New York

Moki Cherry, Painting About Life, 1968, lacquer on canvas, 24 3⁄8 × 30 3⁄8".

Moki Cherry, Painting About Life, 1968, lacquer on canvas, 24 3⁄8 × 30 3⁄8".

Don and Moki Cherry

Blank Forms

Family, too, is a form, one that deserves an unbounded imagination as to its purpose and possibilities. From the end of the 1960s until the late 1970s, American avant-garde jazz legend Don Cherry (1936–1995) and his partner, Swedish artist and designer Moki Cherry (1943–2009), along with their two children, Neneh and Eagle-Eye, united the domestic, creative, and spiritual planes to model a way of being. Best known at that time for his work with Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, Don knew all too well that clubs, while certainly sacred spaces, were often shaped by commercial interests that limited the kinds of sounds and experiences that could be presented inside them. Music, he believed, should be “a natural part of your day,” and, while he and Moki always traveled to make a living, they began collaborating on new ideas about where home can happen, what it can mean, and what it can hold. In 1967, they held their first performance as Movement Incorporated, which brought together musicians and dancers in, according to Don, a “complete environment,” for which Moki created paintings, costumes, and more. In 1970, seeking a quiet place where Don could recover from his heroin addiction, they bought a schoolhouse for living and working in the teensy town of Tågarp, Sweden, and there, under the aegis of the Organic Music Theater, continued their experiments in communal creation, education, and healing. “It all seems nuts. But it was beautiful,” Moki later recalled. “Live music all hours, beautiful music. . . . It was an open house.”

Blank Forms is presenting “Organic Music Societies: Don and Moki Cherry,” a small-scale but terrifically potent retrospective of the late artists’ years together. The duo are roundly celebrated here in the photographs, flyers, and other ephemera on display, their intricate story most richly captured in the generous must-have companion book to the exhibition. (The show also occasions the release of The Summer House Sessions from Blank Forms Editions, an album of music Don made in 1968 that is now available for the first time.) But in the gallery Moki’s jubilant paintings and appliqué textile works are given center stage, her graphic sensibility expressing the wild and tender fluidity of the worlds and minds that she and Don aspired to entwine. Painting About Life, 1968, almost says it all. The piece is a wondrous hallucinatory dreamscape rendered in a dazzling palette with half-flora, half-fauna figures—some sweet, others menacing—appearing throughout. Also in the show is a selection of the many banners she sewed to accompany Don’s performances and to hang in their house, including Malkauns Raga, 1973, and Om Shanti, 1976, each adorned with sacred invocations in large sewn letters. D. C., 1981, is Moki’s portrait of Don, depicting him in a double-breasted suit and Technicolor headdress. A white bird spreads across his face, the creature’s belly doubling as the musician’s nose, its eye as his third eye. Out of Don’s mouth hangs a rosy tongue, like that of the Hindu god Kali, worshipped as a protector and destroyer. It is a vision of a complex man who is at once powerful, tender, monstrous, and divine.

“This is the way of the Organic Society: to flow with time,” Don declared on his 1972 album, for which this exhibit is titled. The six episodes on view of Piff, Paff, Puff (1971), a children’s show the Cherrys made for Swedish television, transport viewers back to the artists’ Tågarp home, immersing us not in didactic lessons but in scenes from their family life. The third episode, deftly filmed in a single take and roughly eight minutes long, is an unexpectedly sweet and discreet piece of cinema. The segment captures Moki painting while Don sings and plays a piano that’s decorated, almost like a cake, in a multitude of colors. Moki hands Don the instrument’s fallboard, which gleams with its freshly applied coats of paint in dark purple and hot pink. Then, with toddler Eagle-Eye watching, the couple put the board back where it belongs: The simple collaboration captured on celluloid, alongside the other marvelous music, art, and artifacts they left behind, keeps the Cherrys’ blessed energies ever present.