Looking at Music


Long before MTV, avant-garde multimedia pioneers were combining musical concepts with visuals, and MOMA’s exploration of that intersection begins with Yoko Ono’s 1968 super-slow-motion film of John Lennon’s face. At 51 minutes long, there’s plenty of time to wander the rest of show and return later to this exercise in glacially paced facial expressions. Lennon’s mug is more familiar in 1967’s Penny Lane, an early example of illustrating a pop song on film: Lennon passes a barbershop to the lyric “A barber showing photographs/Of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known,” then greets the rest of the Fab Four. The band rides horses, overturns formally set dining tables, and generally has a high ol’ time. More abstract are the oscilloscope patterns in David Bowie’s Space Oddity (1972), which echo Nam June Paik’s manipulated television set from 1968—a bright diagonal eternally slashes the blank screen, providing a visual parallel to the classically trained pianist’s single-note compositions. But it’s the Residents’ uproarious The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll (1975) that really starts to stretch the music-video genre, combining Dada’s joyous nihilism with rock’s pagan exuberance. Band members spin around in shopping carts tricked out like drilling rigs from a German Expressionist film and wear pointy newspaper hoods as they bust jerky dance moves. This DIY aesthetic of canny hokiness was earlier mastered by multimedia visionary Jack Smith, who once described his notorious 1963 film Flaming Creatures as a “comedy set in a haunted music studio.” His bold ink study here, Volcano Landscape (1962), combines geometric costume patterns with towering set design and a faux-primitive character study, all in one 8½-by-11-inch sheet of paper.

If ’60s and ’70s videos can look charmingly dated, Philip Guston’s cartoon paintings from the same period (seven of which are installed in MOMA’s soaring atrium) retain a startling freshness allied to abiding classicism. Guston (1913–1980) began his career in the ’30s, with stolid scenes of Klansmen that combined Piero della Francesca’s Renaissance modeling with the social conscience of Mexico’s radical muralists. Then came the lush abstractions that made Guston famous, and finally the late figures, which harked back to the Sunday comics he’d loved in his youth. The first exhibition showcasing his mature style, in 1970, was generally panned; Guston’s newfound crudity was compared to the work of R. Crumb, a cartoonist the painter claimed he’d never heard of, but who shared the same big-foot comic-strip influences. Willem de Kooning, however, understood Guston’s breakthrough, telling the younger artist: “Well, now you are on your own! You’ve paid off all your debts!” Indeed, the gorgeous Edge of Town (1969) blends the absurdity of Guston’s newfound characters with classical monumentality and the wet-into-wet cross-hatching of his elegant abstractions, creating a sui generis amalgam of image, mood, and materials. The beefy pink flesh of dangerous buffoons in white hoods, waving clubs and fat cigars as they cruise about in a pathetic black jalopy, is set against a sky of smoggy blue and rose leavened with the dark flecks of an earlier, painted-over composition—an imperfect foundation as flawed and dynamic as America itself. This is a transitional painting filled with struggle and conviction, the kind of work that leaps over everything else in its time to become timeless.

Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: Aug. 13. Continues through Jan. 5, 2008