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Object and Idea: Music in the Art of Kandinsky, Duchamp, Paik, and Marclay

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter concentrates on the strain of modernism that flows from the work of French artist Marcel Duchamp and its relationship to ideas of music. While the significance of music as a paradigm for the development of “purist” modernism is well known—it is an ideology best encapsulated in the writing of Clement Greenberg, the development of abstraction in art, and is based on the model of musical meaning that was consequent on the concept of “absolute music”—what is less well known is the significance of music for the strain of modernism that came through Duchamp, forming a hybrid conceptual alternative to purism. It is argued that the idea of the readymade is consistent with idea of music as more than just sound, as a discursive practice, and that this “extra-musical” conception of music (as counterpoise to absolute music) provides a lineage linking Duchamp to Paik to Marclay.

Keywords: music, painting, Kandinsky, Duchamp, Paik, Marclay, readymade, abstraction

I. Introduction

The year 1913 forms the nexus through which a defining paradigm of modernity passes. That paradigm is the role that the concept of music played in delineating, and in part bifurcating, modernism for the visual arts. This key moment forms a point of focus for a consideration of the notions of purism and synthesis, both keys to competing theories of the modern. Purism results in media specificity, in painting and abstraction, and flows through the work of Wassily Kandinsky (although not originating there), into the painting of the New York School in the 1940s and 1950s, and into contemporary abstract ambitions.1 Synthesis flows from “the art work of the future,” or Gesamtkunstwerk (although not originating there), moves into the readymade and resolves into multimedia art, passing through Marcel Duchamp and emerging with renewed vigor in the works of Fluxus and beyond. Both of these ideas, purism and synthesis, I propose as fundamental to modernism, though conceptually opposed to each other within the art of music.

This chapter will therefore consider the paradigm of music in the formation of modernist aesthetic sensibilities by initially focusing on the key year 1913 to compare and contrast the role of music in the work of two artists who are key to the development of these two competing modernist conceptions: Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) and Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968). This argument will, in turn, be related to the aesthetics of a pair of more recent practitioners, who engage notions of sight and sound more explicitly than Kandinsky and Duchamp: the Korean-born video art pioneer, Nam June Paik (1932–2006), and the Swiss-born artist and composer Christian Marclay (b. 1955). In that way, the other key moments that this chapter considers are exactly 50 (p. 372) and 90 years after 1913, and circulate around my second pair of artists: 1963, the date of Paik’s first solo “exhibition,” and 2003, the date of Marclay’s first major solo show at the Hammer Museum, University of California, Los Angeles.

My focus will, however, be on one strain of musicality over the other: the Duchampian inheritance, as that of Kandinsky leads in another direction, away from Duchamp’s aesthetic ideas and his variety of modernist musicality, which most directly feeds into the art of Paik and Marclay. Further, this key moment in modernism can be compressed into the work of Marcel Duchamp, who engages the pivotal moment of modernism in a variety of works he produced in 1913. These works offer us the opportunity to rethink aesthetic connections and weave these two dialectic models together. What is more, Duchamp played out this counterpoint in a typically tongue-in-cheek manner; he performed them as a trick cyclist;2 however, Nam June Paik’s interests are a convenient place to start, as he is positioned strategically between Duchamp and Marclay.

II. Seeing, Hearing, Playing

Marcel Duchamp has already done everything there is to do, except video. He widened the entry but narrowed the exit. That very narrow door is video art and only through video art can we get ahead of Marcel Duchamp.

(Paik 1974, 35)

So said Paik in 1974, in a way that presumes art to be some kind of race. But let us pause at the notion of “video” and invoke ideas about music, joining Paik and Duchamp together in a less competitive spirit.

Nam June Paik first employed the television as an artistic resource in 1963, in the exhibition Exposition of Music—Electronic Television in Wuppertal, Germany. It was a key event in the history of art. In his exhaustive exploration of the medium, he traversed every aesthetic aspect of television and video technology, to the extent that he is often described as the “father of video art” or a “video visionary” (see, for example, Tompkins 1975, 44–79). The common terms of reference used to describe his art are most often derived from this Latin root, video, “I see.” But Paik’s use of the TV in this exhibition was not simply as video; the primacy of the visual was challenged by a much broader appeal to sensorial experience, including touch and sound, the audience being invited to engage, to participate, to play. What Paik recognized was that video is never just video; it is compound, most often as audiovisual. This term’s Latin root, audio (aud-ire), “to hear,” is fundamental, if often overlooked—and I choose my words carefully. Paik’s aesthetic comes as much, if not more, from the first part of this compound term, audio and listening, than it does from video and sight. What Paik’s aesthetic does is to bring audio to sight, to make audio into video. He is as much a loudspeaker as he is a TV screen.

In his 1980 Video Viewpoints lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Paik discussed the similarities between the evolution of electronic music and the evolution of video, claiming that John Cage was fundamental in changing the terms of (p. 373) address from static recording, where “[e]‌verything is fixed and you repeat and repeat,” to live performative music, where there “is not a definite retrieval time.” In other words, video as a performative unfolding in time is moved to the condition of music; Paik summed this up in a typically ebullient way: “I think it’s really great genius.”3 In order to fully appreciate his aesthetic, this aspiration to the condition of music is key. But what exactly does it mean, and where does it comes from?

As is well known, the roots of Paik’s academic training in the 1950s were in music. Paik wrote a dissertation on Arnold Schoenberg while a student at the University of Tokyo. In 1956 he traveled to Europe to study with Karlheinz Stockhausen in the Summer Course at Darmstadt, Germany, where in 1958 he met the American composer John Cage. His encounter with Cage profoundly changed his thinking and his art. This much is familiar, but it might be productive to chase the roots of these aesthetic influences back to the artist whose work played such an important role in modulating the work of John Cage himself. It is important to uncover the detail of this notion of musicality in the work of an artist, rather than a musician, because this is how Paik absorbed it. As Cage said of this influence himself, “The effect for me of Duchamp’s work was to so change my way of seeing that I became in my way a Duchamp unto myself” (1983, 53).

The aesthetic of Marcel Duchamp inflected the modernist aspiration that “all arts should aspire to the condition of music” in a novel direction. In 1985 the academic commentator on and participant in Fluxus, Ken Friedman, made a plea for a more critical engagement with musicality as a definitive concept within the aesthetics of Fluxus, which is relevant here. He wrote,

Musicality is a key concept in Fluxus. It has not been given adequate attention by scholars or critics. Musicality means that anyone can play the music. If deep engagement with the music, with the spirit of music is the central focus of this criterion, then musicality may be the key concept in Fluxus.

(Friedman 1998, 251)4

While this issue has, to a limited degree, been addressed since 1989, it is still a relatively underdeveloped conceptual category for understanding Fluxus and post-Fluxus art. But this is in part because the idea needs to be sought further back, pre-Fluxus, to the birth of modernism. If we are to understand the function of musicality in the ideology of modernism, and its re-emergence in the adjunct of modernity, postmodernism, then we need to explore a fundamental shift in the tectonics of modernity, which pivots on a complex bifurcation that sees music as both a model in the creation of the purist painting and in the creation of the synthetic readymade. In so doing, musicality, conceived in the expanded terms evoked in the work of Duchamp in relation to the object, becomes crucially linked to the work of Nam June Paik and Christian Marclay.

III. Pure Painting

The Belgian art historian and theorist Thierry De Duve has, against the current, linked the advent of the readymade intimately to the history of painting. He sees (p. 374) (rightly I think) Duchamp’s abandonment of the latter and invention of the former as events in the narrative of painting—rather than a step outside painting toward sculpture, for example. In relation to the periodic claim (made at least since the middle of the last century) that painting is in a terminal state of collapse, and is to be counterpoised by the rise of the readymade, or one of the readymade’s many avatars, De Duve’s claim is that these two opposites, painting and readymade, are intimately bound together. He writes,

… every five years or so painting alternately agonizes and rises from its ashes. … This swing of the pendulum is a symptom. Not only does it indicate that some hidden solidarity must exist between these two trends that apparently negate each other; it also calls for a re-examination of the art-historical context in which the readymade appeared, as an offspring of Duchamp’s abandonment of painting. The birth of abstract painting is the relevant context, and as such, it is theoretical and aesthetic as well as art-historical. It revolves around the issue of specificity–or purity—attached to the word ‘painting.’

(1996, 151).

All art should consistently quest to attain the condition of music, so claimed the English critic Walter Pater in the approaching dawn of the twentieth century (1928; in the essay “The School of Giorgione,” 128–149). What links the readymade and painting at this crucial juncture of modernism is the idea of music. But music is not a simple and singular concept, nor did it signify for Duchamp in the same way as it did for modernist painters. Ideas of music are polyphonic. Music is conceivable within two broadly opposing ontological identities. One sees it as a purist art, as the most abstract of all the arts, a form of expression stripped to an essence, to sound alone—a formal paradigm for abstract painting. The other might view music as discursive in Foucault’s characterization, as a model of the connective and contextual, of performative synthesis, a conceptual model for the readymade. Both models are, of course, to be recognized as ambitions rather than achievements.

The former aspiration, to strip art down to its essentials, to concentrate on media specificity, is seen clearly in early abstract painting:

For when the early abstractionists spoke of pure painting, they understood its specificity to mean that which defines painting qua painting, trans-historically and universally: some essence that they supposed to be common to all paintings … they prescribed that the painter’s task was to make this essence visible.

(De Duve 1996, 152)

What is sometimes missed is the irony that such purity was reached via the infectious model of another art, music. There is a further paradox, that such generalizations attach to abstraction in general. This continues to be the case later in the century, as the “poetic” modulates to the “text,” “musicality” shifts across the border to “sound,” and “theatricality,” too, morphs into the “happening.” Despite these modulations, there continues to be a desire “to annex mundane, nonartistic matter, while reducing their (p. 375) field to some specific and irreducible ‘essence.’ … The generic seems to precede the specific” (De Duve 1996, 153).

In the early stages of modernism, this essence was sought in material, in media specificity, the “fundamental” phenomenological makeup of painting; in paint, color, and the support on which it was spread. The art that already seemed to be made of essential stuff was music, where form and content were integrated. Music had the power to speak to our inner lives without the need for translation. How might painting aspire to this condition? Through direct contact with its material and form? As Paul Gauguin said, “Colour, which like music, is a matter of vibrations, reaches what is most general and therefore most indefinable in nature: its inner power” (1990, 147–156). The role of subjectivity is important here, and constitutes a direct appeal to an inner reality, a constituent of modernity’s insularity.

Such an approach finds full realization in the aesthetic of Wassily Kandinsky, an artist for whom musicality was central. Kandinsky wrote in 1911 in On the Spiritual in Art (whose title continues, and painting in particular), in section IV, “The Pyramid,”

… the arts as such have never in recent times been closer to one another than in this latest period of spiritual transformation.

In all that we have discussed above lie hidden the seeds of the struggle towards the non-naturalistic, the abstract, towards inner nature. … Consciously or unconsciously, artists turn gradually towards an emphasis on their materials. From this effort there arises of its own accord the natural consequence—the comparison of their own elements with those of other arts. In this case, the richest lessons are to be learned from music.

(Kandinsky 1982, 154)

Painting’s quest, then, is to seek out the particularity of its material and strive for direct expression. Kandinsky believed this was a matter of allowing the material to speak, as much as possible, for itself: “The artist must not forget … that each of his materials conceals within itself the way in which it should be used” (1982, 357). It is therefore a matter of liberating this inner life of the material, an ideology that resonates with Michelangelo’s:

In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.5

This material truth would resonate with the artist’s inner life. Two years after On the Spiritual in Art, in June 1913, Kandinsky sought to locate the foundation of his own urge to discover this abstract language of pure painting. In Reminiscences, his rather poetic and synesthetic account of his formation as an artist (an essay composed in a quasi rondo form, incidentally), Kandinsky stressed the subjective and individual aspects of his own passage toward abstraction. He recalls the impact of Wagner’s music on the synesthetic development of his sense of color as existing independently of external (p. 376) objects as musical tones (a conceit that presumes musical sounds to exist independent of their source in objects). He recalls a formative adolescent experience:

The first colours to make a powerful impression on me were light juicy green, white, carmine red, black and yellow ochre. These memories go back as far back as the age of three. I observed these colors on various objects that today appear less distinctly before my eyes than the colors themselves (1982, 357).

In other words, as a mature artist, Kandinsky imagines color as abstract, and it comes to acquire an existence separate from any physical manifestation. Later he poses the fundamental question of abstract painting: “What is to replace the missing object?” For him it is answered by the conjuring of forms without conscious control—“Every form I ever used arrived ‘of its own accord,’ ” he wrote (1982, 357). So form and color are both to exist in themselves. In order to locate this capacity in the mature artist, Kandinsky seeks it in his own first encounters with the material of art. He writes, in a remarkable passage:

As a 13- or 14-year old boy, I gradually saved up enough money to buy myself a paintbox containing oil paints. I can still feel today the sensation I experienced then … of paints emerging from the tube. One squeeze of the fingers, and out came these strange beings, one after the other, which one calls colours—exultant, solemn, brooding, dreamy, self-absorbed, deeply serious, with roguish exuberance, with a sigh of release … living an independent life of their own, with all the necessary qualities for further. Autonomous existence, prepared to make way readily, in an instant, for new combinations, to mingle with one another and create an infinite succession of new worlds.

(1982, 375)

As De Duve observes, this lyrical passage links the foundation of an abstract language of painting with a personal aesthetic experience that conjoins the naming of painting to that of color. Color is animate, but it is still, as De Duve has it, “virgin,” propelled by “inner necessity” until the moment it is mixed by the brush. Kandinsky again: “And then comes the imperious brush … like a European colonist who with axe, spade, hammer, saw penetrates the virgin jungle … bending it to conform to his will” (1982, 372–373). Kandinsky first sees the canvas as a “chaste maiden … this pure canvas that is as beautiful as a picture” and the palette is likewise “a ‘work,’ more beautiful indeed than many a work.” But both these “natural” elements, or characters, need absorption into the artist’s psyche, and in so doing Kandinsky conjures a curious adolescent erotic saga of conquest, with phallic brush and virgin paint. It is a passage that De Duve links analogically to Duchamp’s rites of passage in his painting The Passage from Virgin to Bride (1912). Duchamp produced the painting in Munich, where it is unlikely that he met Kandinsky, but likely (according to De Duve) that he bought the second edition of Concerning the Spiritual in Art, dated May 1912, annotating and translating some passages. Whether or not Duchamp’s work can be directly related to Kandinsky’s ideas, it is positioned by De Duve as a commentary on a generational move to abstract painting.

(p. 377) The Passage from Virgin to Bride is almost contemporary with Kandinsky’s Reminiscences, and depicts a female mechanomorphic form that reinvents the anatomy of the standard wooden artist’s model. It probably drew on his experience of seeing, in June 1912, the stage adaptation of Raymond Roussel’s novel Impressions d’Afrique, a bizarre proto-surreal tale (developed from the use of puns and metagrams) of shipwreck on the African coast, which ultimately involves a number of biological-mechanical hybrids (a woman with pipes that replace her lungs, for example). Its setting, in a radically fictional Africa, provokes similar colonial references to those referenced in Kandinsky’s tale of his first discovery of oil paint tubes. Both Duchamp and Kandinsky, then, link painting, or art making, to a visceral, sexual life force that finds its expression in abstraction.

This painting also forms part of Duchamp’s passage from painter, or retinal artist, to readymade conceptualist—a journey that leads from The Bride to the Large Glass, or The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923), and beyond to Étant donnés (1946–1966). By journey I don’t mean to imply a straight line, as Duchamp’s production around 1913 is incredibly varied and significant, as we shall see.

IV. Painting, Music, and the Concept of the Readymade

This passage from painting to readymade, or constructed object, is also marked by a turn to mechanical drawing. The most familiar example is the painting of 1913, Chocolate Grinder no. 1. This is how Duchamp later characterized this change of style:

From 1913 on, I concentrated all my activities on the planning of the Large Glass and made a study of every detail, like this oil painting which is called Chocolate Grinder (no. 2) of 1914. It was actually suggested by a chocolate grinding machine I saw in the window of a confectionary shop in Rouen. Through the introduction of straight perspective and a very geometrical design of a definite grinding machine like this one, I felt definitely out of the Cubist straightjacket.

(quoted in De Duve 1996, 161)

Mechanical drawing techniques, Duchamp believed, lay outside artistic conventions and aesthetic consideration; they avoided operations of taste, renounced expression, and were thus enroute toward the aesthetics of the readymade. Duchamp was moving away from painting toward the direction of art, or from medium to concept, as he later put it in 1961:

The word ‘art,’ etymologically speaking, means to make, simply to make. Now what is making? Making something is choosing a tube of blue, a tube of red, putting it on a palette. … So in order to choose, you can use tubes of paint, you can use brushes, but you can also use a readymade thing, made either mechanically or by (p. 378) hand of another man, even, if you want, and appropriate it, since it’s you who chose it. Choice is the main thing, even in normal painting.

(quoted in De Duve 1996, 161)

As De Duve has suggested, here we can understand Duchamp to be claiming the concept of the readymade as a sort of abnormal painting. In reply to Kandinsky’s claim that abstract pure painting emerges straight from the virgin paint tube, Duchamp is claiming the paint tube itself as readymade. Duchamp again, in 1962:

Let’s say you use a tube of paint; you didn’t make it. You bought it and used it readymade. Even if you mix two vermilions together, it’s still a mixing of two readymades. So man can never expect to start from scratch; he must start from readymade things like even his own mother and father.

(quoted in De Duve 1996, 162)

Ultimately, this leads to all painting becoming subsumed within the frame of the readymade: “Since tubes of paint used by artists are manufactured and ready-made products we must conclude that all paintings in the world are ‘readymades aided’ and also works of assemblage” (quoted in De Duve 1996, 163). Painting and readymade thus become points on the same path.

But before we go further down this particular path, let us step back to consider this switching point between the concepts of painting and the readymade as they would have presented themselves around 1913 in Duchamp’s work. Duchamp probably owned a copy of On the Spiritual in Art during his time in Munich. It is certainly the case that he would have been intimate with the discussions, theories, and justifications offered for the transit of painting toward the condition of music, toward abstraction. His brother’s studio, for example, was at this time next door to that of the Czech-born artist František Kupka, a painter whose large canvas, Amorpha, Fugue in Two Colors of 1912, lays some claim to being the first publicly displayed abstract painting. Kupka and Duchamp are joined via the spirit of Orphism. The definitive musician of classical myth, Orpheus was not only capable of taming wild beasts with his music, he could, as Ovid expresses it, charm “[t]‌he rocks and woods and creatures of the wild to follow”; he could move both animate and inanimate matter. In 1913 in Les Peintres cubistes, Apollinaire wrote of Duchamp,

This art, which strives to aestheticize the musical perceptions of nature, does not allow itself caprice or the inexpressive arabesque of music. An art whose aim would be to extract from nature not intellectual generalizations but collective forms and colors, the perception of which has not yet become a notion, is quite conceivable, and it seems that a painter like Marcel Duchamp is in the process of bringing it into being.

(2008, 511)

Apollinaire defined this “musical perception of nature” as “Orphic Cubism” (as against “Physical Cubism” and “Instinctive Cubism”). Orphism was

the art of painting new totalities with elements that the artist does not take from visual reality, but creates entirely by himself; he gives them a powerful reality. An (p. 379) Orphic painter’s works should convey an untroubled aesthetic pleasure, but at the same time a meaningful structure and sublime significance. In other words, they must reflect the subject. This is pure art. The light in Picasso’s work embodies this art, which Robert Delaunay invents, and toward which Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp are also striving.

(2008, 486)

Kupka’s large canvas Amorpha, Fugue in Two Colors, perhaps the work most in sympathy with Apollinaire’s conception of Orphism, was first shown to the public at the Salon d’Automne of 1912. In the New York Times 1913 review of “Orphism, latest of the painting cults,” Kupka is quoted as declaring, “I can find something between sight and hearing and I can produce a fugue in colors as Bach has done in music.” Kupka, like Kandinsky, was drawn to explore the materiality of abstract painting, a quest pursued via the example of music, ironically perceived as the most immaterial of the arts. This musical tendency was widespread in Paris at this time, not only with Apollinaire’s Orphism, but also with the Puteaux cubists, Leopold Survage, Vladimir Rossiné, the synchromism of Stanton MacDonald Wright and Morgan Russell, and the theories and paintings of Henry Valensi.6

Duchamp’s approach to abstraction and consequent change of direction was emphatically connected to this “musical perception” (to use Apollinaire’s phrase). For example, his early painting Sonata of 1911 shows the artist’s mother with her three daughters (see Figure 18.1): “The pale and tender tonalities of this picture, in which the angular contours are bathed in an evanescent atmosphere, make it a definitive turning point in my evolution,” Duchamp said in 1964 (Tomkins 1997, 47). Suzanne sits in the foreground, reading or looking (perhaps at music), while Yvonne is at the piano and Magdeleine is playing a violin. Madame Duchamp stands in the background looking out to the viewer and presumably listening to her daughters; an all-female, harmonious, but independent depiction, as each looks in a different direction.

We know, from more than one source, that Madame Duchamp had become deaf by the time the picture was painted.7 Her principal access to music (as ours in this painting) is through sight and memory. Music is here not just sound; it is sight and community, it is a painting that shows instrumental music in four movements (as might be the case in a sonata), but the title is here ironic, coming from the Latin sonare, “to sound” (sonata was always opposed to cantata, from the Latin cantare, “to sing”). The concept of the sonata took on increasing importance throughout the eighteenth century, and by the early nineteenth century the word came to represent a principle of composing large-scale instrumental abstract works. Sonata form was regarded alongside the fugue (to return to Kupka) as one of two fundamental methods of organizing, interpreting, and analyzing concert music.

Object and IdeaMusic in the Art of Kandinsky, Duchamp, Paik, and MarclayClick to view larger

Figure 18.1. Sonata (La sonate), 1911, oil on canvas (145 x 113).

Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Estate of Marcel Duchamp.

Duchamp’s sisters were also, in large part, responsible for his first musical composition. During a New Year’s visit to his parent’s home in Rouen in 1913 he composed a vocal piece with two of the three sisters he had depicted in Sonata, Yvonne and Magdeleine. To compose this work they all randomly picked 25 notes from out of a hat, ranging from F below middle C to F two octaves above middle C. The notes were written on a manuscript music paper according to the sequence in which they were (p. 380) drawn, and the three parts were then marked “Yvonne,” “Magdeleine,” and “Marcel” (see Figure 18.2). To the musical notation Duchamp added words from a dictionary definition of imprimer (“to make an imprint”; “mark with lines”; “a figure on a surface”; “impress a seal in wax”). The title Erratum Musical can be translated as “musical misprint.” This work, with its text that describes an imprint, conjures a dialectical relationship between seeing and hearing in a way not dissimilar to Sonata. Writing music is like writing words and drawing—it is making visible. Further, this text is a form of readymade, which is remade through the music.

In 1914 Duchamp published The Box of 1914—the first in a long history of facsimile publications of Duchamp’s notes and images.8 A very small edition of five copies of The Box of 1914 assembled sixteen photographic facsimiles of manuscript notes and a single drawing, each reproduced photographically and mounted on board, presented in a commercial box for photographic paper. The one drawing included in this work is intriguingly entitled Avoir l’apprenti le soleil (usually translated as To Have the Apprentice in the Sun, but it also puns on apparenti, which in English means “appeared”; see Figure 18.3).

Object and IdeaMusic in the Art of Kandinsky, Duchamp, Paik, and MarclayClick to view larger

Figure 18.2. Erratum Musical page reproduced from the Green Box (felt-covered cardboard containing one color plate and ninety-three paper elements).

Tate. Purchased 2001 © Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2014.

Titles are important for Duchamp; he called them an invisible color: they are not simple adjuncts to art, but rather are integral parts. This little drawing is in some ways (p. 381) a definition of drawing itself. Like Erratum Musical, it is a work about “a figure on a surface,” “a marking with lines.” It is a drawing of a cyclist riding up a slope, drawn on a sheet of music paper. Again, like Erratum, the title and image deliberately relate around a pun that can be translated as “given to sight; the imprint which is the ground.”

Object and IdeaMusic in the Art of Kandinsky, Duchamp, Paik, and MarclayClick to view larger

Figure 18.3. Avoir l’apprenti le soleil (To Have the Apprentice in the Sun). The Box of 1914, 1913–14 (cardboard box with facsimiles), Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968).

Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, PA, USA/Gift of Mme Marcel Duchamp, 1991/Bridgeman Images.

An imprint is a drawing, a marking with lines, but of course, musical manuscript paper is also a ground, marked with five lines, upon which musical space is then inscribed. But in this work musical space has been rendered by Duchamp as pictorial space, through the addition of drawing, rather than the addition of musical notation. The cyclist now ascends as if up a musical incline or scale. This is an ascent from the ground to the sun, as the punning title has it—from sol (“ground” or “soil” in French) to soleil (French for “sun”). And sol is also the fifth degree of the tonic sol-fa scale, a form of solfège, which is a system of attributing distinct syllables to each note of a musical scale. The line (the incline) that the cyclist mounts is like an unfurled musical clef, but it also suggests pictorial recession, and thus creates an even more ambiguous ground-to-figure relationship. The space of music, whereby ascent = height = rise in pitch, is here conflated with an illusionistic rising up the page. This is a work in which music forms the pictorial ground from which an illusion emerges, struggling uphill, from the (p. 382) abstract ground of music to the illusion of a figure. Ironically, if we take the music stave to be in the treble, then the “ascent” (from the point where the unfurling line starts to the point where it stops), despite the obvious effort, is only up a fifth from B to F (sharp to make a true 5th; or, in the bass clef, from D to A)—in other words, from tonic to sol, from home to the sun.

Object and IdeaMusic in the Art of Kandinsky, Duchamp, Paik, and MarclayClick to view larger

Figure 18.4. Bicycle Wheel. Metal wheel mounted on painted wood stool, 51″ x 25″ x 16.5″ (129.5 x 63.5 x 41.9 cm).

MoMA, New York, 1951 (third version, after lost original of 1913), The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/Estate of Marcel Duchamp.

This little drawing could be seen as an inversion of the struggle from figuration to abstraction that Kandinsky judged to be based on a musical example. This is the battle that raged around Duchamp in year 1913. The key difference is that for Duchamp the point of departure is the given (the readymade), which in the case of music is the paper on which it is written. Unlike the purist modernists, for whom music’s abstracted sound, its non-materiality, was the paradigm, for Duchamp it was the opposite—its visual aspect, its notation. The ideology of music as sound alone does not interest Duchamp, he is too much of an artist (rather than a painter) for that. He starts by playing with material, doodling on music paper, and from that the cyclist rises up. Music’s abstract space becomes art’s fictive space. He effectively reverses Kandinsky’s journey, and his cyclist ascends to image, even as his famous nude descended toward abstraction.9 As Kandinsky strives toward a new object for art, to replace natural appearance, to replace the missing object, to aspire to the condition of music, Duchamp answers (p. 383) with the found object, the readymade. As we shall see, his first real readymade promised the possibility of sound, unlike Kandinsky’s silent painted spaces.

V. Musical Objects

Duchamp’s first readymade was another bicycle, the Bicycle Wheel of 1913 (see Figure 18.4). Bicycle Wheel has been described as the first example of kinetic art, but it is also linked to the condition of music. In 1766 Gotthold Lessing separated art from music along spatial and temporal lines, but Duchamp’s first readymade is contrived to pass the time. In his own words he found it

very soothing, very comforting, a sort of opening of avenues on other things than material life of every day … I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoyed looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace … it has the attraction of something moving in the room while you think about something else… .

(quoted in Schwarz 1997, 588)

(p. 384) It moves, but what is more, it might sound, not just from the friction of movement—the squeak of the wheel, but also (perhaps) from the almost irresistible temptation to stick a pencil against the spokes.10 It is not just a kinetic sculpture, it is a sound sculpture (that sounds and may not).

For Duchamp, words are always sonic as well as cognitive entities:

Just the sound of these words alone begins a chain reaction. For me, words are not merely a means of communication. You know, puns have always been considered a low form of wit, but I find them a source of stimulation both because of their actual sound and because of unexpected meanings attached to the inter-relationships of disparate words. For me, this is an infinite field of joy—and it’s always right at hand. Sometimes four or five different levels of meaning come through.

(quoted in Kuh 1962, 89)

So too the latent sound of readymades is of significance, as in the later readymades of 1916 Comb (which just needs the addition of paper, or a nail along the tines), the Traveler’s Folding Item, a cover for a typewriter that silences the sound of the typewriter keys (an instrument used by Satie in his score for the ballet Parade dated the same year, 1916), and most obviously With Hidden Noise.

The Bicycle Wheel, although first made in 1913, was not shown in public until 1951 (the original was left in Paris and subsequently lost). It nevertheless marks a turning point (pun intended), where the conceptual challenge posed by the readymades separates from the purist mode of painterly abstraction: medium makes way for media. This was, of course, explicitly recognized by the artist Shigeko Kubota, Paik’s wife, who produced her homage in the form of a marriage between Duchamp and Paik, in Bicycle Wheel of 1983, where she attached a small video monitor (or monitors, in other versions) to a moving bicycle wheel fixed to a stool.11 But the readymade in its first guise, as Bicycle Wheel, was what Duchamp came later to call “assisted readymade.” Paik’s first moves in this direction were to “assist” the readymade musical instrument.

Object and IdeaMusic in the Art of Kandinsky, Duchamp, Paik, and MarclayClick to view larger

Figure 18.5. Zen for Walking, Nam June Paik, “Action with a violin on a string (staged during ‘Exposition of Music—Electronic Television” (1963).

Photo Manfred Montwé, Nam June Paik Art Center Collection.

“There is this big John Cage, and there is Stockhausen and Kagel, and in the field of modern music there might be no place for me.”12 When Paik recognized that his best contribution might lie, not in conventional music-making or composition, but as an artist (rather as Duchamp recognized that his identity was not as a painter but as an artist), Paik subtly shifted identity. He came to view music from a different angle. This conceptual category of “artist,” as Duchamp defined it, was related to making, to choice, and Paik turned from musician to artist, but took his musical sensibilities with him. Like Duchamp, who builds from the “given” of music (for him it is manuscript paper), what Paik builds from, his musical “given,” is the musical instrument. For both these “givens” are necessary before there can be music. So, rather than thinking of sound as the essence of music, as the purist strain of modernism would define it, Paik thought first of context and objects. What is needed to make music?—performers, audience, and instruments (technology). Paik’s aesthetic is not essentialist; it is constructed from material, from objects. (p. 385)

Before his first, seminal one-man show, Exposition of Music—Electronic Television, in 1963, Paik had concentrated on a number of “musical” performances, culminating in the Neo-Dada in der Musik event in Düsseldorf in 1962, where he definitively deconstructed a violin in his One for Violin Solo. This act effectively and dramatically unmade the readymade violin, and constitutes perhaps his most “performed” work.13

Musical instruments are a particularly complex category of “readymade.” They reflect a high degree of craftsmanship; they are often extremely valuable, frequently unique, but sometimes mass-produced (especially in China). They are objects of high cultural status, deeply involved in artistic symbolism, often in relation to sexuality, but also to the passing of time and hence mortality. The violin connects to all of these categories, and Paik’s choice was well made. By the time of Exposition of Music—Electronic Television in 1963, he had one more outing with a violin before he turned to the use of pianos, that other pillar of the Western instrumental tradition.

In Zen for Walking, Paik took a violin for a walk by adding a fifth string to its usual four (see Figure 18.5). The work allows Paik to engage in the same sort of play with purist modernism as Duchamp did in his drawing of a cyclist. Here Paik refers to the place of music in the work of Kandinsky’s great friend and fellow master at the Bauhaus, (p. 386) the Swiss artist Paul Klee. In developing a pedagogic program for his students, Klee utilized his considerable knowledge of music. As a skilled violinist, Klee knew how music might act as a technical model for his abstracted art; his pedagogic method is grounded, in part, on the example of the eighteenth-century Austrian musician Johann Joseph Fux’s theoretical writings Gradus Ad Parnassum (see, for example, Kagan 1983). Klee famously referred to drawing, the backbone of his art, as taking a line for a walk. In Violin with String (a version of Zen for Walking), Paik dragged his musical background behind him much as Klee did, but to rather different ends. Paik extended music into a world of action. If Schoenberg (the subject of Paik’s dissertation) had extended music beyond tonality to a place where dissonance moves into a relative relationship with consonance, Schoenberg’s pupil, John Cage, effectively extends this into the realm of noise and silence, by developing an aesthetic that proposes relativity between music and noise, so that music (and silence) can be noise (and vice versa). Paik’s contribution is to extend music yet again into the realm of action.

While Schoenberg described Cage as “not so much a composer, more an inventor,” Cage in turn describes Paik as not a musician but an actor. He wrote of Paik, “His life is devoted … not to sounds, but to objects… . He activates, timeifies sculpture with video… .”; and in relation to Paik and Moorman’s Human Cello, which involves a performance of one of Cage’s own pieces: “I am sure that his [sic] performance of my 26′1.1149″ for a String Player is not faithful to the notation, that the liberties taken are in favor of actions rather than sound events in time”; and in relation to Paik’s own version of Cage’s manipulation of the piano, Klavier Integral, “Paik’s prepared piano … is in a museum, not in a concert hall. It is to be seen rather than heard.” But most profoundly of all, Cage concludes his essay on Paik with these words:

In fact the most musical of Paik’s works are those for which he has given no performance directions, for which the accompanist is simply the sounds of the environment. I am thinking of the ones which are just sculpture, TV Chair, TV Buddha, for instance.

(Cage 1993, 156)

This is what Paik did; he saw music as an art of actions, not sounds. Sounds may or may not be present, but following the lead of Cage’s own 4′33″, even if there is no “sound,” that doesn’t mean there is no music. This is what I meant when I said at the outset that Paik takes his notion of “musicality” with him into his identity as an artist.

To return to Exposition of Music—Electronic Television, his first solo show, as a paradigm case, let us pause to consider the title of this exhibition. I want to focus on the first word: an “exposition of music” is not a common phrase. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “exposition” has four meanings:


  1. 1. comprehensive description and explanation of an idea or theory

  2. 2. large public exhibition of art or trade goods (p. 387)

  3. 3. Music the part of a movement, especially in sonata form, in which the principal themes are first presented

  4. 4. [mass noun] archaic the action of making something public.

The title thus links music (definition 3) and vision (definition 2), as music and television, with his new aesthetic presented to the public (definitions 1 and 4). Curator Young Chul Lee also reminds us that the entrance poster of this exhibition had a particular typography:

EXPosition of music

ELectronic television

Thus the highlighted letters spell EXPEL: this is exhibition as exposition and expulsion. In other words, it forms a simultaneous presentation and removal; it presents music as vision and not traditionally as sound. It also required what Duchamp pointed out in his 1957 essay The Creative Act as necessary in all art: the participation of the viewer, or audience:

All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.

(Duchamp 1966)

Music needs not just objects, but players and audience, and both Paik’s musical instruments and his TVs always require audience as players. We should perhaps think of the TVs as “video players” and musical instruments as “audio players.”

In the same year as this exhibition, 1963, Paik wrote in Post Music: The Monthly Review of the University of the Avant-garde Hinduism: New Ontology of Music:14

I am tired of renewing the form of music.

- serial or aleatoric, graphic or five lines, instrumental or bellcanto, screaming or action, tape or live …

I hope must renew the ontological form of music.

So while Paik did not renew the form of music by inventing new techniques, as, for example, Schoenberg did with serialism, and Cage did by employing chance (aleatoricism), he did develop a new ontology of music by exhibiting it, making visible its objects and etiquettes. To return to Ken Friedman’s point, the full meaning of musicality lies in the way in which Paik took up the logic of Duchamp’s claim to a different musicality for modern art. It lies in the way he “overtook,” to return to the racing analogy, his friend John Cage’s radicalization of music, by pushing it through silence to objects and sights. But if you still ask “Why is it music?” Paik provided his answer in the final lines of the New Ontology of Music: “Because it is not ‘not music’ ” (Ruhé 1979, loose sheet).

(p. 388) VI. The Chattels of Music

In 2003, between June 1 and August 31, the University of California, Los Angeles, Hammer Museum mounted the “first museum survey devoted to the work of Christian Marclay.”15 This exhibition ranged from Marclay’s collaged records, to video installations, public works soliciting the participation of members of the public, to his impossible instruments. This essay does not aspire to survey this output, but merely to attach themes raised in the discussion of Duchamp’s and Paik’s musicality to aspects of it. Central to Paik’s aesthetic is an address to the objects of sound and vision, be they radios or TV sets or musical instruments (cellos, pianos, violins). His interest in extending these instruments into hybrid technological forms, TV cello, for example, find an echo in Marclay’s “phonoguitar” (to be discussed in this section), but Marclay is also interested in the dialogue between musical instruments and the body that plays them.

While Paik decorates his piano keyboard with barbed wire, and requires Moorman to bow her cello out of a block of ice, and Cage wrote his Freeman Etudes to model the “practicality of the impossible,” Marclay builds musical instruments beyond the limits of the playable. His Virtuoso (2000) is a 25-foot long piano accordion, a snake of mammoth proportions beyond the reach of any player. His Drumkit (1999) extends the kit from the bass drum at floor level to the snare and cymbals nearly 14 feet higher. Breathless I (2000) is a wooden soprano recorder with more than a hundred finger holes. The only possible way to cover all the holes would be to have one set of lips and lungs, but more than 10 other performers. Lip Lock (2000) excludes the performer entirely by attaching a pocket trumpet to the mouthpiece of a tuba, like a budding hydra, which requires circular breathing beyond human intervention. Perhaps most subtle of all are his Drumsticks (2000), made entirely of glass.

Superficially, Marclay’s closest work to Paik’s is his Guitar Drag (2000), which seems to be an amplified, updated version of Paik’s Violin with String (Zen for Walking). However, while Paik’s work was gently disruptive and destructive, indeed was part of his Zen for Walking (1961), Marclay’s work is deeply aggressive and violent. It was produced as a 14-minute video, which opens with a figure firmly tying the neck of an electric guitar (which is also plugged into an amplifier) to a length of rope, attached to the back of an old pick-up truck with Texan license plates. The guitar is then dragged along a dirt road, howling with electronic cries as it bounces, scrapes, and bashes on rock and gravel. The sound is familiar as the dying gasp of smashed electric guitars in the mold of Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend, but here the sacrifice of the instrument is not part of a musical stage act, it is painfully anthropomorphic, and deliberately so. Marclay uses the electric guitar’s associations with rebellious youth culture (analogous to Paik’s use of the violin as a symbol of Western high art), but he was also responding to the horrific murder of James Byrd, Jr., on June 14, 1998, in Jasper, Texas. Byrd, an African American, was dragged for three miles behind a pickup truck before his dead body was dumped in front of a cemetery. Guitar Drag is a dark work that Marclay (p. 389) intended to help generate debate (see Marclay, Söderkvist, and Von Zweck 2001), and emphatically returns the musical instrument to its roots in Greek myth, in the bloodly tale of Apollo and Marsyas.

If the artistic object for Paik was the musical instrument (piano, violin) and the transmitters of music (TV, radio), for Marclay it was also the sound storage medium—the LP record. He first started using records in 1979 in relation to his Duchamp-inspired duo, The Bachelors, even. In this duo, with Kurt Henry on guitar, Marclay played records because he was not instrumentally trained: “I didn’t pick up a guitar but records and turntables. That seems more appropriate, since that’s how I mostly experienced music, through recordings” (quoted in González 2005, 110).

This medium became his message, and he has since employed records in a wide variety of ways. With The Bachelors, even he developed a hybrid instrument, the “phonoguitar,” constructed out of a turntable with a guitar strap so that he could scratch and play records, moving about on stage and turning a “passive” music player into an active musical instrument. His apparent disregard for the LPs, his scratching (both mixing and damaging), rough handling, and occasional smashing of them, is not the same as Paik’s destruction of the violin in One for Violin Solo. Rather than the destruction of a valuable cultural object, it shows a disregard for a common (at the time) domestic object. It switched the LP from “hi-fi” sound container to “lo-fi” sound producer.

Marclay has always been drawn to what, in another context, Mauricio Kagel has called a “low-fidelity” aesthetic: an antidote to the commercial music industry’s pursuit of hi-fidelity; the actual sounds of the object itself, the pops, skips, scratches, and interference so readily a part of the analogue nature of the vinyl disc. His is a species of modernist address to the surface, and to the material nature of the object. Rather than seeing the disc as a “transparent” vehicle for the transmission of invisible sound, Marclay’s address to the tangible, visual fact of the LP draws explicit attention to the LP’s role as a framing and defining medium. It connects to Paik’s Random Access (part of Exposition of Music—Electronic Television), where a tape playback head could be run over a wall drawing made from lengths of pre-recorded audiotape. The lo-fi element was also anticipated in Paik’s Schallplatten-Schaschlik (also part of an Exposition of Music—Electronic Television), a homemade jukebox made from precarious rotating stacks of records and an independent pickup arm that allows the “performer” to switch from record to record, track to track, in a random-access way.

Marclay’s playing and mixing of recordings, using up to eight turntables at a time, stacks of LPs and a mixing board, coincided with the emergence of hip-hop in the South Bronx of New York, a popular music of mixing, cutting, appropriating, sampling, and quoting. This sampling aesthetic was not only present in popular culture through hip-hop, but also in the concurrent visual artwork of figures such as Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, and Louise Lawler, in their appropriating of other photographers’ photographs, and Lawler’s 1979 A Movie Will Be Shown Without the Picture, where the soundtrack of The Misfits (1961) was played against a blank screen.

This 1980s type of appropriation is related to both the readymade and the collage of 1913. It found a new twist in Marclay’s first release, called Record Without a Cover (1985), (p. 390) in which a standard vinyl LP was distributed minus a protective dust jacket, so that it became an amplifier of all the finger prints, scratches, dirt, and damage that came its way. It was a recording of a selection of sounds from other records, along with damage to them (pops, cracks, clicks). It was thus a record of music, the damage to these recordings recorded on another recording, and a unique record of the damage that happened to one recording as opposed to another. Each release was distinctive—collectors were instructed not to store it in any kind of protective sleeve. As Marclay put it himself,

When a record skips or pops or we hear the surface noise, we try very hard to make an abstraction of it so it doesn’t disrupt the musical flow. I try to make people aware of these imperfections and accept them as music; the recording is a sort of illusion, while the scratch on the record is more real.

(Marclay 2001)

This is Marclay’s equivalent of Duchamp’s Avoir l’apprenti le soleil, a work that starts from the given, in this case the record, but rather than succumbing to music’s power to abstract, draws instead on the surface (literarily inscribing on the record surface); it draws attention to the illusion—the illusion of a higher fidelity.

This process of undermining the fetishistic attachment to flawless recorded technology is, in a visually arresting way, encapsulated in his Recycled Records series (1980–1986). Here he carefully cuts different colored vinyl disks on a jigsaw, then painstakingly reassembles them into new, visually beguiling formats; miniature abstract paintings, works of flat sculptural collage. The musical content of them occurs purely as a consequence of the visual patterning, the juxtapositions, skips and blurs. They are a kind of abstract revenge on the commercial picture disc, which reached its peak in the same decade.16 They are also reminiscent of Duchamp’s six double-sided Rotoreliefs of 1935, in that they are also turntable art.

While records without sleeves are interesting visual objects in their own right, and picture discs developed and exploited or overlaid this visual appeal, the most common element of the art of records are the designs that form the dust jackets. Marclay’s Body Mix series (1990s) plays with the body as imaged on album covers, and part of the series wittily stiches together images of the most visually dominant (but silent) musician in classical symphonic repertoire, the conductor, with anonymous women’s legs. These images literally undermine the rhetoric of the maestro with the latent sexuality of powerful music, bringing high and low culture together, returning the komos to the tragoedia in a new Dionysian dance.

A work positioned in some ways between these images of the record as surface and the sleeve as visual adjunct is Marclay’s seemingly simple exhibition of the Simon & Garfunkel single The Sounds of Silence (see Figure 18.6).

Object and IdeaMusic in the Art of Kandinsky, Duchamp, Paik, and MarclayClick to view larger

Figure 18.6. The Sound of Silence (1988). Black and white photograph (26.8 x 26.8 cm).

Courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

The work subtly evokes Cage’s 4′33″ of “silence,” but trumps it, by being mounted behind glass and therefore quieter than Cage’s performer, truly silent although full of music. But on closer inspection it turns out not to be a record, but only a photo of the record and therefore never capable of sound, although the idea of the visual as silent is not so easy to presume. For, as with Cage’s direction tacet in the published (p. 391) score of 4′33″ for each of the three movements, the title of Marclay’s image (the text on the image) is enough to make most of us hear the song in our head, and as an imagined sound it is more emphatically the true sound of silence than Paul Simon’s song when sung. Marclay’s The Sound of Silence is a reproduction of a reproduction device, an image of music, a sort of negative of Lawler’s A Movie Will Be Shown Without the Picture.

Marclay has also more recently played with the audiovisual in film. In his Up and Out (1998), he replaces one soundtrack with another: Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow Up has its soundtrack stripped and replaced with the soundtrack of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981); or, perhaps he stripped the images from Palma’s Blow Out and replaced them with the visuals from Antonioni’s Blow Up. Palma’s film is a homage to and a negative of Antonioni’s, in that, as Thomas (David Hemmings) in Blow Up inadvertently captures a murderer in the background of one of his photos, so Jack Terry (John Travolta) in Blow Out, while recording sounds for a low-budget movie, serendipitously records audio evidence of an assassination.17 Palma’s film is a meta-movie; it is a movie about movie-making, a film that often depicts the interaction of sounds and images, the manner of audio-vision and the techniques employed to remix, re-edit, and rearrange them into new meanings. Marclay adds to this remixing, pulling two (p. 392) different eras into relation, as Douglas Kahn (2003) has pointed out, swinging 1960s London, meanings out of visual and audio coincidence.

Marclay has paid homage directly to Duchamp in a number of works. Secret (1988) has a padlock attached through the hole in the center of a metal master disc (used to press vinyl LPs), which thus renders it unusable. The sound locked inside is, in a way, similar to the locking in of the source of sound in Duchamp’s A bruit secret (With Hidden Noise). Ironically, Duchamp’s work still sounds, although what sounds is not known, whereas in Marclay’s work the source of the sound is visible but there is only silence. Marclay’s 1990 Bouche-Oreille is an homage to Duchamp’s Bouche-évier (1964–1967). This latter is a bronze mold of a sink plug, one of Duchamp’s many dialectical works, male/female, positive/negative, but as molds, with no clear mapping between the pairs of binaries. Marclay’s work is a terracotta imprint of the mouth and earpiece of the handset of a standard domestic phone—also binary forms of in/out, listening/speaking—not conduits of water but conduits of sound.

Another “homage” work is Marclay’s 1989 Breasts, two silicone castings of loudspeaker cones attached to boards and hung from the wall by metal clips. The work echos Duchamp’s Feuille de vigne femelle (Female Fig Leaf, 1950/1961), Coin de chasteté (Wedge of Chastity, 1954/1963), or perhaps even Objet-Dard (Dart-Object, 1951/1962)—all works by Duchamp that circulate his last major work, Etant Donnés. Etant Donnés is in turn an echo, or bookend, to his Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, even. It is an enigmatic work, which returns vision, or voyeurism, to Duchamp’s previous visual indifference. It is evoked in Marclay’s Door (1988), a plain white door with two f-holes cut through it, which echo’s Duchamp’s voyeurism in its idea of overhearing or listening in. Duchamp requires us to put our eyes to the holes in the door of Etant Donnés, to see the strangely prostate female figure. In the same way, Marclay requires us to put our ear to the hole, perhaps to hear the auditory sounding body of Man Ray’s Violin d’Ingres (1924)—sexualized female bodies transformed into objects, as Syrinx had been.18 Marclay uses the door as a sounding board to amplify the promise of sound, as Duchamp plays with our expectations of sight (and site).

VII. Cage Coda

Object and IdeaMusic in the Art of Kandinsky, Duchamp, Paik, and MarclayClick to view larger

Figure 18.7. Christian Marclay, Cage (1993). Bird cage, telephone, and cable (50 x 40 x 40 cm).

Musée de la Communication, Bern.

I want to conclude with one final work by Marclay, his Cage of 1993 (see Figure 18.7).Here a birdcage is hung from the ceiling with a telephone placed inside. This work brings Cage and Duchamp and Paik together. It reminds us of Duchamp’s Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy? (1921), but might also bring to mind Paik’s infamous Étude for Pianoforte (1959–1960), which was dedicated to John Cage and first performed in Jean-Pierre Wilhem’s Galerie 22, in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1959. In a letter Paik outlined the main three sections of this homage: (p. 393)

First set is: ‘Marcel Duchamp + Dostoyevsky = K. Schwitters, Variété = Variation. It proves that the sublime is essentially inseparable from the ugly and comic.’

Second set is: ‘As boring as possible; like Proust, Palestrina, Zen, Gregorian chant, Missa, Parisian café, life, sex and a dog staring into the distance.’

Third set is more philosophy of music than philosophical music. Quotes from Artaud and Rimbaud resound from the loudspeakers.19

The most frequently reported performance of Étude for Painoforte took place the following year in Mary Baumeister’s Cologne studio in October, which hosted a joint concert with Cage. Paik took the opportunity of directly involving his dedicatee in the Étude. After playing Chopin and attacking the piano he rushed over to Cage and cut off his tie, poured shampoo over both Cage and David Tudor, then left the room. A few moments later the phone rang, which Cage answered, to be told by Paik that the concert was over. This strange work moves from a public event (and a cutting of an umbilicus?) to a private conversation via the telephone. In Marclay’s work the phone can never be answered, it might sound and be heard, but it is only to be seen and never touched—the cage public, but the phone out of reach and private.

(p. 394) The legacy of Duchamp’s musicality comes through in the technological play and marvelous inventiveness of Paik’s multimedia objects, and in the refusal of Marclay’s work to acknowledge a border between the worlds of sight and sound, and between different categories of cultural registration. Marclay sees music and sound as deeply social and material in nature; he recognizes that music’s primary incarnation is as an object (a vast array), and he, like Duchamp, develops his aesthetic from this given. And like Duchamp and Paik, he often does this with a smile on his face, if not a tongue in his cheek.20


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                                                        Valensi, H., C. Blanc-Gatti, G. Bourgogne, and V. Stracquadaini. 1932. “Manifeste du groupe des peintres ‘Les artistes musicalistes.’” Comoedia 17, no. 4: n.p.Find this resource:


                                                          (1.) Examples of contemporary artists whose work can be described as painterly abstraction: Gillian Ayres (b. 1930), Howard Hodgkins (b. 1932), Gretchen Albrecht (b. 1943), Sean Scully (b. 1945), Ian McKeever (b. 1946), Fabienne Verdier (b. 1962), and Mark Rowan-Hull (b. 1968).

                                                          (2.) Trick cyclist is also an English rhyming slang expression for a psychiatrist.

                                                          (4.) An earlier version was published in 1989 in “Fluxus and Company” (published by the Emily Harvey Gallery).

                                                          (5.) A quote hard to find the origin of, but here quoted after Shaikh and Leonard-Amodeo (2005, 75–76).

                                                          (6.) Valensi exhibited alongside Duchamp in the Section d’Or in 1912. In a lecture given in late 1913 he claimed, “Then why not conceive of ‘pure painting’? Just as the musician has his notes why not suppose that colour, by its intrinsic force, could express the thoughts of the painter?” In 1932 he wrote, together with Charles Blanc-Gatti, Gustave Bourgogne, and Vito Stracquadaini, the Manifeste du groupe des peintres ‘Les artistes musicalistes’ (see Comoedia 17, no. 4 [1932]).

                                                          (7.) Gough-Cooper and Caumont refer to Mme. Duchamp’s increasing deafness during the years 1908–1909 (1977, 10), and Alice Goldfarb Marquis found confirmation in an interview with a family friend (1981, 70).

                                                          (8.) The collection of papers that directly relate to the Large Glass, which are known as the Green Box, was not published until 1934; and his Box in a Valise, a miniature portable Duchamp museum, was constructed in 1941.

                                                          (9.) Nude Descending a Staircase (no. 2) (1912), 147 x 89.2 cm, oil on canvas, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

                                                          (10.) As children we used to use ice cream popsicle sticks fitted in the wheels of our bikes to cause a clicking sound as we rode around!

                                                          (11.) Kubota also, famously, documented the last meeting, over a game of chess, between Duchamp and John Cage in her video of the work Reunion in 1968.

                                                          (12.) See Kim and Park (2012)

                                                          (13.) There are many examples on YouTube, for example,, and, and

                                                          (15.) It also toured to the Center for Curatorial Studies Museum, Bard College, New York; the Seattle Art Museum; and the Kunstmuseum Thun, Switzerland.

                                                          (16.) The first modern picture disc is usually described as that designed by Mark Hanau for the British rock band Curved Air in 1970 (“Air Conditioning”).

                                                          (17.) Interestingly, Blow Up only uses music (composed by Herbi Hancock) diegetically—there is only music when the radio or record played is turned on in the film (or a band plays live).

                                                          (18.) As Ovid tells of Syrinx, a Nymphe, in her flight from the amorous Pan: “… Nympha fled through the wilderness and came at last to Ladon’s peaceful sandy stream, and there, her flight barred by the river, begged her Sorores Liquidae (Watery Sisters) to change her; and, when Pan thought he had captured her, he held instead only the tall marsh reeds, and, while he sighed, the soft wind stirring in the reeds sent forth a thin and plaintive sound; and he, entranced by this new music and its witching tones, cried ‘You and I shall stay in unison!’ And waxed together reeds of different lengths and made the pipes that keep his darling’s name” (Ovid, 689).

                                                          (20.) Marcel Duchamp, With my tongue in my cheek (1959), plaster, pencil on paper mounted on wood (25 x 15 x 5.1 cm) with inscription “With my tongue in my cheek, Marcel Duchamp, 1959.”