Morton Feldman

Fellow composer Christian Wolff once described Morton Feldman’s working method, presumably in the 1950s: “He used to put sheets of graph paper on the wall, and work on them like paintings. Slowly his notation would accumulate, and from time to time he’d stand back to look at the overall design.” Feldman, who took profound inspiration from painting, was extremely articulate in explaining how he carried insights derived from art—particularly the works of Mondrian and the American Abstract Expressionists—into his music. It’s harder to tell what influence, if any, has gone in the other direction, although Feldman felt that his notation—not his music—had had an effect on the early paintings of Larry Poons (which were not included in this show). This is certainly possible, since Poons is also a musician and would have been able to read Feldman’s scores.

Connections between music and art generally being unexhibitable, in “Vertical Thoughts” curator Juan Manuel Bonet instead framed Feldman as an art lover and as a figure in the social world of art, part of its network. In doing so he rendered the show suggestive but inadequate, mainly because the selection of works appeared to be arbitrary. The exhibition opened on an artistic high point with a pair of fine Mondrians, both from 1929. Feldman was a great admirer of the Dutch artist, and wrote about him beautifully. But why were these two paintings in particular chosen? Your guess is as good as mine. The same was true throughout the show: Why these Rothkos, why these Rauschenbergs? Occasionally you could spot an inscription to Feldman on a drawing and realize it had once been in his collection, and perhaps more of the paintings and drawings on view were his than one realized—but neither the exhibition nor the (otherwise excellent) catalogue was telling. What we do know is that Feldman owned Guston’s Attar, 1955, which was not here, and a black Rauschenberg of 1951, likewise absent. Yet to bring Feldman’s ideas about art into focus, the works exhibited should have had a clear link to him, through his having owned them, written about them, or included them in the exhibition he curated in Houston in 1967, “Six Painters” (whose catalogue is reproduced in its entirety within the hefty volume accompanying this show). Without such associations, Feldman’s idiosyncratic “eye,” and any possible relation to his slowly evolving kaleidoscopic patterns of sounds at the edge of audibility, remained undefined.

By contrast, it was fascinating to see the Middle Eastern rugs that Feldman began collecting in 1976. Their accretions of slightly varying units evince an obvious connection to Feldman’s practice as a composer. The rugs that attracted him were not the most refined or distinguished (which in any case he could not have afforded) but rather rough and rustic. In them, he said (comparing them to Rothko’s paintings), “the sum of the parts does not equal the whole; rather, scale is discovered and contained as an image.” This is particularly evident in the first rug he bought—made in the South Caucasus ca. 1880—whose central area contains two large diamond forms, one of which seems to be squashed, the other elongated, though they are of equal visual weight.

Henri Matisse (whose work was not in the exhibition, though Feldman commented on it perceptively) once told André Masson that until the Impressionists, there had not really been any light in painting: “Before them there was just lighting.” Likewise Feldman complained, “Timing, not time, has been passed off as the real thing in music.” As Matisse’s distinction between lighting and light did for painting, Feldman’s distinction between timing and time points toward a wholesale revision of the concept of music, through the suppression of anecdote in favor of essence. Feldman’s later pieces, especially, which are almost excruciatingly long, seem to grope asymptotically toward stasis. Indeed, had his compositions been “installed” in the space, for instance in the form of real-time live performances, one could better have taken the measure of his intention in relation to the art on view—and exhibition conventions would have been challenged much as Feldman’s incredibly sustained late works challenged those of the concert.

Barry Schwabsky