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Yves Klein, Untitled (Monogold), 1960 ca.© 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

HOUSTON, TX.- – Whether experienced as a source of inspiration, enigmatic force, or unsettling limbo zone, silence is elusive in today’s world. Inspired by John Cage’s 1952 groundbreaking composition 4’33” (and the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth), Silence – co-organized by the Menil Collection and the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) – offers a thorough and stirring exploration of the exhibition’s subject.

Conceived by Toby Kamps, Menil curator of modern and contemporary art, the exhibition means to “examine a few of the many attempts in which artists have employed the absence of sound or speech over the last century.” These attempts, Kamps added, have embraced silence as phenomenon, metaphor, force − and as an environmental state expressed in performance. Silence can also possess and convey powerful political meaning.

Ranging from uncanny to incantatory to experiential, the broad range of works on view in the exhibition are not all without sound, but all reflect the many ways in which artists invoke silence to shape space and consciousness.

The exhibition will remain on view in Houston through October 21, then travel to BAM/PFA (Berkeley exhibition dates: January 30 – April 28, 2013).

Beginning with forebears Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte, the exhibition advances to a number of artists who came of age in the 1950s and 60s, including Robert Rauschenberg and Ad Reinhardt, and such European contemporaries as Josef Beuys (The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overrated) and Yves Klein (Untitled, Monogold).

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Giorgio de Chirico, Melancholia, 1916. The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston 

Described by Kamps as “the silent big bang” at the heart of the exhibition – Cage’s 4’33” stands as perhaps the most legendary deployment of avant-garde silence. This threepart piano piece, first performed in 1952 by virtuoso David Tudor, contains no actual playing of music. It instead calls attention to the ambient sounds surrounding the audience, corroborating Cage’s assertion that there is “no such thing as silence” – that the natural world is continually generating new forms of music. (Many audience members walked out of that debut performance; the piece has since become a cult classic and a staple in music programs worldwide.) 

Cage cited Rauschenberg’s White Paintings as a prime stimulus for 4’33”, calling the flat white canvases “airports for the lights, shadows, and particles.” One work from that series − White Painting (Two Panel), from 1951 − will be on view in the exhibition.

Among the show’s paintings, sculptures, performances, sound, and video works are the iconic Box with the Sound of Its Own making (1961) by Robert Morris, a small wooden cube containing the three-and-one-half-hour audio recording of its fabrication; a work by Bruce Nauman, Violence Violins Silence (1981-82), flashing the words of its title in neon; and documentation of the performance piece One Year Performance (1978-79) by Tehching Hsieh, for which the artist spent a year in a cage without speaking, reading, writing, listening to the radio, or watching television.

Silence builds on selections from 20th-century masters with challenging recent work by younger artists. Mark Manders, a Dutch sculptor working in Belgium and the Netherlands, has made two new installations for the show. Silent Head on a Concrete Floor (2011) depicts a vertical slice of a head bound by straps between piano key-like wooden slats, all resting on a newspaper of the artist’s invention that uses every word in the English language in random order. Another noteworthy piece is Kurt Mueller’s Cenotaph (2011), a neon-festooned Rock-Ola Legend jukebox filled with 100 CD recordings of historical, commemorative moments of silence.

Other contemporary innovators include Manon de Boer, Jennie C. Jones, Jacob Kirkegaard, Christian Marclay, Amalia Pica, Doris Salcedo, Tino Sehgal, Stephen Vitiello, and Martin Wong.

The BAM/PFA film and video component of the exhibition, “The Sounds of Silence” − developed by that institution’s video curator, Steve Seid, and to be presented at the Rice Media Center in September − features a selection of groundbreaking films that investigate the influence of sound on moving images and also the sometimes− intertwined sources of sound and images. The three-part film and video program includes works by 21 filmmakers, videographers, and intermedia artists, ranging from Maya Deren’s Meshes of an Afternoon and Joseph Cornell’s Rose Habart, abstractions by Stan Brakhage and Nam June Paik, work by video pioneer Steina, and pieces by young artists who work across genres and mediums.

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René Magritte, La chambre d'écoute (The Listening room), 1952© 2011 C. Herscovici, London / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. The Menil Collection, Houston, gift of Fariha Friedrich. Photo: Paul Hester