This Summer in London: The Rhythm of Painting

On June 3rd Tate Modern opened it’s doors to the first retrospective of Agnes Martin’s work since 1994. Complementing the exhibit is a one-time musical performance, scheduled for June 15th, in which the interrelationship between visual and aural art is the subject of celebration. According to Martin, “the highest form of art is music. It’s the most abstract of all art expression”. In her view, music’s ability to invoke a multiplicity of emotional responses positioned the aural arts as the ideal form of abstraction. As such, the curators of The Music of Agnes Martin’s Paintings have paired the artist’s late works with the similarly minimalist compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach, John Cage, Arvo Pärt and others, inviting a consideration of the ways in which all mediums of art aspire to the condition of music.

Tate is not the only museum in London celebrating the critical crossovers between fine art and music this summer. In the upcoming exhibit Soundscapes: Listening to Paintings, six artists were commissioned by the National Gallery to create musical compositions in which they respond to an artwork of their choice from the museum’s collection. The six paintings will be situated in six different rooms, accompanied by their six respective soundtracks. Absent of nearly all wall text, the emphasis of the exhibit falls on the viewer’s visceral experience rather than the traditional master narrative of art history. The exhibition’s curator, Minna Moore Ede, reasoned that art history’s overly-narrow contextualization of artworks often prevents a museum from connecting the collection to contemporary life. In order to survive in today’s digitalized society in which experiences can be accessed at the click of a button, art institutions must show visitors that looking at art can be a live and sensory event. The placement of these artworks alongside musical compositions is meant to seduce viewers and to allow them to connect to the collection in ways which, as contemporary artist Mark Leckey describes, “bypass the bourgeois brain”.

Artists have long been fascinated with the concept of synesthesia, a rare occurrence in which two or more senses overlap in one Gestalt experience. The exploration reaches across eras, styles and mediums, gaining particular momentum amongst late-19th century artists such as Matisse and Whistler and their interchangeable use of musical and artistic vocabularies. The sensory levels of transaction between art and music have only strengthened in the hands of contemporary artists. In 2010, Susan Philipsz became the first artist to ever win the Turner Prize for a sound installation. Contemporary artist Ed Atkins, who works extensively with music, image, sound and text, stated in this summer’s edition of Art Quarterly, “The best work, when you encounter it, has that feeling of being unplaceable. It blunts the presumptuous interpretative toolkit that you’ve come to rely on…you’re not really thinking about art anymore, just feeling something”. Such is the goal of numerous events taking place in London’s art scene this summer.

The Music of Agnes Martin will take place on June 15th at Tate Modern; Soundscapes: Listening to Paintings will run from July 8th – September 6th at London’s National Gallery.

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