John Cage’s 4’33″ is commonly described as “four and a half minutes of silence,” but in fact it’s the opposite — Cage hoped to lead the audience to hear the ambient sounds of the concert hall as music, to accept as art sounds that they wouldn’t normally consider in that way.
“What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds,” he said of the piece’s 1952 premiere. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering on the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
In a broad sense 4’33″ was Cage’s most significant work, but the notion of a dedicated piece of art with no substance does introduce some perplexing puzzles. The work debuted as a piano piece with a specified length, but Cage later said that “the work may be performed by any instrumentalist or combination of instrumentalists and last any length of time,” and indeed he produced varying scores in different notations. Can all of these be said to be the same piece?
The “In Futurum” movement for solo piano from Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff’s 1919 Fünf Pittoresken consists entirely of rests, but directs the performer to play “the entire song with as much expression and feeling as you like, always, right to the end!” (French pianist Philippe Bianconi wondered, “Should I just sit there?”) And Alphonse Allais’s 1897 Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man, below, consists of 24 blank measures. Could an unwitting audience member distinguish either of these from Cage’s work?
A puzzle by philosopher Patricia Werhane of Loyola University of Chicago: Suppose that a pianist were engaged to perform 4’33″ but had to withdraw at the last moment, and in desperation the stage manager sat in his place. Would this be a performance of Cage’s work? Would it be a musical performance?
Now more than 60 years old, Cage’s idea may still be too novel for a wide public. When BBC Radio 3 broadcast the first U.K. orchestral performance of 4’33″ in 2004, the network had to turn off an emergency backup system that would have interpreted the silence as dead air — and begun playing music.
Swiss artist Markus Raetz created this innovative portrait of Piero della Francesca. Two mobiles are fitted with aluminum plates that are juxtaposed successively as the mobiles rotate. Piero appears between them.
Raetz’s kinetic sculpture of Kiki de Montparnasse, below, uses a similar idea:
Henry Kettle painted this pyramid anamorphosis around 1770. If a mirrored pyramid is placed at the center of the canvas, then each of its sides reflects a portion of one of the four distorted heads … producing a true hidden portrait when viewed from above.
At left is the official White House portrait of John Quincy Adams, painted by George Peter Alexander Healy. At right is a daguerreotype of Adams in 1843, when he became the first president to be photographed.
In a diary entry for Aug. 1, 1843, Adams noted that four daguerreotypes had been taken and pronounced them “all hideous.” Three more were taken the following day, but he found them “no better than those of yesterday. They are all too true to the original.”
That raises an interesting question: Which of these images is the more revealing record of the man? In Puzzles About Art, philosopher Matthew Lipman asks, “Which would we rather have, a portrait of Socrates by Rembrandt or a photograph of Socrates?”
In the 1910s, Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov demonstrated the power of film editing with a telling experiment: He intercut the “inexpressive” face of actor Ivan Mosjoukine with images of a plate of soup, a child in a coffin, and an attractive woman. Though the footage of Mosjoukine was the same in each case, an audience “raved about the acting,” noted director Vsevolod Pudovkin. “[They admired] the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead child, and noted the lust with which he observed the woman. But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same.”
This reveals the effectiveness of montage, Kuleshov said. An audience reacts not to a film’s elements but to their juxtaposition — the sequence of images suggests an emotion to them, and they project this onto the actors. Alfred Hitchcock demonstrates:
No other painter’s works have been forged as frequently as Corot’s. One day a gentleman shows up in the master’s studio, who, having bought a painting signed ‘Corot’ in a small art shop, wants to know whether it has really been painted by Corot. After one brief look at the canvas Corot shakes his head. Transported by rage, the buyer declares that he will report the art dealer to the police. ‘Report to the police?,’ the painter vents his annoyance. ‘Nonsense, that man has a wife and a child. Do you want to ruin the life of that fellow?’ ‘What do I care about wife and child? A fraud is a fraud and the law ….’ ‘The law? Bah, it won’t take much to turn this little painting into an original Corot.’ With that, the master puts the canvas on the easel and adds a few brush strokes, thus turning the fake Corot into a genuine one. ‘There,’ he murmurs in a satisfied voice, returning the painting to the buyer, ‘now you won’t be able to say anymore that this is forgery and fraud. You could see it with your own eyes how I painted it.’
– Alfred Georg Hartmann, Das Künstlerwäldchen. Maler-, Bildhauer- und Architekten-Anekdoten, 1917, quoted in Sándor Radnóti, The Fake: Forgery and Its Place in Art, 1999
Suppose the Grand Canyon were man-made. It could have been formed (though it wasn’t) by agricultural or industrial erosion; the results of poor farming methods can look very similar — artificial badlands — if on a smaller scale. Would this hideous scar on the fair face of the earth still be a national park? Would anyone visit it other than groups of awed schoolchildren studying Environmental Destruction, absorbing the dreadful lesson of what can happen to a desert raped by human exploiters? Strip mining can produce spectacular and dramatic landscapes. W.H. Auden loved the lead-mining landscapes of Cornwall above all others; the evocative and aromatic hillsides of the Mediterranean, with their olives, sages, thyme, and dwarf conifers, are a result of centuries of deforestation, goat herding, and the building of roads and cities.
– Frederick Turner, “Cultivating the American Garden: Toward a Secular View of Nature,” Harper’s, August 1985
In a historic passage Mallarmé describes the terror, the sense of sterility, that the poet experiences when he sits down to his desk, confronts the sheet of paper on which his poem is supposed to be composed, and no words come to him. But we might ask, why could not Mallarmé, after an interval of time, have simply got up from his chair and produced the blank sheet of paper as the poem that he sat down to write? Indeed, in support of this, could one imagine anything that was more expressive of, or would be held to exhibit more precisely the poet’s feelings of inner devastation than the virginal paper?
– Richard Wollheim, “Minimal Art,” in Minimal Art, ed. Gregory Battcock, 1968
There is at Columbia University’s Arden House Conference Center a statue of a cat in bronze. It stands on a floor at the head of a stairway that leads into a common room at a lower level. Presumably it is of some value, or believed to be … inasmuch as the managers have chained it to the railing — to forestall theft, I suppose, as if it were a television set in a squalid motel. Such might be the obvious interpretation. But I am open to the suggestion that it is not a chained sculpture of a cat but a sculpture of a chained cat, one end of which is wittily attached to a piece of reality. … Of course what we take to be a bit of reality can in fact be part of the work, which is now a sculpture of a cat-chained-to-an-iron-railing, though the moment we allow it to be a part of the work, where does or can the work end? It becomes a kind of metaphysical sandpit, swallowing the universe down into itself.
– Arthur Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, 1981
Twenty years ago, 11,000 people planted 11,000 trees on an artificial mountain near Ylöjärvi, Finland. The trees were planted in a mathematical pattern based on the golden section; in time they will grow into a virgin forest each tree of which has a designated custodian. The trees can change ownership, but they can never be removed from the forest, and the mountain itself can never be owned or sold.
Artist Agnes Denes conceived the project in 1982, and the Finnish government undertook it 10 years later. The site is legally protected for the next 400 years.
By turning the traditional rules of perspective inside out, the paintings of British artist Patrick Hughes induce a compelling illusion in three dimensions.
“Reverspectives are three-dimensional paintings that when viewed from the front initially give the impression of viewing a painted flat surface that shows a perspective view,” he writes. “However as soon as the viewer moves their head even slightly the three dimensional surface that supports the perspective view accentuates the depth of the image and accelerates the shifting perspective far more than the brain normally allows.
“This provides a powerful and often disorienting impression of depth and movement. The illusion is made possible by painting the view in reverse to the relief of the surface, that is, the bits that stick farthest out from the painting are painted with the most distant part of the scene.”
Since 1966, Japanese artist On Kawara has been producing paintings that depict only the date of their creation, executed in liquitex on canvas in eight standard sizes. If he can’t complete a painting on the day he starts it, he destroys it. Each entry in the series is painted carefully by hand in the language of the country in which he produces it; to date he’s completed more than 2,000 paintings in 112 countries, and he says he’ll continue until he dies.
Is this valuable? Yes: In 2006 Christie’s sold Nov. 8, 1989 for £310,000.
In 1525, more than 100,000 German peasants demanded an end to serfdom and were massacred by the well-organized armies of the ruling class. After observing the ornate memorials with which the aristocrats congratulated themselves, Albrecht Dürer proposed a similarly baroque monument to the slain peasants:
Place a quadrangular stone block measuring ten feet in width and four feet in height on a quadrangular stone slab which measures twenty feet in length and one foot in height. On the four corners of the ledge place tied-up cows, sheep, pigs, etc. But on the four corners of the stone block place four baskets, filled with butter, eggs, onions, and herbs, or whatever you like. In the centre of this stone block place a second one, measuring seven feet in length and one foot in height. On top of this second block place a strong chest four feet high, measuring six and a half feet wide at the bottom and four feet wide at the top. Then place a kettle upside down on top of the chest. The kettle’s diameter should be four and a half feet at the rim and three feet at its bottom. Surmount the kettle with a cheese bowl which is half a foot high and two and a half feet in diameter at the bottom. Cover this bowl with a thick plate that protrudes beyond its rim. On the plate, place a keg of butter which is three feet high and two and a half feet in diameter at the bottom. Cover this bowl with a thick plate that protrudes beyond its rim. On the plate, place a keg of butter which is three feet high and has a diameter of a foot and a half at the bottom, and of only a foot at the top. Its spout should protrude beyond this. On the top of the butter keg, place a well-formed milk jug, two and a half feet high, and with a diameter which is one foot at its bulge, half a foot at its top, and is wider at its bottom. Into this jug put four rods branching into forks on top and extending five and a half feet in height, so that the rods will protrude by half a foot, and then hang peasants’ tool on it – like hoes, pitchforks, flails, etc. The rods are to be surmounted by a chicken basket, topped by a lard tub upon which sits an afflicted peasant with a sword stuck into his back.
What would that look like?
In 1953 Robert Rauschenberg obtained a drawing from Willem de Kooning, erased it, and presented the blank paper in a gilded frame titled Erased de Kooning Drawing, Robert Rauschenberg, 1953.
“I wanted to create a work of art by [erasing],” he said. “Using my own work wasn’t satisfactory. … I realized that it had to be something by someone who everybody agreed was great, and the most logical person for that was de Kooning.”
Rauschenberg said de Kooning was annoyed at first by the request, but “would not have wanted to hinder me in my work, if that’s what I wanted to do.” But he chose a particularly dark drawing in charcoal, ink, pencil, and crayon, saying, “We might as well make it harder for you.”
Completed in 1997, German artist Jo Niemeyer’s 20 Steps Around the Globe installed 20 high-grade steel columns on a great circle around the earth, establishing the distances between them using the golden ratio φ, 1.61803398875.
The first poles, shown here, were erected in Finnish Lapland, north of the polar circle. The first two were placed 0.458 meters apart; the third was placed 0.458 × φ = 0.741 meters beyond the second; and so on, marching off in a beeline toward the horizon. The first 12 poles are in Finland; the 13th and 14th in Norway; the 15th, 16th, and 17th in Russia; the 18th in China; and the 19th in Australia. The 20th coincides with the first back in Finland.
In this way the project models the golden section and the Fibonacci sequence, tailoring them to our planet. Niemeyer calls it “an interdisciplinary expedition into the secrets of the power of limits.”
Neil Dawson’s Horizons invites a double-take — what appears to be a discarded piece of paper is actually a sculpture of welded steel 10 meters high.
Commissioned in 1994, it occupies the highest hilltop in businessman Alan Gibbs’ private art park in New Zealand.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute art professor Larry Kagan “hides” two-dimensional images in seemingly chaotic three-dimensional sculptures. The images are revealed when light is applied from the right angle.
“The shadows are a condensation of something that exists in more dimensions,” he says. “Behind them, there can be an awful lot going on.”
A few more playful sculptures from Japanese artist Shigeo Fukuda:
Jean Tinguely presented Homage to New York in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art in 1960. New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and three television crews watched as the machine played a piano, produced an abstract painting, and inflated a weather balloon, then set itself afire. Tinguely summoned a firefighter to extinguish the blaze and then finished the destruction with an ax.
He followed this up with Study for the End of the World No. 2, a sculpture assembled from odds and ends collected from Las Vegas scrapyards and blown up in the Nevada desert to invoke the testing of atomic bombs:
As a comment on the ephemeral nature of text, in 1992 William Gibson wrote a 300-line poem titled Agrippa (a book of the dead) and published it on a 3.5″ floppy disk in a book of art by abstract painter Dennis Ashbaugh. The disk was programmed to encrypt itself after a single use, and the book’s pages were chemically treated to fade on exposure to light. Ironically, the text was pirated at its first performance and is now extensively archived at the UCSB English department.
In 1975, artist Richard Haas renewed the building at 112 Prince Street in Manhattan by covering its blank brick side with a five-story mural emulating the cast-iron architecture of its facade. Only two of the windows are real.
In 1961 Italian artist Piero Manzoni offered art buyers 90 tins of his own excrement, signed and numbered, each sold by weight at gold’s daily market price.
That would have been a good investment. A tin that would have cost $37 in 1961 was auctioned by Sotheby’s for $67,000 in 1991 — outperforming gold more than seventyfold.
Architect Robert Venturi got a tricky assignment in 1976: The National Park Service wanted to commemorate Ben Franklin’s residence in Philadelphia, but Franklin’s house had been demolished in 1812 and no record of its appearance had survived.
“There were fire insurance descriptions and archaeological remains of the house, so you could tell the exact configuration of the walls, and there were letters about the house exchanged between Franklin and his wife while he was in London and the house was in construction,” Venturi said. “But, with so little visual information, the Park Service was pretty easily persuaded not to try to reproduce the house.”
He solved the problem with a “ghost house” outlining the dimensions of the original house with a steel armature. “The aim was to create a delightful open place in the center of the dense texture of the city,” he said. “So the courtyard became a pleasant neighborhood amenity for people who live there, as well as for tourists.”
In 1965, sculptor Claes Oldenburg proposed building a colossal Good Humor bar on Park Avenue in Manhattan. All the traffic would have to be routed through a bite in the bar’s corner.
He also proposed replacing the Statue of Liberty with a giant electric fan and the Washington Monument with a pair of scissors.
The fan, he said, would guarantee workers in lower Manhattan a “steady breeze.” “You can also think of the Fan as a sort of substitute image of America. The suggestion is probably there but I haven’t drawn a conclusion.”
In 1766, French draughtsman Charles-Louis Clérisseau painted a room in the Trinità dei Monti convent in Rome to resemble a ruin, complete with a fallen ceiling and broken walls. A table was disguised as a damaged cornice, a desk as a shattered sarcophagus, and the kennel of the monks’ dog became a toppled urn.
“Building ruins in Rome might seem a waste of effort,” writes Robert Harbison in The Built, the Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable, “but the point was that one could comfortably inhabit this one, getting all the beauty of disorder without the inconvenience.”
For a 1793 treatise on the principles of Gothic architecture, Scottish architect Sir James Hall built an example using natural materials:
The wicker structure, as shewn in the frontispiece, was formed according to the plan of the cloister of Westminster Abbey, by a set of posts of ash about three inches in diameter thrust into the ground, with a set of willow rods of about an inch in diameter applied to them, the whole being conducted as already fully described. The construction answers perfectly well in practice, and affords a firm support for the thatch.
“The summit of the roof within is about eight feet high,” he added, “so that a person can walk under it with ease.”