PRINT January 1967

Sound, Light and Silence in Kansas City

ONE OF THE VIABLE TRADITIONS of 20th Century art has been the reduction of the number of elements which comprise an art object, a kind of fast which may refuse the nourishment of line, shape, color, sometimes singly, sometimes together, and not only these so-called “abstract” elements, but also representational content. What was and remains the aim of this seeming deprivation? The concentration of the work of art’s emotional impact.

The William Rockhill Nelson Gallery-Atkins Museum in Kansas City Missouri, retains its lead among smaller Midwestern museums with a spearheading assembling of works which, according to its Assistant Director, Ralph T. Coe, “perform.” The exhibition arranged by Coe, with an assist by Ivan Karp, brings together a body of work which tends to focus on one of the following elements: light, sound or silence. It is no small critical feat for Coe to have recognized that these areas of experimentation are today receiving special consideration, because larger stylistic issues generally tend to cloud the perception of a contemporary work.

Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg are proposed as polarized heroes and mentors to the group selected. The one is represented by Gizera, a modular work in black and white painted in parquet pattern, and the other by Broadcast, an epochal combine employing three radios. The former artist is seen as a forerunner of the inert and reductive; the latter as a model for the frenetic and the sonorous.

In the first part there are several figures of particular distinction: William Bollinger, the exhibition’s cadet presents an extreme sculptural conception in his Series 55, a set of alternating extruded aluminum channels, like a moulding pattern for a revitalized classical string-course; Peter Gourfain’s Whale Road 3 is a set of three nine-foot squares composed of his capsule grids, whose horizontal running footage is more than thirty feet; Don Judd’s untitled work presents four aluminum and plexiglass cubes through whose lateral tinted faces there occurs a kind of optical framed pile-up, an effect resembling the bellows of a camera; John McCracken’s Green Slab in Two Parts simply displays two lacquer boxes of piquant, quiescent surfaces, one atop the other. Among the even more abstrusely silent works is Richard Artschwager’s punning Tortoiseshell Aurora Triptych, a formica Merode altarpiece, Andy Warhol’s celebrated “stillie,” Empire, and Malcolm Morley’s S.S. Rotterdam, an absurdly exact tonal rendering of an Echtachrome shot of the flagship’s entry into port.

Figures who work primarily with light include Howard Jones who shows a red field animated by programmed lights and cross formations, Stanley Landsman, and young Boyd Medford whose electronic device presents a rectangular solid traversed by changing seams of radiant color.

Herbert Gessner’s Multiple Projection Wheel most approximates Coe’s claim that the new consciousness his exhibition is documenting is related to a “psychic” art. In this work three projectors fire off a set of changing patterns, moire, houndstooth, plaids, in brilliant overlapping episodes. They alter the shadows cast by interrupting objects, presumably those of a fascinated public.

To my mind the major work of the exhibition is Len Lye’s Universe, a huge high carbon belt of steel, the contour of which is constantly modified by electromagnetic shocks. Occasionally, when the spasm of energy racing through the arc is of sufficient strength, the work strikes a suspended wooden ball which sounds a particularly thrilling and ominous accompaniment. Universe is easily one of the most powerful sculptures yet conceived by one of our pioneer abstractionists.

The figures participating in Light, Sound and Silence share certain features in common. On one hand they continue the tendency toward rudimentary forms of powerful emotional impact. Moreover they refuse to have the content of their forms subverted by mere nomenclature. While essentially modern and experimental, they are, with rare exceptions, not generally identifiable as fashionably Pop, Op or Minimal figures. These tags seem only to deal with appearance rather than emotional communicativeness. Apparently visitors to the exhibition have taken to lying on the floor to better view the Lye and before the Gessner, take to frugging and skating although no kid combo is there to supply the musical accompaniment.

This remarkable exhibition, enlivened still further by a tactful and elegant installation by the museum’s young designer, Craig Craven, is all the more laudable for the fact that it was assembled by a museum outside the purlieu of the big city and therefore was free of that particularly odious taint of the arch and fashionable. Ralph T. Coe achieved the near ideal of arranging a contemporary survey in the provinces which in no way seemed insular or imitative. And, as Ivan Karp noted during the panel discussion which celebrated the exhibition’s opening, the good citizens of Kansas City had no more to fear, for the moment, as they had, in this single coup, come face to face with perhaps the most radical issues confronting young artists today.

––Robert Pincus-Witten