PRINT Summer 2005


Oskar Fischinger, Radio Dynamics, 1942. Installation view, “Visual Music,” Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 2005. Photo: Brian Forrest.

The dark secret of high-modernist visual art and theory has always been (shhh!) sound. No surprise, then, that the twenty-first century has already brought us two major shows devoted to the connections between eye and ear in the twentieth: “Visual Music,” co-organized by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, and “Sons & Lumières” at Paris’s Centre Pompidou, both with impressive catalogues. And there have been three recent exhibitions on the dialogue between Kandinsky and Schönberg: at the Jewish Museum in New York in 2003, at the Arnold Schönberg Center in Vienna in 2000, and at the Beyeler Museum in Basel in 1998—not to mention a show about musical analogy in the work of Kandinsky and his circle at Madrid’s Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in 2003. (1) What does it all mean? The answer, I think, has a lot do with some final, belated exorcism of Clement Greenberg.

Greenberg believed that abstraction entailed the self-purifying separation of painting from all other genres. But he had a small problem: Kandinsky, Mondrian, Frantisek Kupka, Robert Delaunay, Francis Picabia, Marsden Hartley, and just about every other pioneer of abstraction was inspired by music. Greenberg confronted this inconvenience at the very start of his career in his essay “Towards a Newer Laocoön” (1940), and it took all of his considerable wit to finesse the issue. What painting wanted from music, Greenberg argued, was its “purity”—the fact that music imitated neither nature nor any other art. If, as Greenberg had written the year before, avant-garde culture in general was “the imitation of imitating,” meaning that it was a reflection on its own “disciplines and processes,” then avant-garde painting in particular was the imitation of nonimitating. Problem solved.

Wassily Kandinsky, Impression III (Konzert), 1911, oil on canvas, 30 1/2 x 39 3/8". From “Sons & Lumières,” Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2004–2005. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

The pope of high modernism was, as usual, at least half right. Music was indeed held up as a heartening example of nonreferential art by early abstract painters. But while some of them kept the example at arm’s length, looking to music for structural principles that might put abstract painting on an equally secure footing, others drew unacceptably close (for Greenberg) to the flame, even seeking equations between particular hues and musical notes. In my mind, these two positions have always been occupied par excellence by Mondrian and Kandinsky, respectively. An entire history of the painting-music affair might well be written between them.

My hopes for such a history were raised by the fact that the checklist for the Paris exhibition included both Kandinsky’s Impression III (Konzert) of 1911, the painting he made the day after hearing a concert of Schönberg ’s music in Munich, and Mondrian’s New York City, 1942, started shortly after his discovery of boogie-woogie. These two titanic canvases mark out the extremes—chronological, conceptual, and cultural—of the art-music debate during the heroic era of European modernism. But the Paris show offered no such simple structure: It was not a thesis exhibition but rather a vast and impressive encyclopedia. And the Mondrian painting, which is owned by the Pompidou, was the only one by the artist, while Kandinsky’s work abounded. Clearly, when it comes to the art-music issue, we are in a Kandinsky moment. It is worth asking why.

Piet Mondrian, New York City, 1942, oil on canvas, 47 x 45". From “Sons & Lumières,” Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2004–2005. © 2005 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust. c/o HCR International Warrentown, VA.

At the risk of oversimplifying, we can trace the Mondrian-Kandinsky opposition to the divide between Enlightenment and Romantic ways of thinking about both the human sensorium and the universe of art. The title of Greenberg’s 1940 essay invoked Lessing’s 1766 treatise Laocoön, with its strict division between arts of time (poetry) and space (painting and sculpture), but Greenberg could just as well have summoned Rousseau, who in 1753 ridiculed Louis-Bertrand Castel’s color harpsichord, one of the first of many piano-like inventions to try to “play” color on a keyboard, by declaring that “each sense, then, has its proper field.” (2) With Goethe’s Theory of Colors of 1809, the imagined distance between color and sound began to close: He compared them to “two rivers which have their source in one and the same mountain,” further suggesting that a reductive physics might one day reunite them. The later Romantics and Symbolists were not so patient: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Huysmans plunged into a synesthetic haze, sometimes helped by drugs, in which colors were sounds were smells and so on. Wagner’s operatic vision of a Gesamtkunstwerk and Scriabin’s composition Promethée of 1910 (which incorporated a color organ) gave that haze a spectacular body.

Fast-forward to a little-known exchange between photographer/ filmmaker Hollis Frampton and sculptor Carl Andre in 1962. (3) Frampton suggests that Andre’s typewriter poems are not concrete enough because they mingle sound and sight just as Rimbaud’s poem “Voyelles” (1870–71) had done by assigning each vowel a color: “What must be brought about is the divorce of this whole precinct of our activity from the vague shapes of synaesthesia.” Considering that Andre’s poems were hardly mushy (the one in question is “roseroseroseroserose”), we can see just how far Greenberg’s hardheaded approach had taken artists by the 1960s—indeed beyond Greenberg, who had by then retreated into his own kind of sensory haze called “opticality.” (4)

Jordan Belson, Samadhi, 1966–67, still from a color film in 16 mm, 6 minutes. From “Visual Music,” Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 2005.

Rewind to 1911. As Kandinsky wrote to Schönberg after the concert, what he found exciting in the music was its play of independent voices and its new harmony: dissonant, illogical, nongeometrical. The resulting painting, one of the freshest Kandinsky ever made, is an abstracted recollection of the concert hall dominated by a black, piano-like shape on a yellow ground. There is nothing obviously synesthetic here, and yet the piano itself, as in contemporaneous paintings by Kupka, is arguably a cipher for the entire synesthetic project, given how the shape and mechanism of that instrument had haunted Romantic dreams of a visual music. The year before, Kandinsky’s essay “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” had proclaimed his allegiance to that tradition by assigning different colors to the timbres of various instruments of the orchestra, with the piano presiding as keyboard of the soul. (5)

Mondrian, by contrast, began his 1917 essay “The New Plastic in Painting” by proclaiming the separateness of the various arts and the supremacy of painting. What’s curious is that Mondrian proceeded to hunt for musical analogies anyway, albeit along a very different path from Kandinsky. He found inspiration for his fundamental dualism of color (red, yellow, blue) and noncolor (black, white, gray) in the opposition of sound and noise that he heard in both Futurist music and the jazz band—the two halves of the revelation he would call his musical “bombshell.” (6) Mondrian stuck with jazz and became obsessed with its rhythm: His paintings of the 1940s are, among other things, the most articulate criticism of the complex rhythmic structure of boogie-woogie piano ever produced.

Frantisek Kupka, Organization of Graphic Motifs II, 1912–13, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 76 3/8". From “Visual Music,” Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 2005. © Artists rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

The contrast between Kandinsky’s intuitive approach to the music analogy and Mondrian’s analytic one points to a larger artistic divide—that between (loosely speaking) expression and construction. Interestingly, musical taste crossed party lines. Kandinsky and Braque were both into Bach’s fugues, which were receiving renewed attention around the turn of the century, following the Wagnerian vogue for his choral music. (7) Kupka and Mondrian were both into jazz, along with almost everyone else. What made the exhibitions in both Paris and Los Angeles so fascinating was to see how the same musical inspiration produced such different visual results.

While the Paris show was encyclopedic, the Los Angeles show (now on its way to Washington, where it opens on June 23 at the Hirshhorn) is tightly and admirably focused on a single issue: synesthesia. This makes the omission of Mondrian quite proper. As the catalogue to “Visual Music” announces, the exhibition seeks to provide “another storyline” for abstraction than the standard high-formalist account with de Stijl at center stage—an alternative tale that instead keeps returning to film, light, and video experiments in California and elsewhere from the 1930s to the present.

Harry Smith, Early Abstractions: Film No. 3 (Interwoven), 1949, still from a color film in 16 mm, 3 minutes 30 seconds. From “Visual Music,” Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 2005.

Reading the history of abstraction through this unusual lens triggered an unexpected sense of déjà vu. At times I felt sure I was in an exhibition organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art almost twenty years ago: “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985.” Why? Simply because the number of artists in “Visual Music” interested in the occult, particularly theosophy, is stunning—not just the usual suspects like Kandinsky and Kupka but people like Mikalojus Ciurlionis, the Lithuanian painter and musician; Claude Bragdon, the pioneer of outdoor light shows in the teens; Oskar Fischinger, the experimental filmmaker famous for Fantasia (1940); and many other abstract filmmakers, including Harry Smith, Jordan Belson, and John and James Whitney. Given the theme of synesthesia, this is no surprise: Theosophy was just as happy to mix and match the senses (see Annie Wood Besant and C. W. Leadbeater’s 1905 treatise Thought-Forms) as it was to plunder world religions. Mondrian, who left the cult after an embarrassing and frustrating affair with it, would have disliked such company. You can almost hear him sighing with relief that he is not in the show.

But the question that puzzled me for some time was why the show’s focus on something as seemingly modern and materialist as abstract film would bring out a musty turn-of-the-century occultism. I found my answer in a single quote from the catalogue. In 1924, Daniel Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné, the Russian painter and the inventor of a keyboard light projector called the piano optophonique, wrote to Robert and Sonia Delaunay that, as a result of his invention, “an artist is no longer a slave to the surface.” (8) Aha! It was the drive to escape the warp and woof of the canvas, to project painting into space and time, that animated all the hocus-pocus of colored-light projection, from Castel’s eighteenth-century color organ to Scriabin’s Promethée to Thomas Wilfred’s Untitled, Opus 161, 1965–66, to Leo Villareal’s Lightscape, 2002. And the fundamental antimaterialist impulse of those experiments rhymed perfectly with all kinds of spiritualism.

Daniel Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné, Piano optophonique, 1922–23. Installation view, “Visual Music,” Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 2005. Photo: Brian Forrest.

The exhibition proposes, quite convincingly, that such experiments, while neither film nor painting, were central to certain modern kinds of both. As a result, we begin to see Kandinsky very differently—not, in classic modernist terms, as one of the first painters to embrace the canvas as a support for nonreferential mark making but rather as one fundamentally unhappy with its material limitations. In this optic, the blurry piano in Impression III begins to skid across its yellow ground, taking flight into other dimensions. It’s not a bad way to read the painting, and once again—sorry!—it drives home the opposition to Mondrian, who never lets us forget the rectangular, painted fact of the tableau.

But there is an interesting twist to the story of synesthesia, one that confounds any neat opposition of materialism and spirituality, and it came about thanks to the development of sound-film technology. Starting in 1930, various filmmakers in the Soviet Union (at the Scientific Experimental Film Institute) and in Germany (notably Fischinger) began creating sound by painting or collaging geometric shapes directly on sound tracks, something taken further in the United States by John and James Whitney, who used stencils to generate the sound as well as the images for Five Film Exercises (1943–44). What this means (and the exhibition would have done well to say so) is both simple and momentous: The quest for synesthesia had moved from the level of reception to that of production. Debatable assertions about correspondences between sights and sounds were replaced by undeniable physical connections. As Kerry Brougher, one of the curators of the exhibition, writes of Five Film Exercises in the catalogue, “The images and sound seem inextricably linked. One is not a result of the other; rather, sound is image, and image sound, with no fundamental difference.” (9)

John and James Whitney, Five Film Exercises, 1943–44, still from a color film in 16 mm, 21 minutes. From “Visual Music,” Los Angeles Musuem of Contemporary Art, 2005.

Well, that is certainly what the Whitneys (who thought in terms of the music of the spheres, atomic particles, and “liquid architecture”) wanted. But arguably what the sound-track experiments ended up proving, by force, was the radical arbitrariness of any connection between shape or color and sound. Look at the film without sound and there is no way to guess what the sound track might be. Hunting synesthesia back to the level of material production exposed the fact that, at the level of psychological reception, it had been a myth all along. For example, a comparison of three centuries of attempts at “color scales” shows remarkably little consistency, and what consistency there is may be owing to the simple fact that people followed Isaac Newton’s precedent of making C red. (10)

That is a point the exhibition seems to make, perhaps unconsciously, by devoting an entire room to Jim Hodges’s 2003 installation Corridor, a floor-to-ceiling arrangement of stripes derived from the mention of colors by name in dozens of pop songs. The whole thing is accompanied by the recorded singing of high-school students. The effect is refreshing and relaxing, like sherbet after a big meal. As Ari Wiseman, another of the show’s curators, writes: “Unlike his visual-music predecessors, Hodges playfully subverts the notion of an innate relationship between what is seen and what is heard.” (11) Indeed. It’s a good note to end on.

Harry Cooper is curator of modern art at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University.

Jim Hodges, Corridor, 2003. Installation view, “Visual Music,” Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary 
Art, 2005. Photo: Brian Forrest.


1. “Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900,” Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Feb. 13–May 22, 2005; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, June 23–Sept. 11, 2005; cocurated by the Hirshhorn’s Kerry Brougher and Judith Zilczer and LA moca’s Jeremy Strick and Ari Wiseman. “Sons & Lumières: Une histoire du son dans l’art du XXe siècle,” Centre Pompidou, Sept. 22, 2004–Jan. 3, 2005; organized by Sophie Duplaix and Marcella Lista. “Schoenberg, Kandinsky and the Blue Rider,” The Jewish Museum, New York, 2003. “Schönberg, Kandinsky, Blaue Reiter und die Russische Avantgarde,” Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna, 2000. “Farben-Klänge [Colors-Sounds]: Wassily Kandinsky, Bilder, 1908 bis 1914; Arnold Schönberg, Konzerte und Dokumentation,” Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 1998. “Analogías musicales: Kandinsky y sus contemporáneos,” Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, 2003.

2. Cited in Olivia Mattis, “Scriabin to Gershwin: Color Music from a Musical Perspective,” in Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900, exh. cat. (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2005), 215.

3. Carl Andre and Hollis Frampton, 12 Dialogues, 1962–1963, ed. and annotated by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh (Halifax: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1980), 38.

4. The similarities between Color Field painting and contemporaneous experiments with color projection are striking. It is interesting to learn, in Kerry Brougher’s essay for Visual Music (p. 166), that Sam Francis helped Single Wing Turquoise Bird provide light shows for Grateful Dead concerts. But I doubt that Greenberg was in attendance.

5. His 1912 abstract musical play “Yellow Sound” took the equation further. For a reproduction of the score, see Sons & Lumières: Une histoire du son dans l’art du XX siécle, exh. cat. (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2004), 126.

6. Piet Mondrian, “The Manifestation of Neo-Plasticism in Music and the Italian Futurists’ Bruiteurs” (1921), in The New Art, the New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, ed. and trans. Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986), 148–55. Mondrian made sure to criticize Schönberg, and thus implicitly Kandinsky, on the grounds that the former’s use of silence reinstated the equivalent of a visual figure.

7. Karin von Maur, “Bach et l’art de la fugue,” in Sons & Lumières, 20.

8. Cited in Judith Zilczer, “Music for the Eyes: Abstract Painting and Light Art,” in Visual Music, 49.

9. Kerry Brougher, “Visual-Music Culture,” in Visual Music, 125. This story is told in even more detail in excellent essays by Thomas Y. Levin and Marcella Lista (in French) in the Sons & Lumière catalogue.

10. Mattis, “Scriabin to Gershwin,” 213.

11. Ari Wiseman, “Expanding the Synaesthetic Paradigm,” in Visual Music, 203.