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ART REVIEWS : 'The Eye and the Ear': Scores or Art?

March 09, 1995|SUSAN KANDEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Since the 11th Century, the conventions for noting pitch have been standardized, based on a one-to-one correspondence between symbol and sound.

In the mid-20th Century, standard notation was shaken by the seemingly perverse conventions of "indeterminate music," as made by John Cage. Cage insisted that sounds be permitted to "be themselves, rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments." His musical scores thus stressed chance, their character continually determined anew by those who would interpret them.

Several of Cage's scores--along with others by colleagues Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff--are featured in "The Eye and the Ear," a small but sharply focused exhibition of 20th-Century music-notation curated by Nancy Perloff at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities. Bracketed on one end by examples of early Modernist experimentation and, on the other, by the work of Cage's Fluxus inheritors, the direction Cage took in the 1950s is sited within a historical context.

This provocative exhibition, however, is not purely historical. Among its multiple subjects are the slippages between the general rule and the specific example, the interplay between art and text, and the whole messy, Postmodern debate over authorship.

The works in the show are derived from the archive of pianist David Tudor, which the Getty acquired in 1993. Tudor's own realizations for the piano solo in Cage's "Concert for Piano and Orchestra" are on view. Contained in black binder notebooks so that the internal sequencing could be changed at will, these beg the question of how to distinguish between composer and performer, when the latter--by the dictate of the former--is constantly reformulating the composition.

Even more interesting is the question of how these works function visually. Brown's "Four Systems" resembles a computer punch card, with its abrupt, start-and-stop rhythm of horizontal dashes. Wolff's scores resemble complex chemistry problems inscribed on blackboards. Dick Higgins' "Sparks for Piano" seems to track a galaxy of shooting stars. And Ben Patterson's "Variations for Double-Bass" looks like a flow chart at a corporate board meeting, all words, arrows and force lines.

Are these scores masquerading as art objects, or art objects masquerading as scores? To what extent are they purely metaphorical?

Although there is a sound component to "The Eye and the Ear," the primary emphasis is on the look. Since the privileging of the visual is a hallmark of Modernism, this is perfectly logical. So, is this kind of public exhibition a logical, indeed vital outgrowth of the Getty's increasingly privatized, scholarly imperative.

\o7 * The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 7th Floor, 401 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 348-9811. Closed Sunday.\f7

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Soldiers' Stories: Two bodies of work by New York-based photographer David Levinthal--his first and his most recent--are now on view at Craig Krull Gallery. In both "Hitler Moves East," a black-and-white series created in 1977 in collaboration with Garry Trudeau, and "Mein Kampf," a narrative cycle of color photographs produced last year, Levinthal uses toy soldiers to enact tableaux that are historical--or purport to be.

Levinthal employs a familiar Postmodern strategy to engage with familiar, Postmodern issues: the veracity of the photograph, the myth of authenticity, the mass-mediated shadings of truth. Where Levinthal departs from the expected is in his particular subject matter, which is both volatile and intensely fragile.

In the earlier series, Levinthal apes the look of slightly yellowed, wire-service photographs. These are, by and large, action shots--approaching soldiers, explosions, figures caught in rubble--with elaborate backgrounds and convincing-looking dolls, blurred and seen from the back so as to propel the illusion. They comment, among other things, upon little boys' fascination with war games.

The current series is quite different. Levinthal jacks up the artifice with lurid colors, baroque lighting and theatrical compositions, and the toy soldiers' plastic faces are very much in evidence. He emphasizes the importance Hitler placed upon spectacle and underscores the choreographed violence that characterized the Nazi universe.

The images in "Mein Kampf" are also far more confrontational. Rather than somewhat anonymous battle scenes, here is something as hideously suggestive as a child in a railway car and as stark as a nude body being pushed into a crematory oven.

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