Anything like a clear through-line connecting what I marked down as the year’s most affecting shows has proven elusive. As happens often when in my own head, though, I can’t help but think of sound. It didn’t figure highly (or even at all) in every one of these, but sound for me has a habit of attaching to memories, even—or especially—when silence is what ultimately remains. Herewith, a rundown of exhibitions and events that left an indelible impression, with sound as a sort of unreliable guide…
1. Walter De Maria’s 360˚ I Ching / 64 Sculptures at Dia:Beacon
The first one, fittingly, is a portal to disquiet. Unveiled this spring in two enormous galleries at the upstate sanctuary of Dia:Beacon, Walter De Maria’s little-seen floor piece 360˚ I Ching / 64 Sculptures is made up of white wooden rods arranged in the shapes of hexagrams—cryptic pictograms from the ancient Chinese text I Ching said to hold secrets to all the wisdom in the cosmos. Dating back more than 3,000 years, the 64 hexagrams exhibit different patterns thanks to simple variations in series of broken and unbroken lines, like Morse code but more rudimentary (or less rudimentary—it’s hard to say). In any case, the symbols for concepts like “force” and “thunder” and “dispersing” literally change meaning as you circle De Maria’s work and spy it from different angles, which happens often when taking in a piece that sprawls over 10,000 square feet. And the look of the bright white rods, set against red carpet in Dia’s natural light, quivers like a digital display as the mind tries to reconcile the size and scope of such a thing (the artwork and the I Ching itself). The stirring hope and inevitable failure of the exercise each serve an enigmatic artist who once, with what would seem a mix of sincerity and wryness both, made a work with the title A Computer Which Will Solve Every Problem in the World.
2. László Moholy-Nagy at the Guggenheim Museum
Synesthesia was in high supply at this wowing survey of László Moholy-Nagy, who never seemed to meet a medium or means for presenting art he didn’t love. Moholy-Nagy was so prescient and so good in so many different areas that his lack of world-dominating renown is kind of embarrassing, but the Guggenheim show (and its great catalog) helped reset the dial. Highlights included visionary photo work (via photographs, photomontage, and photograms) and stark graphical paintings on warped translucent plastic that cast shadows of still more stark graphical patterns on the walls. But even the little stuff was outsize in terms of imagination and ideas, from letterhead designed for the Bauhuas (the coolest-ever means for interoffice mail, it would seem) to a chess set to rival Man Ray’s. Then there was the whirring of the motor within Light Prop for an Electric Stage, a machine conceived in 1930 and futuristic still.
3. David Brooks at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
In Ridgefield, Connecticut, the sculptor David Brooks bought and disassembled a John Deere combine harvester—a bitchin’ 3300 model from 1976—and put its innards on immaculate display. Everything from large panels of green metal to giant tractor-like claws to tiny springs and screws figure in, some left raw and others polished or gilt to look like relics in an air-locked vitrine at the Met. Under the title Continuous Service Altered Daily (a nod to Robert Morris), the piece touches on mechanical devastation of the natural world but also ways that humans have been smart and resourceful too. Plus it is a wonder to look at, as something so simultaneously abstract and plain. At the entrance to the museum, a short video plays on a loop to show the giant alien contraption at work. The roar of its engine has been hard to shake.
4. “Blackness in Abstraction” at Pace Gallery
This unusually probing summer group show surveyed blackness as an idea more sprawling and diffuse than might have been expected. As a color (or a negation of color), black figured in work by the likes of Rashid Johnson, Ad Reinhardt, Ellen Gallagher, and Wangechi Mutu. Then there was blackness as a marker of identity, often attached to race but not exclusively—and not always adhering to lines as they have traditionally been drawn. Curator Adrienne Edwards made a good heady stew of work assembled from different locales and multiple generations, with an ambitious thesis that was easier to intuit than to communicate with any sort of precise mind. One work that stands out in memory is Pope.L’s Blind, a hole cut into the wall and outfitted with an invisible apparatus behind it to blow a beguiling breeze from out of nowhere.
5. Genesis Breyer P-Orridge at the Rubin Museum
An eerie and exalting survey of artwork by the founder of the aggressively freaked-out industrial band Throbbing Gristle, “Try to Altar Everything” gathered sculptures and talismans made as part of ritualistic practices by Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, a late life partner with whom s/he (the preferred pronoun for Genesis and Lady Jaye both) tried to fuse into a genderless form known as the pandrogyne. The objects were arresting—see: a sculpture of a wooden rabbit with a lock of human hair and a coat of blood gathered while injecting the out-of-body drug ketamine, or a golden altar filled with dead fish. Genesis performed during the run of the show with h/er current band Psychic TV too, sounding a call for a career still very much ongoing.
6. Akio Suzuki at Southfirst
At the historically astute gallery Southfirst in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the conceptual sound artist Akio Suzuki built a room-size pachinko machine out of slapped-together wood, metal, and glass, with nails all over it to sound when metal balls were rolled from the top to the bottom. It was an aural extravaganza, made from the most modest means, and another stirring showing from an artist whose work dates back to the 1960s in Japan.
7. Tom Sachs at the Noguchi Museum
Tom Sachs’s elaborate Tea Ceremony took over much of the Noguchi Museum in Queens and managed to make more sense of that union than could have been foreseen. A teahouse structure (plus garden accoutrements like water fountains and trees) served as the setting for real tea-ceremony rituals performed in Sachs’s anything-but-pretentious bricolage style, and the artist’s reverence for materials, however raw and seemingly slapdash in their presentation, took on new and rightly impressive airs in close proximity to Noguchi’s serene sculptures. A makeshift pool that played home to swimming carp had a motor that whirred and made the water gurgle in the background.
8. Blank Forms
As the longtime artistic director of Issue Project Room, a pointedly and purposefully experimental performance venue in Brooklyn, Lawrence Kumpf programmed work from different disciplines—music, dance, theater, polyglot incarnations of all at once—and effectively created his own culture. Now, as of the beginning of 2016, he has gone nomadic and organized memorable events at partnering spaces big and small. He helped create the Cecil Taylor portion of the Whitney Museum’s “Open Plan” initiative, worked on activating the archive of the psychoacoustic composer Maryanne Amacher, booked the insanely great Indonesian metal/folk/improv band Senyawa at Bridget Donahue gallery, and, at the Swiss Institute, presented a proto-minimalist composition for solo cello by Terry Jennings and La Monte Young. Other events were just as good. Here’s to more to come.
9. Harry Bertoia at the Museum of Arts and Design
Best known for furniture that ranks up with Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames in the annals of mid-century modern design, Harry Bertoia also devoted a significant part of his life to making “sound sculptures” that he kept in a barn in rural Pennsylvania. Made of metal in ways that clang and ring out in long, lingering durations, they play kind of like chimes but delve deeply into a sound world that is more intensely musical and resolute. Visitors to the Museum of Arts and Design—which also exhibited prints and recordings by Bertoia, as well as a separate show of his great biomorphic jewelry—could play some of the sculptures, which were displayed all together on a platform. Three months after the show closed, it is not entirely clear if the long-tail sound (also celebrated this year on an 11-CD Bertoia box set by Important Records) has ended.
10. “The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman” at the New-York Historical Society
One of the first studious and deliberate collections of folk art in America, the incredible holdings of Modernist sculptor Elie Nadelman and his wife Viola showed this summer at the New-York Historical Society, with objects ranging from a 19th-century roach trap to a wooden siren from a clipper ship to the most beautiful clothes pins you could ever see. So much in the show was animated and dynamic in the way of art that is lived with rather than observed at a distance—art that fulfills a double-function as something else. Piano Player (Pianiste), a sculpture by Nadelman himself from 1921, seems aware of such an in-between state, sensuous and refined in its form but also with an energy in it that seems to want to get up and dance. The woman at an upright piano, with a note of sorrow in her and a metal bow on her back suggesting a kind of wind-up toy, seems to be playing at the end of a long night—or the start of a new morning.