Beer Makes Pots Sing at Met Breuer

Vessels from a range of eras, wired to amplify their ambient tone

Take 5,000 years of ceramic vessels from the Met’s collection, give them to art-installation genius Oliver Beer, and he’ll create something that will never let you think about fired clay or cast bronze the same way again.

Beer has unleashed the “voices” of 32 precious objects in the beautiful, unforgettable installation Oliver Beer: Vessel Orchestra, in a fifth-floor showcase at the Met Breuer through August 11.

Beer recognized that ceramic and metal containers each have their own distinctive ambient note. It took him three years of searching through the Met’s collection to find which vessels among thousands could emit precise notes.

Oliver Beer at the mixing board and keyboards, demonstrating how the voices of the vessels are activated.

When you enter the Met Breuer gallery, you’ll meet his perfect cast. Beer has a sound mixer and keyboard to activate and amplify different combinations of sound from the 32 installation stars. A single microphone captures the natural, ambient sound of each vessel.

After spending decades on the Met’s shelves and in storage, each vessel’s distinctive voice is brought life in contemporary performance. As Beer and other artists play the keyboard, objects created in different eras and cultures blend their singular voices. They sound perfect.

Met LiveArts has invited guest artists to perform on Friday nights throughout the run of the show. When we were there, Helga Davis, a soloist who has triumphed in avant-garde operas like Einstein on the Beach, explained why she found the sensation so satisfying.

Vocalist Helga Davis

She said that she loved feeling her own voice “disappear” when the note she sang blended with a vessel’s own singular note. Listen in on our video clip.

Recently, the Brooklyn Raga Massive collaborated with the vessels in live performance to create a meditative, transcendental experience. Upcoming collaborators include composers Nico Muhly (August 4) and John Zorn and company (August 9).

Vessels in the orchestra — Qing Dynasty porcelain vase (1644-1911) and the back of one of Betty Woodman’s 2003 series The Ming Sisters.

When live performers are not present, Beer has programmed the keyboard to activate his ensemble. A little light on the cord running to each vessel illuminates when the vessel is singing, so viewers can see exactly who’s contributing to the ambiance at any given moment.

The vessels are quite an elegant crew, including a sinuous art nouveau porcelain, a sleek modern bronze portraits by Lachaise, and a monumental angular slab pot by American master William Daley.

Visually, the vessel presentation is clever. Betty Woodman’s whimsical 2003 ceramic trio The Ming Sisters knocks a bit of seriousness off their otherwise tightly controlled neighbor — turquoise-and-gold Qing Dynasty porcelain masterwork.

Vessels wired to amplify their ambient tone, including a female effigy (7th – 6th c. B.C.), Beatrice Wood’s fish, an Iranian storage jar (3800 – 3700 B.C.), and a Canaanite jar (1500 – 1400 B.C.).

And Beatrice Wood’s 1947 fish pot is swimming, singing, and bringing the fun out of a totally ancient threesome – an old, tipped-over Canaanite jar, an ibex wandering across a 4th millennium B.C. Iranian pot, and a 7th century B.C. lady.

Some things that look ancient aren’t. A simple, unassuming, unembellished creation seems to have been made at a more primitive, far-away time. But it’s a 1975 stoneware pot created by artist Juan Hamilton, Ms. O’Keefe’s friend and assistant, who taught her how to make pots in her later years at Ghost Ranch.

There’s so much to hear and see in this show, so be sure to experience this extraordinary ensemble before August 11. See close-ups of some of our favorite Met singers on Flickr.

Here, the engaging and brilliant Oliver Beer explains how it all comes together:

Bigger Field of Vision in Sixties Color Painting

Color Field: Fritz Scholder’s 1965 oil New Mexico Number 21 in the MoCNA show

When curators from two different museums in two parts of the country wanted to tell new stories about paintings from their collections, both chose to look at big, bold colorful work done by known and less-well-known artists in the Sixties and Seventies.

The Whitney Museum of American art created Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s, which is on view through August 18, to showcase new acquisitions that tell a more complete story about painters using splatters, drips, and jazzy figures with in-your-face colors.

The AIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) in Santa Fe created Action/Abstraction Redefined, on view through July 7, to highlight the way young Native American painters – some of whom went on to have major art careers – channeled the zeitgeist of the East-Coast gallery scene into something with which they could make a personal mark.

Sam Gilliam’s 1968 pored-paint, draped canvas at The Whitney

The curators at both institutions were thinking along similar lines.

Although Spilling Over features Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, and other icons of the wall-sized color painting movement sweeping through New York galleries in the Sixties, the curators wanted to make sure that the public understood that there were female, Native American, and African-American color painters experimenting with these trends, too.

The Whitney has given Sam Gilliam’s draped and splattered canvas a place of honor at the end of the two-gallery vista. He was one of the few African-American artists to gain coverage in Artforum back in the day, but is largely unknown to younger art-going audiences.

At the opposite end of the space, the curators showcase an electrifying neon canvas by Alan Loving, the first African-American to have a solo show at the Whitney in the late Sixties.

1970 acrylic by Alan Loving, the first African-American given a solo show at the Whitney

Color-figure work by Cherokee artist Kay Walking Stick is featured alongside other painters like Harlem’s Edith Amos and Alex Katz, who slathered color across figurative canvases. It’s all about introducing art-lovers to new faces in the canon of American Art.

While women and artists of color were trying to get their work on the walls of New York museums and galleries, up-and-coming Native American abstractionists were waging a different type of battle for acceptance – a struggle that led to the birth of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in the early Sixties.

Hard-edged 1968 acrylic by Hopi/Pima artist Frances Makil, incorporating cultural motifs in the MoCNA show

Contemporary abstract work by Native American Modernists in the late 1950s was typically rejected from competitive and museum-curated art shows. Juries and curators were clearly biased toward traditional forms of expression, and young innovators bristled at being told to “stay in their place.”

When the Institute of American Indian Arts opened in 1962, the next generation seized the opportunity to put their mark on what was setting the art market on fire – big, expressive abstraction; atmospheric color field works; and geometry.

These works, some of which were accessed into MoCNA from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tell quite a compelling story about early-stage experimentation and the opportunity that the arts-education initiative provided to emerging artists out West. The years spent making work at IAIA gave a kick-start to careers of some of the best-known native artists today – T.C. Cannon, Fritz Scholder, and George Morrison. Judge by the results you see here.

Gesture and expression: 1965 pastel by Hopi/Choctaw artist Linda Lomahaftewa

The MoCNA curators also wanted to make space for women in their exhibition, too, such as Frances Makil. The 1965 pastel by Hopi/Choctaw artist Linda Lomahaftewa uses the artist’s own culture as inspiration, but the lines and spirals echo some of the Whitney’s own abstract, meditative canvases by Lee Krasner, who also drew energy from spirit worlds.

Both shows open the doors to new faces to widen the conversation about color-painting history, and these paintings all have a lot to say.

Listen to Whitney curator David Breslin and artists explain how a collection show can reframe conventional art history, and learn more about the artists in the audio tour here:

The Long Run at MoMA

Frank Stella’s 1984 mixed media painting

Is it a premonition of what we will see when the Museum of Modern Art reinstalls its massive collection later this year?

The Long Run, on display through May 5, is an epic recasting of the galleries normally used to display contemporary and recent the most recent chronology of Modernist works. MoMA’s curators disrupted the chronology by pulling unseen works from storage and using them to show what artists with relatively long careers (think O’Keeffe, Rosenquist, Stella) were producing later in life.

1980-1989 wire sculpture by Lee Bontecou

The work is spectacular and compelling – wire “drawings” suspended from the ceiling (Gego and Bontecou), engaging installations (Fischl & Weiss and Joan Jonas), wall-size paintings and drawings (Joan Mitchell and Robert Morris), and personal meditations (Brătescu and Martin).

Walk through the show on our Flickr album.

The beauty of the show is that MoMA has mixed famous with not-so-famous geniuses and selected works that exemplify how artists switched it up mid- to late-career.

1975 self-portrait by Philip Guston

It seems that many successful artists feel compelled to take a new tack somewhere along the line. They just rethink their desire to crank out the same old thing.

A few examples that this show demonstrates: Guston left pure, pretty abstraction for biting, messy satire of himself and society. Agnes Martin left the gritty Seaport district amidst the junk-as-art era and began creating spiritual masterworks in Taos. Stella abandoned minimalism to maximal, wild impact.

Some galleries have loose themes — urban landscapes (Oldenburg monuments, O’Keeffe monoliths) and mixed media “found” art (linking 1930s Kurt Schwitters and 1980s David Hammons). But mostly visitors enter each white space confronted by works they’ve never seen before.

1999-2000 installation Things from the Room in the Back by Peter Fischli and David Weiss

Most visitors are confounded by the Fischli & Weiss installation.  Many wonder whether it is a place inside the museum that’s under construction, because it appears to be scattered plaster buckets and paint pans. It’s actually a witty “fool the eye” sculpture that the team hand-crafted from polyurethane.

One of the most magical experiences is the Joan Jonas installation with twinkling crystals, sparkling facets, and mystical mountains – a poetic experience reflecting her lifetime of exploration, collaboration, media experimentation, and life work.

If you have the time, watch this video of the seminar about this amazing show and the longevity of the creative drive:

Remember: MoMA will be closed for three months from June 15 to October 21 for the reinstallation of the museum.

2010-2013 Joan Jonas video and crystal sculpture installation Reanimation