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The Colors! The Colors!

If and when most people think about the History of Modern Art, they don’t usually conjure up images of ­psychedelic light shows, Disney cartoons, theosophical and tantric spiritualist iconography, computer fractals, sci-fi-movie special effects or discos. The predominant narrative is still the one where artists gradually abstracted and siphoned off representational content until only the pure, unmediated materials remained — a mute block of cast steel or a torn-out notebook page scrawled with the date on which an impulse to generate a concept occurred. But the History of Modern Art isn’t a single, agreed-upon story that follows a clear linear path. It’s more like a bunch of competing accounts jostling for room on a lifeboat off the sinking Titanic of utopian Modernism (which probably accounts for art historians’ obsession with cross-dressing — “Women and children first!”). One of the alternative stories that covers a wide range of cultural phenomena and philosophical realms unaccounted for in the paradigm of minimalist distillation — including the unlikely ones mentioned earlier — is brought to life in a spectacular new show co-mounted by L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington and currently on view at MOCA Grand. “Visual Music” takes on the enormous task of covering “the charged and profoundly generative relationship between art and music over the last 100 years.” That’s a heapin’ helpin’ of vittles to tackle all at once, but if you’re thinking of Roger Dean album covers, Busby Berkeley musicals or Tony Bennett paintings, you’re lined up at the wrong buffet. “Visual Music,” for sure, bites off more than it can chew, but it follows a very specific and clearly defined lineage rooted in the works of many of the very same early-20th-century abstract painters cited by the reductive formalists. But instead of the logical outcome of an unfinished plywood pyramid, “Visual Music” traces a history from turn-of-the-century non-figurative European easel painting to the immersive multimedia freak-outs of the Summer of Love. The show starts with a bang, converting MOCA’s frequently awkward first gallery into a theater, screening enormous projections of digitally remastered classic abstract animations. Depending on your timing, you may be engulfed by something as austere as the silent B&W geometric permutations of Berlin Dadaist Viking Eggeling’s 1924 Symphonie Diagonale, or something as giddy and exuberant as Len Lye’s A Colour Box, a 1935 British Post Office cinema ad for “Cheaper Postal Rates” that was painted directly onto blank film stock and set to a jazzy Latin dance tune. Enter at another moment and you might catch Oskar Fischinger’s Radio Dynamics, with its complex and colorful geometries — equal parts austere and exuberant — and its self-important injunction “Please! No Music. Experiment in Color-Rhythm!”

Frantisek Kupka, Disks of Newton (Study For "Fugue in Two Colors") (1912)

Fischinger is a pivotal figure in this secret history, cropping up again and again throughout the exhibition (though surprisingly unrepresented in the actual painting-on-canvas section). A quintessential European-exile Angeleno, Fischinger emigrated from Germany in 1935 at the behest of fellow Berliner Ernst Lubitsch (Ninotchka, 1939) and wound up working for several major studios — most notably with Orson Welles at RKO and on Disney’s Fantasia. Up until the point that Fischinger quit that Jurassic MTV project over Disney’s banalization of his vision, the most abstract and experimental manifestations of visual art seemed completely compatible with the capitalist mass media and popular taste. The next two galleries rewind the story to its origins in early-20th-century abstract painting. Russian-born Bauhaus regular Wassily Kandinsky is generally credited with creating the first truly abstract artwork (though some of our African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Aborigine, Native American, and quilt-making brothers and monolith-erecting sisters might disagree), and central to that breakthrough was the idea that visual sensations correspond to sound — that unsuspected soundscapes lurk encoded within the world’s great masterpieces of art, and that music can be painted. Several stellar examples of this period of Kandinsky’s work — my favorite; his later rectilinear work seems relatively tone-deaf (not to mention colorblind) — are included, alongside Klee, Kupka and Marsden Hartley. Los Angeles’ underappreciated Stanton MacDonald-Wright makes his first (but not most impressive) appearance in the show, alongside Helen Torr, Arthur Dove, and Georgia O’Keeffe of the Stieglitz Gang. Stieglitz’s own late-’20s “Equivalence” series are the only still photographs in the show. Powerful works by supposed anti-art Dadaists Francis Picabia (a gorgeous 1912 Cubist pastoral) and Hans Richter (abstract graphic narrative scrolls from the early ’20s) are among the pleasant surprises in what is one of the most historically cohesive groups of paintings you’re likely to see.

Thomas Wilfred, Untitled,Opus 61(1965)

Richter, who collaborated with Eggeling for several years pursuing abstract geometric animation, is the strongest direct link to the experimental-filmmaking tradition that is the strongest element of the show. In the early ’70s, many in the art world looked to experimental cinema as the last frontier of the avant-garde — much of the Artforum-era discourse on art is directly descended from ’60s Film Culture criticism, and the wide distribution of influential books like Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema and P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film ensured that, though seldom seen, avant-garde film would remain in the conversation. Before delving into that rich vein, though, “Visual Music” explores a stranger and even more obscure medium: the light organ. The theoretical correspondence between musical and color spectrums led tinkerers as early as the 18th-century Jesuit Louis Bertrand Castel to design instruments that could be used to play optical compositions. As artists in the early 20th century began exploring the relationship between sound and vision, a wide variety of abstract-color-projection instruments began appearing, including devices designed by Fischinger and MacDonald-Wright. Few of these (usually one-of-a-kind) instruments survive, but “Visual Music” manages to include documentary footage of several performances, as well as several functional models. Unfortunately, Daniel Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné’s Piano Optophonique is a big snore, and MacDonald-Wright’s ultracool Synchrome Kineidoscope is scheduled for only a single demonstration performance on the afternoon of March 13. Thankfully, an entire dark chamber is devoted to the breathtaking programmed lightboxes of Thomas Wilfred.

Also in this issue

To read Holly Willis' article about L.A.'s graphics scene, click here.

To read Holly Willis' article about L.A.'s Whitney brothers and their animations, click here.

To read Greg Burk's article about REDCAT's "Sea Hear Now" series, click here. Wilfred, a Dane relocated to Long Island, devoted most of his life to the development and promotion of the art of colored light projection, or “lumia.” He designed several unique “Clavilux” instruments, performed solo and with musical accompaniment throughout the U.S. and Europe, and even founded the Art Institute of Light. Throughout his career (he was active until his death in 1968), Wilfred also designed and produced preprogrammed, self-contained versions of his instruments — his “Clavilux Juniors” — suitable for home or museum display. Three of these — ranging from 10 by 11 inches (Multidimensional, Opus 79, 1932) to 6 by 9 feet (Study in Depth, Opus 152; designed in 1952 for the lobby of the Clairol Corp.’s Manhattan digs) — have been gathered for “Visual Music.”

James Whitney, Lapis (1963-66)

I have some quibbles with the installation — MOCA’s always-leaky soundscape is nowhere more apparent than in the presence of these languorously mutating (the Clairol piece takes 142 days to complete its cycle) light fields, which were intended to be viewed in silence. It’s also unfortunate that logistics prevent museum-goers from being able to view the enormous mechanisms of projectors, color transparencies and rotating metal reflectors going through their permutations. And a couch would be nice. But these little-known, rarely seen flat-screen rear-projection arabesques of galaxylike clouds of pure color are such a sweet and contemplative revelation that these reservations are rendered moot. This is not the case for some of the other environmental works represented here. It’s particularly disappointing that there was no attempt to re-create the legendary Vortex shows at San Francisco’s Morrison Planetarium organized by beatnik electronic composer Henry Jacobs with filmmakers Jordan Belson, Hy Hirsch and James Whitney, as well as new devices designed by the planetarium staff and research engineers from Stanford. What was by reputation a watershed of multimedia cross-pollination and immersive, experimental, time-based art making — as well as the direct precursor of the psychedelic light show — is summed up by a single Belson animation. Projected in another small theater, Allures (1961) is indistinguishable from the other, conventional theatrical movies included. Nevertheless, it rocks. As do the similarly decontextualized examples of psychedelic-light-show sequences from Mark Boyle and Joan Hills, Joshua White, and local luminaries Single Wing Turquoise Bird. In spite of — or perhaps because of — the relegation of visual-music abstraction to the periphery of culture, it flourished, especially on the West Coast, where sympathetic industry insiders and trickle-down patronage (particularly in the form of supplies and technology) ensured a thriving symbiosis between the commercial and avant-garde domains. The emergence and global dissemination of the hippie light show is one example. More explicitly linked to Hollywood were experimental filmmakers like Belson (Demon Seed) and John and James Whitney (Saul Bass’ title sequence for Vertigo; 2001’s “stargate” sequence, via Douglas Trumbull). The L.A.-based Whitney brothers were relentless innovators (see sidebar), and their experimental film work (along with that of John Whitney Jr.) is given the inverse treatment to the light shows — a huge gallery/theater is devoted exclusively to a sequence of their dazzling, intricate optical feasts, from the seething mandalas of James’ Lapis (1963–66) to John Jr.’s almost seizure-inducing triple-screen magnum opus Side Phase Drift (1965). While offering up unparalleled sensory experiences, these works also raise the question of how great religious art — patterns as intricate as a mosaicked mosque dome flash by in fractions of a second in a Whitney animation — can be indistinguishable from mathematically and mechanically generated optical patterns.

Viking Eggeling, Symphonie Diagnale (1924)

This affinity with Eastern mysticism is no coincidence. The Whitneys were specifically interested in the teachings of cave-dwelling yogi Sri Ramana Maharishi, but there are probably only a handful of artists in “Visual Music” who weren’t exploring some version of non-Western spiritual practice — most of which includes some form of meditative visualization. A not-unrelated subtext is the influence of psychedelic drugs: Harry Smith, whose restored hand-painted Number 3 animation is a highlight of the entrance gallery, was both a devoted hermeticist and a notorious imbiber of psychoactives — he always kept a drawerful of peyote buttons handy in his Chelsea Hotel room. The show’s central concept of synaesthesia (the overlapping of sensory phenomena, as when loud sounds are experienced as flashes of light) owes its cultural familiarity to the widespread use of marijuana, magic mushrooms and LSD. As American society’s tolerance for these substances and their radically re-orienting effects diminished in the ’70s, so did the momentum that had resulted in such an explosion of light and sound. After the early video synthesizer work by Stephen Beck and the computer animations of Larry Cuba, “Visual Music” also begins to lose steam. It might have been different with a different curatorial agenda — off the top of my head, where are Steve Roden, Pat O’Neill (currently showing at Rosamund Felsen, thank you), Bill Viola, Gary Panter, etc.? Where are the members of L.A.’s iota Center, who continue the tradition of abstract filmmaking? Where is the Emergency Broadcast Network, which designed U2’s boggling ZooTV tour? Yet even the best of the contemporary work actually included — Jennifer Steinkamp’s vertiginous, room-filling computer animation Swell (1995) and Cindy Bernard and Joseph Hammer’s hypnotic projections + sound (1999–2001/2005) — lack the sense of discovery that electrified their predecessors. Jim Hodges’ walk-through stripe painting with annoying soundtrack is merely retro, while Nike Savvas’ Anthem (The Carny) (2003) seems like a deliberately enervated version of a less-than-state-of-the-art disco. Which indicates where “Visual Music” took the wrong turn. The true evolution of the first two-thirds of the show points not toward fine artists producing work for galleries, collectors and museums, but to media that reach a far greater portion and spectrum of the public — the elaborate audio-visual environments of dance clubs and Vegas casinos and the world of cinematic special effects. In a sense, the art movement that essentially went underground when Fischinger quit Disney was finally integrated into every average American lifestyle, though who can say how much of the original inspiration survived after being reconfigured for commercial ends? If the assimilation had been total and harmonious, you wouldn’t expect “Visual Music” to pack much of a punch. Instead, the show offers a series of deeply affecting and closely interrelated audio-visual experiences that have seldom been made so available and are unlikely to be collected in one space again. He who has eyes, let him listen. “VISUAL MUSIC” | MOCA Grand Avenue, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles | Through May 22