“Visual Music”

If you’ve been waiting for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to host a rock ’n’ roll laser-light show, this is your summer. Accompanied by the sounds of squealing feedback, thrumming sitars, and, yes, the occasional Pink Floyd song, abstract experimental films from the past 80 years are running nonstop in five different projection spaces at the museum. Together, these films manage to evoke every marginal, kitschy moment of pop-culture psychedelia imaginable, from the oozing gel-light effects filling the skies of Barbarella’s home planet to the groovier moments in Fantasia to those lightcycles from Tron. Included with these films are other color-happy artifacts, including early efforts at pure abstraction in painting as well as various crude light machines from the early 20th century and their contemporary progeny, digital art installations.

This slightly goofy parade of shimmering emanations and dancing blips is serious business, of course—evidence of modernist beliefs in new symbols, new technologies, and, ultimately, pie-in-the-sky utopian ends for art. The show, titled “Visual Music,” is the result of a collaboration between curators at the Hirshhorn and at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. It includes 36 paintings, 22 short films, three videos, three installations, and a slew of assorted objets. Laid out more or less chronologically, the exhibition begins at the start of the last century and ends in the present, following the thread of one idea, synesthesia, as it jumps from movement to movement and medium to medium, grasping for—and not always finding—adequate expression.

Synesthesia became a popular theme in Romantic and Symbolist thought in the 19th century. Artists in this period sought a heightened state of awareness in which one sense would become inextricably linked to another—in which one could, quite literally, expect to taste melodies or hear colors. Arthur Rimbaud’s 1871 poem “Vowels,” which assigned various color sensations to letters of the alphabet, was a touchstone here. So was pure instrumental music, which became a model for visual artists looking to escape the limits of painting and claim more expressive power. Entirely removed from representation of anything but itself, music was a model of abstraction to be evoked—or, more ideally, replicated—in painting and other visual media.

Wassily Kandinsky led the charge in the 20th century, particularly with the ideas outlined in his 1912 book, On the Spiritual in Art. Kandinsky saw purely formal exploration in paint as a pathway to the metaphysical—admittedly a difficult leap to make when viewing the artist’s “Visual Music” canvases. Fragment 2 for Composition VII (1913), for example, looks nervously daubed and abortive. Curving dashes and parallel lines recalling bits of musical notation weave their way through clumps of feathered, painterly shapelessness. The colors, through age, design, or some mix of the two, are all dark, chalky, and flat. Fuga (Fugue) (1914) hums with more radiant color contrasts, but it also stutters from edge to edge with meandering hatchings and unattached passages of black and gray chiaroscuro.

The results hardly equate with music. Kandinsky in this period prized expressive freedom above all else, and these loosely executed works bear little resemblance to the tightly controlled arrangements of the avant-garde composers he so admired. More important, Kandinsky’s paint is leaden and pasty, wholly lacking the slippery, evanescent quality one might associate with actual sound vibrations—the first indication that synesthesia might not be quite the reality-altering approach to art-making it was touted as. Abstraction initially seemed to promise an opportunity for paint to escape not only the direct imitation of appearances but also itself. Painting sought to embody sound, the secret principles of motion revealed a few years earlier by photographer Eadweard Muybridge, and a host of other phenomena that befitted an age of spiritual awakening and scientific discovery. Of course, none of these things really belong to paint on canvas: A painting, as later generations of abstract artists would insist, is a silent, static, flat object experienced all at once—not as fleeting sensations in a sequence like the notes of a piece of music or the frames of a film.

The early part of the show, then, is a hit-or-miss affair, full of dilettantism and pseudo-science. Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, for example, wasn’t a painter at all, but a musician by trade; his two Sonata No. 6 (Sonata of the Stars) paintings from 1908 are, at best, charming examples of outsider art filled with puffy clouds, mystical pyramids, and schematically rendered angels treading on paths of blue and white firmament. Stanton Macdonald-Wright, an American painter working in Paris around the turn of the century, showed more intellectual rigor. His exactingly constructed paintings relied on what he termed “color chords”—octaves of luminosity. Ultimately, though, works such as Conception Synchromy (1914) tend to look like disembowelled color wheels, fractured arcs of progressive value and hue. These aren’t paintings per se; they’re technical demonstrations, attractive in their way but hardly the reinvention of picture-making that the artist intended.

Really, the only static images on display here that work are the photographs. Take Alfred Stieglitz’s 1923– 1929 Songs of the Sky series, cloud studies for which the photographer trained his camera up into the night sky, capturing fleeting effects of the atmosphere as they passed overhead. The artist suggested that he wanted these works to inspire even a great composer to exclaim, “Music! Music! Man, why that is music!” And the pieces are certainly harmonious, black fields streaked with white that could be wave-disturbed seas as easily as they could be cloud-covered skies. Elegantly and unpretentiously, this sequence of tiny gelatin-silver prints easily trumps Kandinsky’s scruffily painted mystical signifiers.

For visual art to come even closer to music, it needed to function through time, to be capable of actual movement and transition. So it’s no surprise that it is with the first room of animated films that “Visual Music” really gets down to business. Viking Eggeling gives us our first taste of truly sequential visual art in his eight-minute Symphonie Diagonale (1924), his only film, completed the year before his death. In this black-and-white silent, a series of cuneiform-like wedge shapes in gray and white are set against a black background. Snaky curves and rows of parallel bars briefly appear, successively growing and diminishing a bit at a time before suddenly vanishing one after another. This procession of arcs and lines resembles illegible neon signage against some noirish night sky. It’s equal parts silliness and sublimity, suggesting the disposable as much as the timeless.

But the most compelling of the films on view comes from two brothers, John and James Whitney. These two truly combined sound and vision, generating a four-octave range of electronic tones by optically recording the movements of various weighted pendulums. In Five Film Exercises: Film No. 4 (1944), they synched these sounds to stencil-produced imagery that seems to recall the motions of planets or subatomic particles. In James’ later Yantra (1950– 1957), swarming points of colored light replace the tired, familiar forms instituted by Kandinsky. Accompanied by a deep, low humming sound, these dots coalesce and collapse; the result looks like a glimpse at the start of the universe.

The extent to which such experimentalism crossed over into the entertainment industry reaches some kind of apex with the liquid light shows of Joshua White, who presented his Joshua Light Show at New York’s Fillmore East from 1968 to 1970. In the 1969 excerpt presented here, layers of moving bubbles in pinks, reds, and yellows pulse like magnified images of distressed microorganisms. Strands of color float and dissipate like smoke before giving way to more urgently agitated glops. The look is overfamiliar to contemporary eyes; it remains inextricably tied to a specific period of music and recreational chemicals—no matter how unearthly such works may still appear. These images, we know, painted the walls of rock concerts, and it’s hard to appreciate them outside of that context.

Yet like the panorama painters of Europe in the early 19th century, who produced behemoth canvases that were part peep show, part fine art, White and his compatriots catered to both consumer appetites and avant-garde imperatives. In the present, the liquid light show can’t foretell a possible future; it functions only as a formally striking artifact—a blueprint for a flying car, a plan for a city on the moon. Even current incarnations of this work look weirdly historical, albeit more self-conscious. Leo Villareal is a New York artist represented locally by Conner Contemporary Art; his “Visual Music” installation, Lightscape (2002), already looks dated. In fact, it looks alarmingly similar to Thomas Wilfred’s sculptural light projections from a half-century earlier, also on view in the show.

In Wilfred’s Study in Depth, Opus 152 (1959), streaks of brightly colored light morph as they make their rear-projected transit across frosted white panels. The audible hum of rotating reflectors and projector cooling fans is in some ways the only significant difference between this work and Villareal’s. True, Villareal uses a grid of computer-controlled LEDs instead of colored bulbs and cylinders to create his shifting images, but his art is ultimately the same: an attempt to use pure light to remake the flat picture plane as a three-dimensional experience. If Villareal is making a wry joke, acknowledging the failed idealism of his project, or even courting confusion with earlier generations of technological innovators, then this is truly clever stuff. If he’s making a purely formal statement—just colored light on a screen, thanks—then it can’t possibly be taken seriously.

“Visual Music” tends to overwhelm, not so much because of the huge amount of sensory data but because so much of it is devoid of any sign of actual life in three dimensions. All of these successive cosmic nowheres, all of these extreme reductions and amplifications—if we don’t approach them on exactly their own terms, how much do they really tell us about ourselves and our desires? Only the exhibition’s final installation furnishes this key missing element. Jennifer Steinkamp’s SWELL (1995) is projected onto both sides of a wall jutting into the middle of the gallery space. A brightly colored constellation of glowing digital orbs twirls and rushes forward and back, perfectly synchronized to low whooshing sounds. None of this, however, is as interesting as the shadows of the piece’s viewers. On any given day, kids leap in front of the projectors, dancing or making shadow puppets; their silhouettes playfully interact with the clouds of swirling digital effects. Forget the metaphysical questing, the technological groping, the designs for new human experiences: When boring everyday life steps in, it immediately steals the show.CP