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Surprise Symphony

A daring new exhibition integrating the works of a painter, a composer and a choreographer can be seen at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery. Andrew Solomon reviews this three-part show.

The Anselm Kiefer show at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in Dering Street, W1 this autumn was extraordinary. Whereas the retrospective of the German painter at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1988 demonstrated the range of an artist whose work is radically transformed on a regular basis, the show at d’Offay showed how many kinds of meaning Kiefer can locate in a single stage of this ongoing process of transformation; and though one was a vast museum show and the other a commercial gallery exhibition, the MoMA show took as read a genius which the show at Anthony d’Offay served to confirm. Anthony d’Offay has received considerable notice for his interest in artists highly regarded internationally, artists whose keen engagement with the fundamental problems of modern art — what it means to represent something, what the communicative power of visual language may be, what the limits of intentionality are, and so on and so forth — distinguishes them from the commercial and decorative artists who tend to dominate the London gallery world. Leslie Waddington also shows work of this high seriousness, but Waddington sticks to paintings and sculpture, things that can be incorporated into a well-decorated home. Anthony d’Offay often shows work that is done without regard for its value or status as commodity.

Though d’Offay’s selection of artists is distinguished, what really sets him apart is the complexity and abstraction of his curatorial policies, a complexity he has negotiated without forsaking — as have curators at the Serpentine, at Riverside Studios, and at the Camden Arts Centre — either insight or coherence. Increasingly in the past eighteen months, he has contrived to bring together works which have little visual or explicit contiguity, but which cast a surprising and felicitous light on one another. The most daring and perhaps the most successfully conceived of all these is the non-selling exhibition opening on 30 October and running until 2 December. Entitled Dancers on a Plane: John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, the exhibition features the work of three old friends who have often worked together, but it is not a collaboration as such. The idea, rather, is that the personalities and ideas of these three artists have been so closely tied that to understand one makes it possible to understand the others more clearly, and that to go dizzily among all three artists is ultimately the surest way to understand them — not only as a group, but also, more importantly, as individuals. So it is that to witness the work of Merce Cunningham is to be streets ahead, and that when you begin to come to grips with Cage you also realise fundamental truths about Cunningham that had gone right past you.

The displays are fairly straightforward. At 21 Dering Street, the score of Cage’s 1958 Concerto for Piano and Orchestra will be on display. The pages are rather beautiful, all the notes written in Cage’s peculiar but calligraphic mode. Because Cage is committed to issues of acoustics, he did not want to have a performance at the gallery, and because his music is so often about silences and sounds and the spaces between them, the odd variations of crowded notes and vacant spaces on the musical score itself serve as an adequate representation of his concerns. He will, however, be performing as part of the Huddersfield Festival from 16 to 26 November, and he will be doing a reading on Jasper Johns on 30 October.

At 9 Dering Street, a seven-hour video loop of Merce Cunningham’s dance will be shown. There are two copies of the loop which will be running at all times, so that visitors to the gallery may see different episodes on each loop. Here, as with Cage, what is shown is not the primary artwork but a secondary and representative one. But as Cage has been concerned with his scores, so Cunningham has always been very much oriented toward film and toward the camera, and has choreographed specifically for film, aware of and eager to control its effect on dance.

The earlier segments of the video are directed by Charles Atlas, whose recent work in the video field has earned him considerable distinction; the later ones are directed by Elliot Caplan. Both directors accept that there is a tension between the dance and the process of photography, and though they at no point do battle with or upstage the choreography, they do not affect a cinéma vérité stationary pose to describe a series of movements; the movement of the camera and the movement of the dancers becomes a dance itself, a sort of who-can-tell-the-dancer-from-the-cinematographer arrangement. Cunningham’s company will be performing live at Sadler’s Wells from 31 October to 11 November.

At 23 Dering Street, fourteen items by Jasper Johns will be on show, including the Tate’s Dancers on a Plane, a painting by which Merce Cunningham was apparently deeply influenced. Johns’ paintings and drawings are done in a cross-hatching mode which is full of movement; like Cage and Cunningham, he is concerned with the patterns created by the alternation of motion and stillness, sound and silence.

Susan Sontag, an old friend to all three of these artists, has written an essay to accompany the exhibition, entitled “In Memory of Their Feelings.” The essay is self-conscious, possibly even affected, but it frames the work rather neatly, falling short, perhaps, because it imitates it in form instead of describing it with the luminous clarity for which Sontag has achieved such ardent praise. They are cutlery. In an extended (perhaps overextended) metaphor, Sontag implies, but never states, that Cunningham is the knife, Cage the spoon, and Johns the fork. She goes through permutations and puns on etiquette — peas eaten with a knife on one page, lovers in bed like spoons a few later, fish forks on the next. What seems ironic is that the author of AIDS and Its Metaphors should be so insistent in the use of her own metaphor, at such a distance from grace, as though her subject were as frightening as AIDS itself.

But in the end that doesn’t really matter. It is interesting and impressive that d’Offay should recognise the importance of seeing artists in conjunction with one another, and it is admirable that he displays in his gallery the work of a musician and of a choreographer without apology and without marginalising them as peripheral material tied closely to the work of a painter. But what is most interesting is that d’Offay has implicitly accepted here the notion of a cult of personality, a notion which is increasingly important both to the formation of a new canon and to the affirmation of the old one. John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, and Susan Sontag are all people who have accomplished extraordinary things in their various fields. But they are also prominent personalities, people happy to be quoted, people who expect to see references to themselves as much as to their work. They have not brought the slick and self-acknowledging genius to their self-promotion that such younger figures as Jeff Koons have turned into a trademark, but they are also not shy of their own status as visible figures in the vanguard of intellect. Many of d’Offay’s artists are distinguished by such strength of personality, and though that characteristic can be tiresome beyond measure in people whose talent is not sufficient to warrant it, it can be a kind of art in itself in people whose other artistic exercises exploit their prominence as a metaphor for their effort to say something.

John Cage: Art is either a Complaint or do Something Else (Audio Arts TGA200414/7/3 inlay) © William Furlong.

John Cage: “Art is either a Complaint or do Something Else” (Audio Arts TGA200414/7/3 inlay) © William Furlong. From Cage’s liner notes: “These texts come from statements by Jasper Johns… They are not about Johns’s statements, and because of the way they are written, other statements are produced.”

John Cage has said: “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two.)” Merce Cunningham has said: “I think of dance as a constant transformation of life itself.” Jasper Johns has said: “The trouble is that when you start to work, you can’t eliminate your own sophistication.” Each of these artists is intensely aware that the way in which his life is led defines the meanings within his work, that the old-world notion of art that takes on a life of its own and can be read without reference to the circumstances of its creation is irrelevant to the kind of self-expression that is central to each of them — because nothing so illuminates a partial act of self-expression as the self which has been partially expressed. And though these are not “expressionist” artists per se, they are artists whose work expresses their own biases. The work of each of them illuminates the work of the others not only because their ideas overlap, not only because Jasper Johns did costumes for Merce Cuningham and Merce Cunningham did ballets with John Cage music, but also because the three have become friends. Seeing their works side by side should render in brilliant colours the power of their personal regard for one another, and the reasons behind that regard are the most powerful supplement there could ever be to their work. They may be fork, knife, and spoon, but their conjunction should turn out to be a dinner, and not just a place setting.

Side A

Side B