Museum Tortures With Screechy Stylus, LED Frame: Review

It’s hard enough to tune out the pervasive chatter, noisy restaurants and toddler tantrums at the congested Museum of Modern Art -- New York City’s Mall of America -- while you are looking at Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie.”

Try it when you are straining to hear sound art.

The museum misfire of the summer is MoMA’s “Soundings: A Contemporary Score,” opening Aug. 10.

It’s bound to be especially challenging while you attempt to parse subtle silences, church bells, white noise and the faint rumble of a dragging stylus.

Richard Garet’s “Before Me,” is a soundwork torturing a classic Dual turntable, a paean to “outmoded technology.” A glass marble spins in place, like a ball on a roulette wheel, while the needle rides the rim of the upside down spinning platter. It all purportedly relates to the “plight of Sisyphus.”

When an artist invokes Sisyphus, you know that it’s you, the viewer, who is in for an uphill climb.

As far as “outmoded technology” goes, tell that to the booming analog vinyl industry, and to my brother, who just dropped $6,000 for a new turntable.

Best Films

The most compelling pieces here are films. Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard and Nick Cave’s “Dig, Lazarus, Dig” is fun and funky, while Alfredo Jaar’s “Muxima,” a heartfelt portrait of Angola, has a melancholy vibe. Still, screened underground in MoMA’s Titus Theater, they must compete with the grumblings of the New York City Subway.

A lot of “Soundings” seems clumsy and inert. Susan Philipsz’s installation, “Study for Strings,” appropriates Pavel Haas’s 1943 work, written for 24 instruments and performed in the Theresienstadt concentration camp shortly before the composer was put to death.

We hear only the fragmented, intermittent parts for a cello and a viola, or sometimes long silences. This version represents the sophomoric idea that reduction equals death, and retains none of the music of the original.

Silence is preferable to Sergei Tcherepnin’s vintage subway bench, which transforms seated museum goers, through bone conduction, into speakers. If you have a pacemaker, keep clear. The piece was largely inaudible owing to busy bathrooms and the crowds on escalators.

Worst-in-show goes to Haroon Mirza’s multimedia cruelty, “Frame for a Painting.” Amid digital noise, Mirza surrounded Mondrian’s “Composition in Yellow, Blue and White, I” (1937) with colored LEDs, rendering Mondrian’s masterful voice absolutely mute.

Ellsworth Kelly

For actual music at MoMA, you must look to a terrific show of painting.

With “Ellsworth Kelly: Chatham Series,” first exhibited in 1972, the museum is celebrating the artist’s 90th birthday.

In each of the show’s 14 large two-colored abstract paintings, Kelly conjoins two rectangles to create the form of an inverted letter “L.”

Flat, childlike combinations of red, black, white, yellow, green and blue -- simple variations on a theme -- joining forces, are elevated into an authoritative, rhythmic environment.

Spare, pure hues expand, contract, punch and breathe. Seeing this dynamic show, in which each color rings as clear as a bell, I felt both my step and my heart quicken.

“Soundings: A Contemporary Score” runs Aug. 10 through Nov. 3 and “Ellsworth Kelly: Chatham Series” runs through Sep. 3 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St. Information: +1-212-708-9400;

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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