Artists Guilherme Vaz and Cecil Taylor expanded the frontiers of the visual arts field. Using sound as their raw material, both the Brazilian and the US-based artists-slash-musicians reflected about the immateriality of sonority, and its condition as an artistic medium. Vaz passed away this Thursday, April 17th, aged 70 years old. He leaves a true legacy behind – the same as Taylor, who also left us at the beginning of the month. Today, we pay homage to the two artists by re-publishing a critical text by the Curator of PIPA Institute, Luiz Camillo Osorio, written after visits to the exhibitions “Guilherme Vaz: uma fração do infinito” [“Guilherme Vaz: A Fraction of Infinity”] and Cecil Taylor’s solo show “Open Plan”. Sharing very different backgrounds, they both shared, to use Camillo’s words, “an experimental commitment, musical craftsmanship, and an interest in conceptual strategy and radical improvisation”.
The visuality of sound: Vaz and Taylor
Music occupies a visceral place in the 20th century. Nobody could understand what happened in modern culture and the counter-cultural impulse (not in the sense of rejection, but of transgression) without exploring the universe of music – from atonalism to punk and electronic music; and, of course, taking in samba, jazz and rock along the way. The revolution that took place in the ways of listening to and making music changed the sensibility of an entire age and this was only possible, I believe, due to its unique capacity to unceremoniously bring together popular and erudite traditions. Perhaps gastronomy and cinema come close in this respect.
More recently, the field of the visual arts (not so recently when we think of Russolo, Satie, Schwitters, Smetak or Cage) was transformed by a series of sonic interventions – sculptures and installations – that use music, noise and sound. I believe that these interventions and their distinctions prompt the need for a separate debate – music and sound are not necessarily the same thing, and not all sonic appropriations allow us to discuss music. I say this without wanting to simplify anything, simply on noticing differences in the ways these manifestations occupy the territory of visuality and expand spatially. In parentheses, it is worth highlighting here the critical and theoretical contribution of Seth Kim-Cohen in books such as In the blink of an ear, of 2009, where he argues that the conceptual dimension of sonic perception, and extra-musical influences, are constituent parts of the broad experience of contemporary music.
What interests me here, as opposed to what Kim-Cohen highlights, is to note how the use of sonic power has invaded the expanded field of art and caused it to be transformed by a sensitive materiality that had been depleted by conceptual upheaval. This is not an attempt to oppose the poles of sonic materiality and conceptual art, but on the contrary, to draw attention to their reciprocal interaction and intensification. Two recent exhibitions caused me to reflect on and write about this – particularly, bearing in mind that they revealed to me what I call the re-empowering of the conceptual legacy in contemporary art. Just as music, with its original affective tonality, liberated the concept from its cerebral reclusion, conferring on it a materiality that is both invisible and corporeal. I refer to the exhibition of Guilherme Vaz at the CCBB (Bank of Brazil Cultural Centre) in Rio, curated by Franz Manata, and the more recent one by Cecil Taylor, in the Whitney Museum’s Open Plan in New York, curated by Jay Sanders and Lawrence Kumpf.
These are two artists/musicians from different backgrounds, but who share an experimental commitment, musical craftsmanship, and an interest in conceptual strategy and radical improvisation. The first, a disciple of the University of Brasilia (before 1968) and later of the musician Walter Smetak from Bahia, transported music to the field of visual-plastic thought and vice versa. Part of his conceptual process sprang from the urge to extract from the pathos of music an original structure of our feeling-thinking-inventing-being in the world – hence his constant flirtation with anthropology. While Cecil Taylor, the ultimate representative of experimental jazz, deconstructed the piano to give the corporeality of the musical gesture a performative intelligence and a particular melodic intonation. In both cases, improvisation and conception go hand in hand.
In the context of these two shows, we are also confronted with the fundamental question of how to exhibit musical works/poetics. What is the appropriate materiality and visuality to “see-hear-think” music? Both experiences were successful in their expographic strategies. In the case of Guilherme Vaz, combining archival material, extracts from the artist’s writings, musical and ethnographic instruments, and a selection of recordings and films helped to reveal the plural-artist, the explorer of ancestral worlds which allow themselves to be revealed within the impoverishment of the modern sensibility. His intimate knowledge of the visual arts – he was a founder, together with Frederico Morais, Cildo Meireles and Luiz Alphonsus, of the experimental area of the Museum of Modern Art (MAM) of Rio in 1969 – allowed him to realize that visuality (or sonority) does not immediately reveal itself to the senses, but is always mediated and transformed by the conceptual projections of whoever produces it and whoever hears-imagines-perceives it.
Charles Taylor’s exhibition, in turn, was disseminated through the open, column-less space of what is known as the open plan of the new Whitney. The big screen projecting images of the pianist’s performances reverberates throughout the space. The expography in this case was more conventional, from the point of view of a musician’s exhibition. There is ample photographic material about the musician in action, stations with monitors showing interviews and various performances by the pianist, numerous record covers and concert posters, some amazing hand-written scores, not to mention the great idea of putting some sofas at the end of the room in front of the window overlooking Manhattan, with several sound systems playing Taylor’s songs. However, the most important aspect of this exhibition seems to me to be the idea of bringing the musical and performative dimension itself inside the exhibition space with a highly significant programme scheduled over the two weeks of the exhibition. Of the various performances, it is worth highlighting the inaugural concert with Cecil Taylor himself, accompanied by Tony Oxley and by the Japanese choreographer and sometime partner, Min Tanaka.
What the two exhibitions reveal (along with many others of sonic art that we have seen in recent decades) is how much the field of visual arts is sensorially tonified by the extra-visual, and semantically transformed by the non-specific (that which escapes the specificity of the expressive medium, but which is a constituent part of a unique way of being the art of that which is presented). I am speaking here of the visual arts and not just art – despite the fact that the distinction does not interest me – since insertion into the museological space and references to the history of art inevitably affect our way of seeing and naming things. Both exhibitions and the two artists in their respective careers, are committed to this expanded approach to making art, combining senses, references, geographies and plural materialities.
To conclude, I hand over to the two artists, as both frequently produce texts, demonstrating poetic fluency and critical acuity therein – especially in the case of the Brazilian artist, whose writing merits closer analysis. In the form completed and sent to MoMA at the time of the staging of the exhibition, Information, in 1970, Guilherme Vaz writes that his work presented there “has many layers of meaning and that these interweave the before, during and after of the exhibition: words, photos, touch, heat, walks, the sounds of Manhattan, the museum etc (…)”. Finally, he asks the curator to “use the diagrams enclosed and, in case of doubt, to improvise regarding the instructions”. In the same sense of a broad experience of art, Cecil Taylor writes, in an annotation on show at the exhibition, that music, in addition to saving his life, introduced him “to literature, dance, architecture, people. (…) If you make a commitment to one art, you begin to see there is no single art, and if you get into different kinds of art they nurture you. If you are fortunate, they lead to an expansion of your knowledge” It is this expansion that the two exhibitions explore. There is something magical there, but that is another story…
About the author
Luiz Camillo Osorio is the Curator of PIPA Institute, PIPA’s founder and Board Member. He is a Professor and current Director of the Philosophy Department at PUC-Rio. Camillo was the Curator of MAM-Rio between 2009 and 2015.