Magic makes theater of the most banal objects: a wooden board is used to contact the dead, a discarded possession becomes the conduit for a hex. One challenge for “Language of the Birds,” a survey of works by several dozen creators who seem to gesture toward sorcery, was showing such pieces in the white-box spaces of New York University’s 80WSE gallery. They would be sitting on display rather than ceremonially revealed. As the show snaked from one room to the next, it shifted into new amorphous categories: “Cosmos,” “Spirits,” “Practitioners,” “Altar,” and, finally, “Spells.” The first of these was devoted to maps and diagrams detailing subjects spanning from distant planes to the alchemy of trace elements. “As above, so below,” the esoteric maxim goes, and some of the smallest details were the most fascinating. On Paul Laffoley’s huge canvas Astrological Ouroboros (1965), which displays archetypes of the zodiac encircled by a stylized serpent, the cracked paint in the domain labeled “chaos” appears to bubble, roiling off the surface.
“Language of the Birds” seemed to include certain works for their occult connection alone: the “Spirits” room featured several illustrations resembling bad Magic: The Gathering art. Elsewhere, Aleister Crowley’s 1935 drawing Kwaw (Idealized Self-Portrait) showed that provocation was the magus’s cleverest hex—assuming his usual Orientalism, it depicts an alien-looking Fu Manchu–type figure. The work has none of the mystery evoked by pieces like Angus MacLise’s Year (1961), a letterpress pamphlet renaming the dates of the calendar in tribute to different powers: “day of the inner lid,” “ninth ocean,” “the last council.” A 1948 Bernard Hoffmann photograph of Surrealist painter Kurt Seligmann slyly counters occult stereotypes: the artist, wearing a tux and holding a wooden staff, stands amid a magic circle of young people in formal attire. They might all be on their way to a Dave Brubeck concert.
There was a similarly self-aware eye in Kenneth Anger’s contribution, three stills from his 1969 film Invocation of My Demon Brother that feature imagery including a cloaked figure and a magician’s hat. The “language of the birds” is traditionally a hidden one understood only by initiates, and some of the show’s younger artists ignored skull-and-candle iconography entirely, abstracting occult symbols until they spoke in tongues. Opposite Brion Gysin’s Grid Composition Triptych (ca. 1962–65), whose crosshatched lines could be marking out one of John Cage’s aleatory pieces, hung Scott Treleaven’s painting New Desirable States (2015), a sigil distilled to fundamentals of form and color. Square, triangle, circle: the house of the moon. Anohni’s I Want to Help (2015) eerily stitches landscape photographs into a makeshift grimoire. “DESOLATE, TREELESS,” a caption announces beneath an image of migrating caribou, “THE ENORMOUS BARREN LANDS REACH NORTHWARD TO THE SHORES OF THE ARCTIC SEA.” The apocalypse heralded by her piece is no longer supernatural.