When David Tudor took to the stage that fateful night in 1952 to perform John Cage's 4'33", few attendees expected the avant-garde pianist to simply close the keyboard lid and remain completely silent. And, certainly, few audience members could have predicted that this very exercise in silence would echo through the art world well into the next century.
Previewing Thursday night at the Menil Collection, Silence traces the artistic trajectory of Cage's simple gesture from the postwar era through today — charting its way through early pieces by Marcel Duchamp and Giorgio de Chirico that influenced the ideas behind 4'33" to recent works by Jennie C. Jones and Steve Roden.
Conceived by Menil curator Toby Kamps, the exhibit looks at more than 50 works to examine the manner in which the last century of artists use the absence of sound to convey social, political and aesthetic messages.
Surely, few attendees at Cage's first performance of 4'33" could have predicted its influence would echo through the art world well into the next century.
"This is one of the most quiet museums in the country," Kamps said during a preview tour, highlighting the Menil's famously hands-off policy when it comes to displaying art: Few tours, no docent program, very little wall text. The approach, he noted, has its roots in founder Dominique de Menil's classic line,"Perhaps only silence and love do justice to a great work of art."
The show begins with an early printed edition Cage's score to 4'33" (spoken "four minutes, 33 seconds"), which details the work's three basic movements with roman numerals with the word "Tacet" — the musical term for "silent" — listed under each section. Just beyond the score is a rare opportunity to see selections from Rauschenberg's White Paintings series, which Kamps explained are on an unprecedented loan from the artist's foundation.
As an early 1980s neon sign from Bruce Naumann titled Violins Violence Silence flashes and buzzes at the rear of the first gallery, nearby walls offer up Magritte's Listening Room and a hauntingly quiet cityscape from De Chirico.
Anchoring the next gallery is an untitled 2001 work by Doris Salcedo, who has sealed two pieces of domestic furniture with concrete as an expression of the quiet fear of violence that has gripped her native Colombia through recent decades. Two pieces by Fluxus giant Joseph Beuys, including a set of five film reels of Ingmar Bergman's Silence that he galvanized in zinc, make a rare museum appearance along with a political work by David Hammons.
"There are stories of people x-raying it to find out what's in there," Kamps said about Duchamp's enigmatic piece, "but still we have no idea what's inside the work."
Duchamp's 1916 readymade With Hidden Noise, a ball of twine wedged between two square brass plates, stands as one of the show's most intriguing moments.
"He made this assisted readymade with the help of his patron Walter Arensberg, who put an object unknown to Duchamp inside the work," said Kamps. "You could shake it and hear it, but you could never know what it was.
"There are stories of people x-raying it to find out what's in there, but still we have no idea what's inside the work. Maybe its an emblem of art's ultimately unknowability."
In a separate gallery just outside the main entrance to Silence, art superstar Christian Marclay has installed a new suite of works created specifically for the Menil show. In a set of paintings and lithographs, the artist hones in on a small sign reading "Silence" seen just behind the electric chair in Warhol's famed series.
Silence opens Thursday with a special public preview and wine reception from 7 to 9 p.m. The exhibit will be on view through Oct. 21 with a array of events, starting with this Saturday's As If They Were Not There at the Rothko Chapel. Visit the Menil website for a full list of programming.