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MoMA Exhibition Looks at Music's Wide-ranging Influence on Artists Beginning in the 1960s
Nam June Paik (American, born Korea, 1932-2006), with Otto Piene (German, b. 1928). Untitled. 1968. Manipulated television set and plastic pearls. Gift of the Junior Associates of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Greenwich Collection Ltd. Fund, and gift of Margo Ernst © 2008 Estate of Nam June Paik.

NEW YORK.- The Museum of Modern Art presents Looking at Music, an exhibition that explores music’s role in the interdisciplinary experimentation of the 1960s, when a dynamic cross-fertilization was taking place among music, video, installation, and what was known as “mixed media” art. In the decade between 1965 and 1975, an era of technological innovation fostered this radical experimentation, and artists responded with works that pushed boundaries across media. Comprising over 40 works from the Museum’s collection, the exhibition includes video, audio, books, lithographs, collage, and prints, by artists such as Laurie Anderson, Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman, and John Cage. Their work in the exhibition is accompanied by related experimental magazines such as West Coast poet Wallace Berman’s Semina, along with drawings, prints, and photographs by John Cage, Jack Smith, and other radical thinkers. The exhibition, organized by Barbara London, Associate Curator, Department of Media, The Museum of Modern Art, is on view from August 13, 2008, to January 5, 2009; the accompanying film and video series in The Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters, which includes 12 programs of nearly 50 works of documentary and experimental films along with music videos, will be on view August 18 to December 21, 2008.

Barbara London states: “Coinciding with the advent of portable video cameras and electric guitars, it seemed as though every artist of this time was in a band, with some artists studying music formally before gravitating to one of the new art forms.”

In The Yoshiko and Akio Morita Gallery, the exhibition begins with an untitled 1968 sculpture by video pioneer and classically trained pianist Nam June Paik (American, b. Korea, 1932-2006): a television set that exhibits an unchanging image, like a musical composition consisting of a single note. Transformed into a Zen-like object, it is reminiscent of Paik’s early performances, in which a single stroke of a piano key followed a long preparatory phase. Paik’s collaborator Otto Piene (German, b. 1928) completed the jewel-like composition by adding pearls to the TV set’s outer casing. Paik’s iconic work is accompanied in the exhibition by a film from fellow Fluxus artist Yoko Ono (American, b. Japan, 1933), and collage drawings from Paik’s friends, the philosopher-composer John Cage (American, 1912-1992) and Ray Johnson (American, 1927-1995).

In the same gallery, the installation Self-Playing Violin (1974) by Laurie Anderson (American, b. 1947) incorporates an element of wish fulfillment: her violin has a tiny speaker concealed inside that can produce any piece of music Anderson desires. Trained as a classical violinist, Anderson would talk, sing, and bow a duet with the instrument in performances.

In the video Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy (1973), Joan Jonas (American, b. 1936) hums and sings a capella as she tries on different identities, putting on Japanese Noh Theater masks and vamping in front of a mirror. Kneeling on the floor over a piece of white paper under an overhead camera, Jonas, as the title character Organic Honey, slips back her mask to wear it like a hat, then draws a dog’s head, the top half on the bottom of the paper, the bottom half on top—on the monitor as the vertical roll bar rolls, the two halves of the drawing coming together in proper position. As she draws, Organic Honey’s hands and arms become visible; occasionally her mask looks up at the camera, all to various musical scores.

Ego and alter ego is similarly a strategy for Jack Smith (American, 1932-1989) as seen through a drawing and photograph done at the time of his early 1960s midnight events in his downtown Manhattan loft. At these events Smith would mill around and assemble a costume from heaps of clothes piled up on the floor, with no one quite knowing the distinction between Smith’s life and his art. Included in the exhibition is Smith’s photograph Head (1958).

An ardent guitar player in high school, Bruce Nauman (American, b. 1941) was inspired by the compositions of minimalist composers Steve Reich (American, b. 1936) and La Monte Young (American, b. 1935) (who are represented in the exhibition by their music and printed matter). Included is Nauman’s video Lip Sync (1969), in which the artist attempts to repeat the title phrase at exactly the same moment he hears himself having just said it. In this 60-minute video, Nauman’s face is seen upside down as he performs wearing earmuff headphones in front of a stationary video camera.

Nauman’s video is seen in the context of music videos by other ingenious, identity altering media artists including David Bowie, Captain Beefheart, Devo, and The Residents (American, est. 1972). With wit and rarefied electronic inventiveness, The Residents fuse a dark storytelling tradition of the South with an eccentric counter-culture spirit of the Bay Area. Their pre-MTV music video, The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll (1975) inventively parodies pop music and 1960s commercials, in addition to German expressionist cinema of the 1920s.

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