Songs and the Sky: An Exhibition of Art and Music @Bruce Silverstein

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing the works of 5 different photographers paired with music, the images variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the smaller front room, and the reception area.

The following photographers have been included in the show, with the number of works on view, and their processes, sizes, and dates as background:

  • Lisette Model: 7 gelatin silver prints, c1940-1941/1960s, each sized roughly 14×10 or reverse
  • Barbara Morgan: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1937, 1941/1970s, sized roughly 14×19 and 16×20, 2 ink and watercolors, 1960, sized roughly 12×15 and 16×10
  • Aaron Siskind: 7 gelatin silver prints, 1953-1956/some later, sized between roughly 7×5 and 18×17
  • Frederick Sommer: 1 gelatin silver print mounted on board, 1954, sized roughly 10×8, 7 pen and ink, pencil, and glue drawings on paper, 1960s, 1970, and n.d., sized between roughly 12×10 and 14×11
  • Alfred Stieglitz: 11 gelatin silver prints flush mounted on board/card, 1922-1933, each sized roughly 5×4 or reverse

The photographs have been paired with music as follows (all are heard via headphones except the Stieglitz/Bloch which is played in the gallery space):

  • Lisette Model: Arnold Schönberg, Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21, 1912
  • Barbara Morgan: Henry Colwell, Sinister Resonance, 1937
  • Aaron Siskind: John Cage, 44 Harmonies from Apartment House – 1776 & Cheap Imitation, 1976
  • Frederick Sommer: Chris Washburne, Chris Washburne/Ole Mathisen’s Quartet FFEAR, Mirage, 2012
  • Alfred Stieglitz: Ernest Bloch, Poems of the Sea, 1922

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Songs and the Sky is a gallery exhibit that asks us to change our behavior. Instead of wandering through the space, glancing at the artworks and relying on a “looking at things” experience to glean meaning from the displays, it forces us to engage not only our visual senses but our aural ones as well, via headphone stations and background music. The result is a show that opens up a thoughtful and nuanced dialogue between photography and music, and draws intriguing historical, compositional, and stylistic patterns between modes of expression that aren’t typically considered influential friends. So a protip for future visitors – just flying by for a quick visual scan of the gallery entirely misses the point; if you don’t stop, put on the headphones, and listen to the selections that match the pictures, you are fundamentally misunderstanding (and undermining) the intent of the exhibit before you even get started. If on the other hand you slow down and allow the curatorial premise to play out, you will be rewarded with some unexpectedly rich interplay between the artistic mediums.

Part of the reason this show is successful is that it smartly recontextualizes work with which we are already largely familiar. Alfred Stieglitz’ cloudscape equivalents, Aaron Siskind’s tumbling through the air bodies, Lisette Model’s city sidewalks, Barbara Morgan’s dancers (particularly Martha Graham), even to a lesser extent Frederick Sommer’s drawn abstractions resembling musical scores, these are all bodies of imagery that are deservedly famous, iconic in some cases, but seemingly all well understood. So the idea that we might pair them each with music and thereby discover heretofore hidden nuances in these anointed classics seems tantalizingly unlikely. And yet, that’s exactly what happens, but it requires seeing with our ears, or hearing with our eyes.

The most unsuspectingly ominous pairing of the show puts together distorted sidewalk shadows from Lisette Model with Arnold Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, finding commonality in urban dissonance. Schönberg’s score is filled with jumping violins and piano, punctuated by vocal screeches and operatic blasts that build to energetic crescendos. The anxious tones and rhythmic tension of the composition transform Model’s shadows from formal found studies in meditative observation into slashing expressions of urban isolation, where sadness and anguish creep in like menacing ghosts. Via the music, my brain turned off the photographic technicalities of her distortions and instead saw them as manifestations of pure emotion, where solitary forms and elongated pairs struggle to adapt to the contours of the concrete. With the Schönberg soundtrack in my head, these pictures will now forever have a much darker and more unsettled mood, the piercing dissonance making the figures feel more lonely and mournful.

The match between Aaron Siskind and John Cage turns on echoes of elemental grace. Cage’s composition for string quartet is full of pared down melodies, where notes pile up into delicate harmonies, turning and repeating, before reorganizing themselves and beginning again. When seen against the backdrop of Cage’s music, Siskind’s bodies seem to float and soar, each flip and fall an embodiment of pure human joy. (The images are hung in an up and down curve, mimicking the path of the music.) The works intermingle with glorious grace, wandering and reaching, Siskind’s forms and gestures a kind of language that has been embellished by Cage. Experienced together, the two are transcendent (and surprisingly moving) – I could have happily sat there all day and let them wash over me again and again.

The ambient addition of Ernest Bloch’s solo piano music to a room full of Stieglitz equivalents creates a different kind of transformation. Bloch’s composition is a dance of scaled melodies, rich with slow meditative progressions and more active tempo changes, a work that is patient and often builds to converging resolution. What Bloch’s music does is free Stieglitz’ images from the tyranny of frozen time, breaking up their stillness and introducing the perception of forward motion. Wispy scrims, flares of light through clouds, layers of changing winds, the pictures seem to move when animated by the melodies, so much so that my mind seemed to be imaging each picture evolving before my eyes, the sun breaking through, the clouds wandering by, or the patterns shifting and changing with each passing moment, like a slow moving time lapse.

That well chosen music could so powerfully enhance the experience of looking at photographs, and so smartly extend the context and meaning of pictures we see, was a revelation of sorts, and left me wondering why we don’t see more contemporary collaboration and exchange between the mediums. Especially for visual works that push toward abstraction, the addition of similarly themed musical works reinforces the patterns and moods being employed, to the benefit of both – when Henry Cowell’s avant-garde plucked piano strings violently thrum in your ears, the war torn anguish in Barbara Morgan’s gestural dance photographs seems all the more palpable. In the end, this show is a sophisticated reminder that works we think we already know can be boldly energized by alternate ideas, infusing the presumptively understood with a fresh dose of new life.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows:

  • Lisette Model: $28000 each
  • Barbara Morgan: $9500 and $28000 for the photographs, $9000 and $9500 for the ink/watercolors
  • Aaron Siskind: $8500 to $40000
  • Frederick Sommer: $15000 for photograph, $15000 or $20000 for drawings
  • Alfred Stieglitz: $65000 to $210000

Each of these photographers has an established secondary market presence, but given the nature of this group show, we will forego our usual discussion of individual auction market histories.

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Read more about: Aaron Siskind, Alfred Stieglitz, Barbara Morgan, Frederick Sommer, Lisette Model, Bruce Silverstein Gallery

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Enjoyed the review. Really like the idea of Silverstein using period-relevant music to revitalise ‘ images from the tyranny of frozen time’. The music selections seem to work with any of the images, but I can see how the curatorial assertion of a special significance with a particular piece would add an extra layer.

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