The first trip Ursula Block took to New York was in 1974, and the occasion included spending time in a gallery with Joseph Beuys and a live coyote. The most recent visit came just a few weeks ago—for a sort of snarling, disquieting show of her own.
“I was not especially interested in sound then—I was just interested in art,” Block recalled of her early years while in town to install “Ursula Block’s gelbe MUSIK,” an exhibition at OSMOS Address in the East Village. The show gathers artifacts from more than 30 years of history behind gelbe MUSIK, a record store and formative sound-art gallery that Block opened in Berlin in 1981.
She sold music and presented performances there, and her cast of collaborators and compatriots could double as a list of almost anyone significant in sound art in the decades before and since: John Cage, Max Neuhaus, Nam June Paik, Maryanne Amacher, Akio Suzuki, Milan Knížák, Eliane Radigue, Henning Christiansen, Laurie Anderson, Dieter Roth, Michael Snow, La Monte Young, Christina Kubisch, and so on. All of those and more feature in the OSMOS show, in the form of releases or recordings or relics somehow related to gelbe MUSIK’s publishing and exhibition-making past.
Block’s enterprise (the name of which translates from German as “yellow music”) grew out of interactions with artists surrounding her husband René Block, a gallerist in Germany and elsewhere—it was his gallery in New York that played home to Beuys’s famous coyote-accompanied 1974 action I Like America and America Likes Me. Among her most important fellow zealots of avant-garde activity and sound, Block said, were Dick Higgins and Christian Marclay, though she worked with a vast and interconnected international network.
A walk through her current exhibition—which, as curated by Fiona McGovern and Justin Luke, continues through June 4—included warm remembrances in the presence of objects like a flexi-disc by Imi Knoebel, a print devoted to Nam June Paik’s TV-Dog, Marclay’s storied Record Without a Cover, and a pair of buttons by Neuhaus stamped with the message “Sound Art: The medium is not the message.”
Other items abound, including scores for musical works that did not abide the tenets of conventional notation and objects that attended experiments of the kind. On one wall is Jouez ma pipe (1986), a vinyl record by Henning Christiansen slathered in green paint and affixed with a smoking pipe that doubles as a needle dug into the grooves. “Think of Magritte,” Block said. Elsewhere is a set of multicolored mini disks and a toy-like plastic playback device packaged like a children’s record set for Die Tödliche Doris, a punk and performance-art group active in Germany in the ’80s.
Also included is a copy of Broken Music, a book published by Block in 1989 that stands as an especially important early cataloguing exercise of artist records up until then. (Think of it as a sort of record-oriented tome along the lines of Lucy Lippard’s Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972.) The catalogue accompanied an exhibition and borrowed its title from Milan Knížák’s 1979 album Broken Music, represented in the gallery in two different LP forms. One is a regular record with cover art depicting a fractured disk. The other is a raw slab of plastic that had long ago been burnt to a crisp and painted with glimmers of gold.