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Intersection of Music and Contemporary Art Captured in Seeing Songs at the MFA, Boston
Hot Still Scape for Six Colors — 7th Avenue Style, 1940, Stuart Davis (American, 1892–1964). Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of the William H. Lane Foundation and the M. and M. Karolik Collection, by exchange © Estate of Stuart Davis/ VAGA, New York, NY. Photograph courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MA.- The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), kicked off the exhibition Contemporary Outlook: Seeing Songs with a free group karaoke party. The event celebrated the exhibition’s opening and the Boston premiere of Queen (A Portrait of Madonna) by artist Candice Breitz, a video installation featuring 30 hard-core fans singing along to Madonna’s album, The Immaculate Collection.

The exhibition, which opened to the public July 1, explores the inspiration visual artists have derived from music, from George Gershwin’s melodic rhapsodies and Billie Holiday’s soulful blues, to Bob Dylan’s folk anthems and Madonna’s pop songs. Many have responded by transforming something that is arguably intangible into a physical form, allowing viewers to ―see songs‖ in art. Seeing Songs presents an eclectic visual mix drawing on music as critical inspiration. Composed of objects from the MFA’s collection and several key loans, it features nearly 60 works by an international group of artists in a variety of media. Highlights include Breitz’ wall-size installation of singers on 30 monitors, photographic portraits of rock legends Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, and Tina Turner, and expressive prints by Wassily Kandinsky. Seeing Songs is on view in the Foster Gallery through February 21, 2010.

"When you look at some of these works, with their bold colors and abstract forms, you can almost hear the music that inspired them," said William Stover, assistant curator of contemporary art at the MFA and curator of the exhibition. "Although considered one of the most ephemeral of the arts, music, and the emotional power that it conveys, has long been a subject for visual artists. With advancements in technology, they are finding yet even more interesting ways to respond to it."

The exhibition follows the evolution of artwork from abstraction through video art and their connections to musical forms as varied as classical, jazz, and pop. Six videos play an important part in the exhibition: two are on view during the entire run of Seeing Songs, and four are included in a rotating video program. The show features the Boston premiere of Candice Breitz’ Queen (A Portrait of Madonna) (2005, The Vanmoerkerke Collection, Brussels), which explores the dynamics between pop stars and their fans. Karaoke-like interpretations of Madonna’s hit album, ―Immaculate Collection,‖ serve as the focal point for this eye-catching video presentation. A grid of 30 screens showcases the life-size heads of Italian fans of Madonna—some of whom do not speak English but know all the words to her songs—seen in heartfelt performances of impassioned idolatry. Also on view during the run of the exhibition is Annemiek (1997, Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery) by Rineke Dijkstra, who offers a portrait of a teenage girl, displaying the awkwardness and self-awareness of youth, as she lip syncs to a song by the "Backstreet Boys."

Videos in rotation during the run of the exhibition begin in July/August with Gillian Wearing’s Slight Reprise (1994–95, Courtesy of the Artist and Maureen Paley Gallery, London). Evoking the ―fly on the wall‖ documentaries of the 1970s, this video portrait of self-styled heavy metal ―air guitarists‖ draws upon the common fantasy of being a rock star. It is followed in September/October by Trine Lise Nedreass’ Singer with Butterfly (2003, Courtesy of the Artist and LUXE Gallery, New York), a video of a one-hour musical performance (done specifically for her camera) that has been edited down to a one-minute piece. In it all vocals and music have been cut out, leaving only the pauses between songs, making the viewer focus on unachieved desires and aspirations. The rotation continues in November/December with Christoph Brech’s Opus 110A (2001, Courtesy of the artist and KUNSTAGENTEN Gallery, Berlin), a study of the back of conductor Chistoph Poppen leading Shostakovich’s Symphony for Chamber Orchestra, 110a. Running the length of the actual performance, the folds and creases in the conductor’s tuxedo jacket replicate the rhythm and pace of the music. The final video, set for January/February, is Ana Prvacki’s Tent, Quartet, Bows, and Elbows (2007, Courtesy of the Artist), a hybrid of performance and video, which shows a white tent-like structure that shakes, quivers, protrudes and bulges to the rhythm of music by Lithuanian composer Ignas Krunglevicius. When the music has stopped and the structure recovers it original shape, the artist walks into the frame and unzips one side of the tent, allowing for the source of the music to emerge.

Rock ’n’ roll is well represented in Seeing Songs, where legends such as Beatles John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr are captured in colorful pop-art posters created from photographs by Richard Avedon, while Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, and the Jefferson Airplane are pictured in naturalistic black and white images by Herb Greene. The exhibition draws from the MFA’s large collection of photographs by Herb Ritts to include images of Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Madonna. Other artists, such as Patti Smith and the Ramones, are seen in a compilation of photographs of 12 album covers by Nayland Blake, titled The Seventies (1991, MFA). This retrospective of the decade reflects the adolescent Blake's identification with musicians who personified the rebellious spirit and raw power of rock ’n’ roll. Also featured in the show is the folk-rock tradition as recorded in photographs of musician Bob Dylan by Eliza Dorfman.

The sound of music also has long been visually preserved by artists in drawings and paintings, as can be seen in Wassily Kandinsky’s bold, abstract works, which he sometimes labeled ―improvisations‖ and ―compositions.‖ Klange (Sounds) (1913, MFA, Boston), a book with color and monochromatic woodcuts, and Violet (1923 MFA), a color lithograph, are two of several Kandinsky works on paper included in the show. Also on view is Stuart Davis’ masterpiece of 20th-century American painting, Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors—7th Avenue Style (1940, MFA). In this visual equivalent of the syncopated rhythms of jazz, Davis evokes the energy of both this musical style and city life through his innovative composition of lively shapes and lines and his palette of vibrant color. As well, Arthur Garfield Dove’s George Gershwin–I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise (1927, MFA), is a wonderful example of the numerous music-related works created throughout his career. Like Davis, he was particularly attracted to the improvisational techniques of jazz, and references to music—ranging from Louis Armstrong and George Gershwin to the popular big-band sounds of Bing Crosby and even the avant-garde work of Igor Stravinsky—are reflected in his paintings.

Contemporary Outlook: Seeing Songs is the third in a series of small, focused exhibitions, drawn mainly from the MFA collections, which examine trends, issues, ideas and new ways of looking at art and artists that have emerged in recent years. In 2007–2008, the MFA presented Contemporary Outlook: Japan and Contemporary Outlook: German Photography. Seeing Songs is one of several exhibitions, special events, and opportunities aimed at younger audiences that the Museum offers throughout the year. These include the Elaine and Jerome Rosenfeld Concerts in the Courtyard summer series, mfafirstfridays, and free admission to the Museum on Wednesdays after 4 p.m. Concerts in the Courtyard, which runs from June 24–August 26, features an exciting range of music from Africa, the Caribbean, and Spain, as well as soul, gospel, and Cajun sounds from America. All concerts take place outside in the MFA’s Calderwood Courtyard on Wednesday evenings at 7:30 p.m. (in case of rain, concerts are moved to Remis Auditorium). Also offered is mfafirstfridays on the first Friday of every month in the Koch Gallery, where fine art, live music, cocktails, and a delicious tapas menu enhance an evening of socializing. During the summer, the event becomes mfasummerfridays each Friday from July 3–August 28 at 5:30–9:30 p.m. in the Calderwood Courtyard, where cocktails and music are served under the stars.

Museum of Fine Arts | Boston | Mick Jagger | Bruce Springsteen | Tina Turner | Wassily Kandinsky | Bob Dylan | Madonna |

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