The Sight of Music
From the Collection of Reba and Dave Williams
Through April 25
Cheekwood Museum of Art
1200 Forrest Park Drive
For information, call 356-8000 or visit www.cheekwood.org
It’s not often you find Elvis Presley rubbing shoulders with Beethoven. This wonderful juxtaposition alone justifies a trip to Cheekwood to see “The Sight of Music,” a beautifully choreographed show of 80 musically inspired prints by some of America’s greatest artists, including Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Red Grooms and Andy Warhol. CD listening stations are dotted around the galleries, allowing visitors to enjoy, for example, the heroic strains of Beethoven as they gaze up at Warhol’s shockingly bright lithographic treatment of the ever-scowling composer. This is a nice touchalthough the effect varies depending on where you stand and what you happen to be listening to. Hearing the mesmeric loops of Philip Glass’ music while examining a portrait of the man composed entirely of whorled fingerprints is one thing; listening to Elvis Presley snarl and “uh-huh” while contemplating an image of him caressing a sick puppy is another experience altogether.
“I’ve never actually heard Blondie before,” Dave Williams, co-owner of the collection featured in the “Sight of Music,” freely admits as he stands in front of the Warhol screenprint of Debbie Harry. “My wife [Reba] came up with the idea for the showshe’s the creative genius. She was excited about the idea of putting together a show about artists’ personal impressions of music from the 5,000 or so works in our collection. I’ve never seen the exhibition installed so well; it looks great.”
Cheek-wood associate curator Terri Smith’s installation is indeed artful. The larger works, such as the Elvis woodcut, are hung in the main space to emphasize the monumental scale of these pieces. The rest of the prints occupy three other rooms; there are hallways to navigate in between, but there is a pleasant and logical flow to the exhibit, with delights and surprises around every corner.
Moving into the other half of the main space, the mood changes. Jazz, swing and dance predominate. The highly kinetic character of these images nicely mirrors the improvisational nature of jazz itself. In Frederick Gerhard Becker’s freewheeling and whimsical “Jam Session” andJam Session II,” for instance, you can almost hear the throaty sax and piano vamping. This section also includes images of country music, gospel and Native American dance, and features artists such as African American printmaker Raymond Steth and the satirical caricaturist Al Hirschfield.
The second room focuses on the symbolic language of music. Some pieces integrate traditional representations of notes and rests, such as Lichtenstein’s eye-popping and swirling “Composition I.” Other works represent the musical experience much more abstractly. For instance, the paper for John Cage’s otherworldly graphic score “Global Village 37-48” was smoked and charred by fires lit under the printing press, rendering the musical instructions both cryptic and haunting.
Room three has a distinctly cubist flavor, with a series of studied, technical and geometric works, including Brenton Spruce’s “Arrangement for Drums” and Harold Swartz’s “Medley.” “The subjects are equal or secondary to the artistic styles in which they are rendered,” Smith notes. Other images in this section, such as Bernard Sanders’ “Orchestra” and Alfred Rudolph’s “Symphonie Asfiguratique,” work in obvious counterpoint to the fizzy, energetic images of jazz in the main space. Here the audiences and the performers are more subdued and formal, often divided by the civilizing barrier of a full orchestra.
There are plenty of treats in room four, where the relationship between musician and instrument is explored. Claes Oldenburg’s “Soft Saxophone” and Jasper Johns’ “Scott Fagan Record,” both celebrations of familiar, everyday items, provide obvious departure points from which to explore the treasures here.
“The Sight of Music” is supported by a satellite exhibition of photographs by Nashville native Elmer Williams (1927-1993), on loan from the Country Music Hall of Fame. Williams’ photographic career was short-lived. Between 1954 and 1959, he immortalized many country and R&B legends, his photographs vividly capturing the excitement of live music-making. By focusing not only on the artists but also the audiences to which they performed, he afforded viewers an opportunity to relive the electricity of the performer-audience dynamic. Williams (who later worked as an occasional bodyguard to Elvis Presley) clearly loved his subjects, and the images of the youthful Johnny Cash, hair slick with brilliantine, and the neatly turned-out Jordanaires, crooning in their matching vests, are extremely poignant when viewed 50 years ona loving homage to a Golden Age of sorts. Fascinating in their own right, these photos in no way constitute a side-show to “The Sight of Music”; they can be more rightly considered a striking enhancement.
Cheekwood museum director Jack Becker is clearly excited about the whole exhibit, and rightly so. “This is a great way for music lovers to get into the visual arts and vice-versa,” he says. “It’s a show that reaches out to many different audiences in our community and brings them together.” Indeed, it’s not often that country music fans and Jasper Johns devotees can confidently be invited to the same event. Nevertheless, Becker has managed to create an attractive context for both. From the jazz-infused works of Harlem Renaissance artists Romare Bearden and William H. Johnson to the abstract etching of John Cage, the genius trickster of music’s avant-garde, this show can appropriately be called a feast for the eyes and the ears.
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