The Corner

A Show About Nothing

A centennial retrospective for the artist Ad Reinhardt has just opened at a Manhattan gallery, when it seems like only yesterday that we were celebrating the centennial of John Cage’s birth. Both men are best known, fairly or unfairly, for severely minimalist works: Cage for 4ʹ33ʺ, which consists of that amount of silence (close your eyes and you can hear it playing right now), and Reinhardt for his series of monochrome paintings, which actually inspired a school of imitators. Early in their careers, Cage wrote some quite good music of an almost normal sort and Reinhardt did some nice abstractions in various mid-century styles, but both tend all too often to be invoked merely as an excuse for lame wisecracks.

It’s not clear whether these two ever met, but since they moved in the same New York artistic circles and Cage considered Reinhardt an inspiration, it seems likely that their paths did cross at some point. What is known is that in 1982, a decade and a half after Reinhardt’s death, the marching band of Columbia University (Reinhardt’s alma mater) united the two in a football halftime show entitled “Salute to Abstract Art.” I was a member of the band, and I recall that for one of the formations, we fanned out in random directions (the “amorphous blob,” then as now the CUMB’s favorite formation), announced it as a Jackson Pollack painting, and played “I Hear You Knocking” (which has nothing to do with Jackson Pollack, but it was one of about three songs that we knew, so we found ways to make it fit any situation).

The climax of the show came when, after a few sentences of patter on the general topic of nothingness, the announcer explained that the band would form Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting and play “excerpts from John Cage’s 4ʹ33ʺ.” The band then ran off the field, whereupon the conductor walked out and waved his arms silently for about a minute.

The whole thing was received, appropriately enough, with silence.

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