William Anastasi: Sound Works, 1963–2013 at Hunter College is a historic show. It has depth, purpose, and contemporary (read of the minute instead of of the moment) installations. The show manages to be a well-made time machine rather than a stodgy time capsule. Anastasi took the sound of things and made art from it. He drew “blind” to music and he used the things of music in his art. In many cases he recorded what he heard, and only what he heard. Music became very important to Anastasi as a sick youth, and his interest never waned. His “sound art”, as we now understand it, defied many conventions and ultimately he blazed a path with John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg that would allow visual artists, choreographers and musicians to use each others language and engage in each others work.
This small show is associated with a huge amount of scholarship and is worth multiple viewings. I have been only once and I plan to visit more before it closes November 30th. A catalog is on its way but the free materials Hunter provides are outstanding with images and essays from Max Weintraub (organizer of this exhibition) and Dove Bradshaw. The reason I am speaking to you about it now is that on October 18th there is a symposium presented by Hunter that promises to be important. Robert Storr, Barbara London, Weintraub will all be on hand to discuss Anastasi as will, William Anastasi. As someone who is becoming more deeply interested in sound art (in part due to the MoMA Soundings show), this seems like an event that can not be passed up.
The installation pieces are quite beautiful. The first image you see is the draped tape of a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, 1965. The light looped lines of the tape (so familiar to anyone who used a pencil to save their copy of He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper) look similar to later Anastasi drawings based on duration and chance. Then there are the true Sound Objects. Allowing for a speaker, these objects (Jackhammer, Radiator, Tire, Tape Recorder) are the same functional items as they would have been in the late 60’s when they were created/appropriated. They faithfully produce their sound (recreated for this exhibition), allowing us to consider the near physicality of the sonic space around them. Anastasi consulted Cage on the original presentation of the Sound Objects at Dwan Gallery in ‘66, and together they agreed that all the pieces should make sound in unison.
The Constellation Drawings from the late 60’s are simple and effective. Dots were made “blind” while the artist listened to music (Wanda Landowska performing Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier) with his eyes shut. When the music was over, his drawing was over. Anastasi would continue in this vein doing drawings to music or in his in his lap at performances for many years. With the One Hour with Graphite, 2013, from the Resignation Series, 1989/2013 Anastasi recreated a process drawing which is what it sounds like. 60 minutes of marks made, or rather remade, on site. The sound of it being made is recorded and played. The drawing noise follows a rhythmic pattern that tells you about the methodical way Anastasi approaches this work.
After John Cage’s death, Anastasi, Jasper Johns and Merce Cunningham each created a Sound drawing to honor him by working on paper on a Plexiglas clipboard. Each drawing is presented with the recording of its making. The scrawls and scratches sound different in each piece. The way each artist approaches the drawing tells you about how they work. You can hear tentative marks and confident marks all accumulating as time passes. As the images are complete, I believe they could be used as a visual score to create music. The possibilities seem limitless.