Silence, an exhibition at the Menil Collection curated by Toby Kamps (August 13 and 16, 2012)

The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo by Paul Hester.

When I cause a silence, say by turning off an appliance or music, and also when chance gives me one, as when I wander into a quiet street in a busy city, I get an immediate rush of nothing, after which another order of sound is revealed. Small noises assert themselves, and the sounds that my body makes gain presence. (The voice in my mind is always there, and while silent is never quiet.) Total silence escapes me.

Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting 1951 oil on canvas 72″ x 48″ each panel; John Cage, 4’33” 1960 Tacet Tacet Tacet version (facsimile), John Cage, 4’33” 1952 musical score in “proportional notatin” (facsimile) The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo by Paul Hester.

The exhibition Silence (at the Menil Collection through October 21 and opening at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in January) brings silence to the table as medium, as support and as inspiration for a group of historical and contemporary artists. Curator Toby Kamps kept John Cage’s 4’33” at the front of his mind as he organized the exhibition and by installing the two scores in a main gallery, he gives Cage’s piece center stage physically as well.

Several of the works in this show respond directly to John Cage’s 4’33”, and at the artist’s talk the score was mentioned often. Another piece – Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting – Cage himself spoke of as an inspiration for his silent musical score.

I’ve read accounts of the 4:33 experience from people who have attended a concert and often what is noted are the environmental, and ambient sounds that one hears. When I heard the piece played at the MAK Center in LA ten years ago, I too came away remembering the odd things that I heard from the surrounding city. But after a decade of thought and time, I wonder if my ego got in the way of my experience with Cage’s piece: maybe I worked too hard to find things within the silent three movements and the true  experience of silence is more like meditation, with ideas and sounds floating in and out of focus.

(center) Jennie C. Jones, Semitone-Bar; Resonance at 1/3; Deep Tone (left to right) 2011 Acoustic absorber panel, black gesso and acrylic glaze on canvas; Acoustic absorber panel, ‘carbon black’ & fluorescent acrylics on canvas; Acoustic absorber panel, black gesso and acrylic glaze on canvas (left to right) each panel 24″ x 48″ The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo by Paul Hester.

Visiting MOCA this past weekend, I had a curious moment of “if you think about it, you will find it” in the current Ends of the Earth, Land Art to 1974 show at the Geffen. There is small work by Hreinn Fridfinnsson titled House Project, 1974, that is documentation of a temporary artwork in Iceland. (Or perhaps the documentation is the artwork, I don’t know.) As I recall the story on the wall tag, an Icelandic author in 1938 wrote a book called Icelandic Aristocracy; the main character of this book was an elderly man who decided to build a house inside out. He got part way through with his quixotic project and then worried friends convinced him to retire to an old folks home. In 1974 artist Fridfinnsson came upon the story and was inspired to build the house to the original inside out specifications in a lava valley where it could not be seen from outside, nor could the house “see” out. The artist noted that “the house harbors everything in the world except itself.” Seeing this piece made me thing of John Cage and 4’33”. Maybe silence is everything in the world but itself.

In the first gallery at the Menil, which also serves as a connecting space to the other spaces, I see two photo cells, and they are mounted above the height of my head at the end of this long, airy corridor. A car just went by outside the gallery, and I turn to see a white SUV roll past the oak trees through the glazed end wall. Sound rumbles up through the floor. (Nowhere is there a wall tag stating, “This sound is art, and this one isn’t.” Uncertainty seems important in the moment of looking at art.) One of the cells, the left-most one as I face them, points inward and down a bit – at this moment a friend approaches me from behind as I get close to the wall to peer upward, smiling she cautions me not to touch the art. From my investigative peering I follow two slender black cables that extend straight up from each photo cell to where they curve over one of architect Renzo Piano’s famous light baffles. Even though the the photo cell devices are mounted with brackets to the wall, this upward line and arc of cables makes them seem suspended. The parabolic mirror in each cell reflects two of me as I walk by, and this reflection whirls and twists, and then as I move out of range melts me into silver. I wonder whether at some optimum point in the room the image might resolve into one readable thing?

Stephen Vitiello, Light Reading (Menil Berkeley Version) 2012 Photocells, microphone, computer, amplifier, speakers. (The mystery-inciting distant microphone.) The Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of the artist and American Contemporary, New York. Photo: Goran Vejvoda.

All during my inspection a quiet hum or buzz is present, and as I move and as other museum visitors pass by the photo cells this buzz tweaks and it wraps around itself – repeating in sound the pattern of the parabolic mirrors. The noises gather and swell, then recede and the particularity of these shifts is similar to organ notes, they have a complexity and a depth that I find rich and generous.

Looking toward the ceiling again I see that the black cables stretch entirely across the corridor and across the four baffles; the angle toward each other and then they both take one final cant down and toward what must be a power source. The actions of these cables might not be consequential to the work as Vitiello intended it, but my noticing helps place me; the experience of looking takes me out of my head, away from my own ideas and toward the art.

(center) Bruce Nauman, Violins Violence Silence 1981-1982 Neon tubing with clear glass tubing suspension frame (exhibition copy) Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay. The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo by Paul Hester.

Three speakers are mounted on the wall opposite  the photo cells, at about chest high; as I am required to move to hear each one, I can’t tell whether the sound is constant among them or if it travels with me.

In an adjacent gallery, a neon wall sculpture by Bruce Nauman, Violins Violence Silence, shifts through five levels of color saturation; this neon piece has its own buzzes and hums and also the light from it activates Stephen Vitiello’s photo sensitive piece and the two works of art carry on a quiet and not-so-quiet conversation.

In Vitiello’s piece it seems like light is made present by evidence of interaction: a cloud passes above and the sound alters, light reflected off a visitor has another effect, a car passing outside is piped in to join geography with light waves; moving bodies of all densities and sorts change the light waves, and silent as they are they manage to speak clearly of motion and of time.

(left to right) Kurt Mueller, Cenotaph 2011 Rockola Legend 100-CD jukebox and collected moments of silence 65 x 37 x 28 inches; Doris Salcedo, Untitled 2001 Wood, concrete, glass, fabric, steel 80 1/8 x 67 x 50 inches (The Rachofsky Collection); Giorgio de Chirico, Melancholia 1916 oil on canvas 20 x 26 1/2 inches (The Menil Collection, Houston); Joseph Beuys, Das Schweigen von Marcel Duchamp wird überbewertet (the silence of Marcel Duchamp is over-rated), ca. 1973 Oil on silkscreen on PVC (From 3 Tonnen-Edition) Private Collection Cologne, courtesy of Galerie Holtmann. All: The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo by Paul Hester.

There is an absolute silence when I lean into Jennie Jones’ Semitone-Bar, Resonance at 1/3 and Deep Tone, 2011. Jones makes use of acoustic sound-soaking panels as one of the surfaces of her paintings, this particular work is large enough to engulf me with its presence; there may also be a fluorescent red strip around the outside that reflects on the wall. It’s fitting and interesting that when I move from Jones’ work to stand before the also nearly black expanse Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting, 1954-1960, 80 x 50, I recall that here, in the presence of Reinhardt’s fierce black, is exactly where I have felt that sensory negation in the past.

Jennie C. Jones replicates aurally and conceptually the blankness of Reinhardt’s Modernist monochrome manifesto. This flash of insight – of the making of a thing in fact as contrasted with the making of a thing by way of questioning its existence, as Jones does – makes clear an observation of Jones’s that blackness in Modernism, when not constructed by white men, has been voiced only through sound (or music), and not in visual art – and even in music the Minimalism that was was available in Modernism was rarely allowed African American artists, and even when black musicians practiced an experimental, refined music this was out of sight to an audience who preferred a more “soulful” and pop sound.

Sustained Black with Broken Time and Undertone – Acoustic noise control panel, ‘carbon black’ acrylic, on canvas. 24 x 24 inches and 12 x 48 inches, 2011. This module work an be installed convex (shown) or concave in corner. COLLECTION OF PAMELA J. JOYNER (three views) from the artist’s website

In the opening statement of an online video lecture Jones wondered aloud how she might claim ownership of the Modernist tradition. Her solution came to her while listening to music in her studio – recordings by the Modern Jazz Quartet showed her that music might be her entry point.

In a Bomb Magazine review of Jones’ recent exhibition Absorb / Diffuse (at The Kitchen in NYC), Stephen Vitiello notes that, “In a film, such a sound [deep bass tones] might be heard in passing, to create a sense of dread or warning. When extended, the sound will hold us in a state of suspended animation. It’s a musical statement but also a political one; an exertion of power. Bass—the funkiest bass lines, the deepest of baritones—might (stereotypically) be thought to fill the dark end of the musical spectrum. (Compare that to the bright jangle of a Nashville-tuned guitar or the high beeping sine tones of some of Jones’s sound-art contemporaries like Carsten Nicolai or Ryoji Ikeda.) By composing a work based on low frequencies, Jones fills the room with sculptural tones, which open up to a series of implicit psychological and political overtones.”

John Cage, 4’33” 1960 Tacet Tacet Tacet version (facsimile)

I find samples of Jones’ work with sound available at SoundCloud, and I offer you two that feel pertinent:

“Slowly, In a Silent Way, Caged” The first minute of Miles Davis “In a Silent Way” slowed tempo to John Cage’s 4’33, hence “Caged.” The result is a meeting of two notions of silence. (From the exhibition Electric at Sikkema Jenkins and Co. 2010. Streaming for the first time and re-mastered in 2012.) (JCJ)

“Slow Birds” is one of my early sound pieces, removing all instruments from the song “Little Max” chaining together a string or micro drum solo’s with 4 Charlie Parker notes altered tempo. (JCJ)

In Robert Morris’s Box With the Sound of Its Own Making, the sound is subtle enough to be almost absent, and I find myself imagining that inside the wooden box the reverse muset be true and the sound must be quite loud. Clearly but as from a distance, I hear the crisp, sharp sound of walnut planks striking each other and against a presumed work table. The muffling of the sounds makes my experience fantastic, and as though I put my ear to the top of genie-holding bottle: Robert Morris as magician. Now my mind wanders as I strain to listen, to hear – and I am a bit mesmerized.

René Magritte, La chambre d’écoute (The Listening Room) 1952 oil on canvas 17 13/16 x 21 3/4 inches The Menil Collection, Houston. Gift of Fariha Friedrich

I feel humble with this simply made and beautiful object. Tiny plugs of wood cover nails or screws, and the wood looks hand rubbed, it has a nice dull sheen. I can hear Morris inside working… how crazy: time moves, yet is contained. Now I wonder about the sound of my own making and its echo out of time when I come. I think that in his box Robert Morris has captured creation.

Giorgio de Chirico, Melancholia 1916 oil on canvas 20 x 26 1/2 inches (The Menil Collection, Houston)

A film by Manon de Boer and Steve Roden’s paintings, sculpture and books each have the performance of 4’33” central to the making.

Watching Manon de Boer’s film, Two Times 4’33”, and talking to myself like a docent:

There are three or four minutes of a black screen in the small theater, while “The film will begin in a moment” shows in white letters. The film does begin, and it shows a man’s face. This man is dressed formally and he sits at a piano. Rain is shown next, through a window behind the pianist, and I hear traffic sounds. The man turns a page on the music stand and his eyes dip as though reading, or following the music. The sound as the page turns indicates thick paper that is probably satisfying to the touch. It sounds heavy.

(left to right) Steve Roden, 866 (silence and light), 2012; listen (4’33”), 2002; 365 x 433, 2011; Bass wood, wire, plaster, cloth, Plexiglas 35 x 33 1/2 x 21 inches; Acrylic and oil on linen 30 x 30 inches; 3 books of text documenting the artist’s daily performances of John Cage’s 4’33”, Designer: Adrienne Wong. All: Courtesy Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects and CRG Gallery, New York. listen (4’33”) lent by Geoff Tuck and David Richards. Amalia Pica, Sorry For the Metaphor, 2005 A3 Photocopies, 15 1/2 x 11 ft. Collection Radobank, The Netherlands. Courtesy the artist, Diana Stigter Gallery, and Marc Foxx Gallery

As road noise increases the man’s eyebrows raise involuntarily, both eyes blink, and then again he is reading.It is difficult to watch the man’s face, I feel too close. He clicks a timer button (like might be used at a chess match) and turns the page excitedly.

I recall that the sound all through this part of the film has been incredibly full. If the artist is making the point of how much and rich is the sound of this particular silence, then here we have Hollywood-quality audible proof.

I take a breath as the film begins again. I recognize that this is a different film and I settle in for four more minutes. The camera pans across the audience in their seats. Do they look as though they are listening to music? I don’t know. They are active in some way, they might be listening or searching or simply trying not to doze. The film is silent, and eerily so. I hear the space I am in. A woman breathes, I write and my pen scratches along the page. Seeing again a rainy day outside piano performance, I imagine the sound of wind as bushes move.

The timer button is hit twice and the second movement begins. The film continues as one might expect, in silence, and then we, an audience of two, leave the space.

“Which is silent?” the docent in my mind inquires, “and if both of these films are silent, then where does this place you? Were you present in the place of the filmed audience, or of the pianist? Do you create the silence in your mind, and if so then is silence also a creation of the pianist and the filmed audience in tandem and at the moment of the performance?”

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance (Cage Piece) 1978-€“1979, Poster statement, witness statement, gelatin-silver prints. Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York. Photo: Cheng Wei Kuong. The Menil Collection, Houston.

Yves Klein, Untitled (Monogold) 1960 ca. Gold leaf on primed board 78 1/2 x 60 1/4 x 3/4 inches The Menil Collection, Houston

Jacob Kirkegaard, AION, 2006 Video and sound installation (DVD, 50 minutes) Dimensions variable, format 4:3 Courtesy of the artist.

“Could we erect a sign “SILENCE” someplace and allow/invite people to respond to it as visitors to a garden will respond to a sign announcing “ROSES” – that is by sniffing and appreciating the lovely colors,  by experiencing silence without asking for reassurance of its existence?

(An aside: Docents and guards can be the heroes of museums and therefor of cultural learning. The are kind and intellectually curious persons who pose friendly questions that encourage us to think for ourselves and to question our own presuppositions. I found this to be true among the guards at the Menil, who to a person had looked at and read about each piece in the exhibition and were eager to ask questions of me, as well as to answer mine.)

“If we can choose to listen to something that we happened upon (either in nature or in culture) we become determiners of music through the various levels of attention we offer to sound. When Rilke writes in  The Book of Hours that “hands must be simple and good to accept the offering” he is not only speaking of grasping objects, but of allowing certain things to gain entry.” Steve Roden, May 17 12:44 PM, 2011, home

Steve Roden performed John Cage’s 4’33” each day of one year and documented his experiences in a book. This renews the artist’s decades long project of translations. Roden first materially addressed translation in a long ago series of paintings on paper (1997 and 1998) for which he translated the text of a museum calendar to squares of color, with the size and the hue of each square indicating the relationships of the dates with each other, to translating language and text into abstract paintings in increasingly complex and satisfying ways, to his recent (current, in fact) video installation in Los Angeles which has as the source of its mysterious and evocative imagery inscrutable marks made by a twentieth century philosopher, trinkets of a dance composer and the inspiration of one among the artist’s heroes – John Cage.

In one text comprising three volumes, Roden offers us his thoughts on performing Cage’s seminal sound and conceptual artwork, 4’33” the act of which, as defined above by the artist, requires close attention first for thirty seconds, then one hundred-forty-three seconds and finally one hundred seconds.

I think that Roden, in his career of wrestling with language and music and experience, has been trying to find the most direct way to communicate a thing that is so modest, so… inconsiderable (as the artist would say) that while it can be approximated using individual, discrete objects, say in a gallery and in a museum, it becomes more clear when experienced over a period of time, through paying of close attention to what is present by a receptive audience of one. This is what his book accomplishes, in one thousand closely packed and creatively laid out pages – multiple translations: not only of Cage’s short piece for silence, but also of the artist’s own life as lived in brief chunks and of my experience as viewer, and my own life as it extends outward from the pages as I read.

“While many people previously undertook an attempt to convince an audience that everything is music, the piece more precisely offers that every sound has the potential to be listened to – which is quite a different thing. …if we are only able to hear sound through the lens of music, we become unable to listen to (sound) on its own terms.” Steve Roden, October 18, 2011, 8:23 PM Berlin

(left to right) Christian Marclay, Gold Silence (The Electric Chair) 2006, Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas 22 x 30 1/4 inches. Marieluise Hessel Collection, Hessel Museum of Art, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York; Andy Warhol, Big Electric Chair, 1967, Acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen 54 1/4 x 74 inches The Menil Collection, Houston; Christian Marclay, White Rorschach Door (The Electric Chair), 2006, Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas, diptych, each panel: 93 3/4 x 42 inches. From the collection of Susan Sosnick; (vitrine) Christian Marclay, a selection of studies for Electric Chair paintings, 2006, mixed media on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 inches each (approximate) 44 sheets, Courtesy of the artist. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery.

The exhibition Silence includes work by thirty and more artists, contemporary and historical. There are paintings by Magritte and Chirico and Warhol, there is new work by Christian Marclay, Doris Salcedo and Jacob Kirkegaard and a new interpretation of a Tino Sehgal performance.

I will upload images as I am able. (on Thursday, August 16 I am able)

Andy Warhol, Lavender Disaster, 1963, Acrylic, silkscreen ink, and pencil on linen, 106 x 81 7/8 inches The Menil Collection, Houston

Andy Warhol, Big Electric Chair, 1967, Acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, 54 1/4 x 74 inches The Menil Collection, Houston

Thinking again of this show – now with the double benefits of images (which enhance my memory) and of time (which brings insight) – I recall that a number of works in the show approach silence using humor, for its own ends and as a tool to ask serious questions. For instance, Elmgreen and Dragset’s piece The Date (2009) consists of a door mounted to a gallery wall with a small video monitor/security device mounted nearby; the monitor shows a young man waiting, presumably for his date, outside such a security door. He waits, he checks his watch, he calls, and nothing. It’s funny and, if you are queer, the situation is recognizable as the (relatively cruel) double screening of the internet hook up world.

Christian Marclay too, used humor – although more in a performative sense: an early version of Warhol’s Electric Chair had the word “Silence” posted above the death chamber entry/exit door, this sign disappeared from later versions that were produced. Possibly in a moment of speculation about Andy’s motives, Christian Marclay was inspired to make paintings – in the manner of Warhol – that featured this missing term. Listening to Marclay talk about the project, I had a vision of the tall and rather severe artist glorying in paint and silkscreen ink, “performing” Andy Warhol in his Factory, and in the work emphasizing silence to make of it an unavoidable presence. I felt uneasy rectifying my laughter (at Marclay’s performance) with the horrid silence that accompanies the moment and the  fact of capital punishment; this horror (and my culpability?) is a yawning chasm that lies beneath my (and our) salacious delights.

The work in Silence suggests to me that silence is more a metaphor than a fact, that it is impossible to experience but stands for just about anything we want it to.

(totally awesome) Ends of the Earth, Land Art 1974:

the hand of the artist: steve roden at LACE (video installation):

Performances for Silence at Rothko Chapel:

Dan Flavin at Richmond Hall, the Menil:

The Menil Collection, current exhibitions:


  1. That Yves Klein is SO GOOD!

  2. Isn’t it?! And the Nauman colored neon piece also reflected in the Klein, which was wonderful. We got to tour the “treasure rooms’ where they store art and saw a number of Klein’s, including some of the sea sponge sculptures and paintings. Ach, amazing.

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