum’s curator of drawings and prints, David Platzker, with Jon Hendricks, the artist who serves as consulting curator for its Fluxus collection. The show concerns not only Cage and his notorious “silent composition” but also how that seemingly outlandish gesture took its place, as Cage hoped it would, as “an action among ten thousand: it moves in all directions and will be received in unpredictable ways.” Cage offered this explanation to a friend who’d called 4'33" “a schoolboy’s prank.” The friend was Helen Wolff, the renowned book publisher, whose son, the composer Christian Wolff, had become one of Cage’s closest musical comrades, and it’s charming to see both correspondents cite the I Ching to bolster their positions. It was Helen and her husband, Kurt, who first published, at Pantheon Books, the famous Baynes-Wilhelm translation of the sibylline Chinese text, which Cage had begun using as an aid to composition a few years earlier.

In the exhibition—which includes works by artists whom Cage influenced as well as by those who influenced Cage (including works he owned, like Richard Lippold’s Five Variations Within a Sphere, 1947)—poetry, painting, sculpture and musical composition mix so freely that you’ll happily lose interest in keeping tabs on what’s what. Some words on a page might be a score, a poem or instructions for an art event; so might a simple or elaborate set of drawn lines. Some of the choices are as charming as they are informative. Robert Rauschenberg is represented not by any of the all-white paintings that Cage loved, but by a set of written instructions on how to make them—a reminder that such work involves not only chance operations and an encounter with silence and its impossibility, but also a DIY spirit. “Hang down a violin with a long rope till / nearly the ground from the roof of a building,” suggests Mieko Shiomi’s handwritten 1963 <event for the late afternoon>. Is it sculpture or music? Today, when so many artists are attempting “social projects” in art, it’s interesting to learn from the exhibition that Jackson Mac Low—who does not seem to be mentioned in any of the many recent books on “participatory” or “relational” or “collaborative” or “social” practices—had already coined the phrase in 1963, and was already trying to come to terms with the radical inadequacy of such projects. His Social Project 2 consists of two typewritten lines dated April 29, 1963—six months after the Cuban missile crisis but more than a year before the Gulf of Tonkin incident—of which the first is “Find a way to end war.” But the kicker is the second: “Make it work.”

Good luck with that. Proposing a project of impossible ambition seems a sort of rejoinder to works by some of Mac Low’s colleagues, which should have many potential realizations. As Dick Higgins writes of the beautiful Graphis drawings he started making in the late 1950s, “all elements of these markings are to be used or deliberately ignored for the production of movements and sounds according to any consistent system which the individual performer devises for the notation he is using.”

Again in 1963, which seems to have been an annus mirabilis for such work, George Brecht wrote Eight Piano Transcriptions for David Tudor; such performances as “(exchanging)” or “shaking hands,” with their implications of equivalence (if not equality) and reconciliation, may appear to be harbingers of Nicolas Bourriaud’s vision, articulated over a decade ago, of a new “relational” art whose compensatory mission would be to “fill in the cracks in the social bond.” But in fact they are gestures whose pacific appearance is part of the provocation, slyly allowing them to produce new cracks—fissures in one’s preconceptions of what a work of art or music might be or do, certainly, but perhaps also in one’s preconceptions of the social distinctions between those who are able to entertain such works, and those others who are determined not to countenance what Brecht liked to call “little enlightenments I wanted to communicate to my friends.”

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It may seem surprising that any sort of illumination can be found in the banal spaces of Glenn Lowry’s corporatized MoMA. But why be surprised? To decoct enlightenment from the banal, like finding music in the silence that can never be, was always the goal for artists like Brecht, quite distinct from that of escaping the commonplace. Paul Gauguin was the great escapist in modern art, and MoMA is presenting a scholarly, original and instructive show of his art, too. On view through June 8, “Gauguin: Metamorphoses” turns the spotlight away from his paintings and shines it on his prints and transfer drawings, and to a lesser extent on his sculpture in ceramic and wood. The show is large (around 150 works, all from the last fourteen years of the artist’s life) but understated, and no less important for that. Here we see Gauguin the experimentalist, who turned to printmaking (or to various hybrids of painting or drawing and printmaking, such as transfer drawings and monotypes), not only to circulate his images more widely but also to change them by reproducing them. He was not interested in adhering to a model, but rather in finding something new and unexpected in it. Gauguin wrote of himself in the third person (“He traces a drawing, then he traces this tracing, and so on till…he decides that it does not resemble the original any longer. Then!! he signs”) and was undoubtedly a mythographer: he mythified himself as well as the Tahitians and other Pacific Islanders whose worlds he tried to understand and explore. But perhaps in accord with his conviction that to be “mysterious” is a value in itself, his myths (and their embodiments in images) were always unstable, unsettled, in transition.

Gauguin the carver of wood reliefs turns out to be the same artist who scored the surface of woodblocks. You almost want to ink the surface of a cylindrical sculpture such as Hina With Two Attendants or The Afternoon of a Faun, both from around 1892, and roll it across a sheet of paper to test the result. It’s surprising that Gauguin never tried it. He delighted in the changes that his imagery underwent as it migrated from one medium to another or was reprised in the same medium, as when he treated the same woodblock very differently to produce profoundly different interpretations of it: here strongly outlined and almost monumental, there blurred and evanescent—for instance, as in Savage (1894), done the same year that Gauguin made a tremendous ceramic sculpture of the same figure. In the prints, she seems to appear and disappear like a ghost; the sculpture, which the artist had wanted to mark his grave, is by comparison almost reassuring in its fearsome immobility, rooted like a tree trunk.

For those whose knowledge of Gauguin is limited to his paintings, the exhibition is full of curious discoveries. I’ll mention just two. The first is Le Sourire, the satirical paper he published in Tahiti (in an edition of about thirty copies) for several months from 1899 to 1900. The text was mimeographed, and then woodcut images were added. Who would have imagined that Gauguin was a precursor not only of the mimeo revolution of the 1960s—of the Beats and the New York School—but also of the punk and riot-grrrl zines of the 1970s and 1990s? And the second is the oil-transfer drawings whose technique was influenced—so the exhibition’s curator, Starr Figura, suggests—by Gauguin’s use of the mimeograph. This involved laying a sheet of paper over another that had already been prepared with printer’s ink, then drawing on the overlaid sheet, with the ink from the bottom adhering to it, creating a rougher, more atmospheric image than the original drawing. Here, as Figura points out, “the act of creation was also an act of calculated destruction and deformation; legibility and illusionism were lost, and an aura of mystery and abstraction was gained.”

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