Amid the deluge of Nirvana, Garth Brooks, and gangsta rap in the mid-Nineties, a corrective trend began to emerge, an appreciation for the minimalism that had droned, strummed, and pulsed and originated in myriad lofts throughout Martin Scorsese’s seedy New York City of the 1970s. It was a history basically washed away in Philip Glass arpeggios, until bands like Sonic Youth and Tortoise began to explore these more demure and patient sounds. Most important was when downtown guitar-strangler Alan Licht — in the short-lived zine Halana — waxed reverent about his top ten minimalist albums. It was an ur-listicle featuring noted experimental filmmakers Phill Niblock and Tony Conrad; Steve Reich’s early churn Four Organs; Terry Riley’s pre–In C babbling brook, Reed Streams; and the granddaddy of minimalism, La Monte Young’s The Black Record.
But topping them all was a double LP that had only been released by the Sonnabend Gallery in 1974, Charlemagne Palestine’s heavenly Four Manifestations on Six Elements, full of trance-inducing piano clouds and electronics that sounded like white light. For all the placidity of these pieces, Palestine was a terror on the contemporary gallery scene, younger than the minimalists but brimming with what would become punk’s sulfuric energy. That meant performances where he flung himself against gallery walls while singing overtones or else hammering away for hours on end in a cognac-abetted trance on a nine-octave Bösendorfer piano surrounded by a drift of stuffed animals, leaving blood on the ivories by the time he returned to earth.
“I felt exiled from the music scene — from the old establishment or the young punk scene — I felt I didn’t fit in anywhere,” says Palestine, from his home in Brussels. “The music had been forgotten. Every time I tried very hard to make things work, they didn’t. And every time I chucked things up and said, ‘Well fuck it,’ things happened in the opposite momentum.” The Brooklyn-born composer wound up in Belgium and focused on his visual art and installations, until overtures from Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca, and the like — as well as reissues of Four Manifestations and another minimalist classic, Strumming Music — brought him back to his music 23 years later.
This month the Jewish Museum seeks to highlight Palestine’s dual vocations as performer and visual artist with Charlemagne Palestine’s Bear Mitzvah in Meshugahland — his first U.S. exhibition of his stuffed teddy bear installations — and a live performance on March 16, the title of the exhibit a play on Palestine’s embrace of being meshugah. But Palestine is also quick to point out that between his music, installations, and performances, he sees his decades of work as a Wagnerian “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or total work of art.
Born and raised in Brownsville, Palestine remembered his borough as “a no-person’s-land, and now it’s like the center of the world,” although upon his last visit he found his old hood basically unchanged, “except it wasn’t dangerous anymore and now there are flowers in the windows.” He sang in synagogue and was carillonneur at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church in Manhattan, two disciplines that would later inform his own resonant work. As a teen he played bongos with the likes of Tiny Tim and Allen Ginsberg at a Beat coffeehouse, “which was right next to the NYU Intermedia Center, where Morton Subotnick and Donald Buchla invented the modern electronic synthesizer,” he recalled. Later, he switched to the transportive sine waves that these new devices could elicit.
While he was studying at CalArts at the end of the Sixties, a girlfriend gave him a teddy bear, which he promptly named King Teddy and who resides in his home still. Said King rekindled in Palestine a kinship for the teddy bear itself, which, much like Palestine, was a product of immigrants to Brooklyn. He saw in these plush bears a line that stretched back to the Hindu elephant-headed deity, Ganesh, and in conversation he prefers to refer to them as “divinities.” “All indigenous cultures integrate the spirits of animals as part of their religion and culture,” Palestine said. “What in western society is considered ‘childhood,’ became a major element in my adult career.” And he’s proud to note that science now bears (pun not intended) out this notion, with hospices giving patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s stuffed animals to help with their treatments. He sews his own creatures, and also boasts that his home doubles as “an orphanage of animals that have been given up by their families.” What was once packed away with so many childish things retains the mark of the innocent and divine for Palestine.
“In those days, people thought I was totally crazy,” Palestine said of his collection of stuffed bears and animals, which will number in the hundreds when he installs them at the Jewish Museum this month. “But after a whole generation of Jeff Koons, Mike Kelley, Matthew Barney, and many others, I’m now the Picasso of stuffed animal art.”
Charlemagne Palestine’s Bear Mitzvah in Meshugahland
The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue
Through August 6
Aaa HHeavenlyyy RResttt SSchlingennn BBlängennnn
The Church of the Heavenly Rest
2 East 90th Street
March 16, at 8 p.m.