New York

Glenn Branca


The recent efforts of certain artists to reexplore dichotomies of emotional affect through the conventions of abstract geometric art, such as the often cited paintings of Peter Halley and Philip Taaffe, have a much overlooked conceptual precedent in the post-Minimal experimental noise rock of New York’s “no wave” music scene. The musician Glenn Branca, in his first solo exhibition of drawings, “Classical Space: Forms of Infinite Regress Within a Finite Field,” provided a connection between his music and “neo-geo” (the unfortunate label for the current proliferation of new abstraction). It was Branca, and his contemporary Rhys Chatham, who took the unnerving monotony and sonic drone of Minimalist avant-garde composers like La Monte Young into the new, more dynamic context of New York’s downtown rock clubs in the mid to late ’70s. They were pioneers of noise rock, with its heavy-metal clash of grinding guitars lined up to produce an awesome “wall of sound.” Branca, Chatham, Sonic Youth, and other practitioners of this new form were boldly expressing the anger, alienation, and decadence of their punk-rock peers with an austere intensity that more traditional rock has yet to realize. The jarring auditory overload and dissonant feedback of electric guitars in their music is not just an aural assault but a cathartic conjunction of pleasure and pain intended to disrupt fixed ideas and emotions. This mega-music resonates such a mass of contradictions that it confuses the distinctions in intent and experience that are commonly used to characterize and classify art. It is at once visceral and cerebral, anarchistic and controlled, hellish and sublime.

Branca’s visual art is directly related to music, and it conjures up some of the same dichotomies enumerated above. The work shown here was a group of ink drawings from 1985, a visually eclectic series of images relating to the sound waves of harmonics. Some of these drawings were geometric visualizations of the harmonics produced by vibrating an open guitar string of a harmonic guitar, an instrument that Branca invented in 1982. Each of these complex diagrams was derived from the vibrational characteristics of a string expressed in terms of mathematical equations (using numbers to measure the distribution of sound frequency) and linear geometry (to draw the pattern of harmonic nodes). All of the other drawings relate to the purely mathematical properties of the harmonic series, as analyzed and described by mathematicians such as Pythagoras, Fibonacci, and Leibniz. The result is an assortment of very delicate and precise symmetrical patterns, from the interlocking web of variable circles in Classical Space to the Op-Art nautilus spiral of Fluid Symmetry.

Like his music, Branca’s drawings make a very appealing spectacle of the senses out of a basically intellectual exercise. The intricate network of lines in the drawings echoes the massive pulsating wall of sound in his music. The drawings establish their own disorienting vertigo out of a perplexing maze of extremely ordered forms, plotting in a readable form the path that order takes as it moves into the realm of chaos. Represented visually, the turbulent qualities of Branca’s most precise music may relate, as his harmonic guitar does, to the strange numerical behavior of fractal geometry. Branca’s entire creative output has, in this way, a grasp of sanity and a touch of madness, a way of standing perfectly still and yet be throbbing all the while. Considered in either scientific or esthetic terms, his work embodies both a hot vibrancy and a cold deliberation.

Carlo McCormick