By Sandy Langer
"Jazz And Visual Improvisations" guest curated by Catherine Bernard and with a contributing essay by Stanley Crouch (Katonah Museum of Art January 21, 2001- April 15, 2001), reminds me of a line from one of my favorite film noirs, Clash By Night. Barbara Stanwyck says it and It goes like this "What do you want Joe, my life history? Here it is in four words: big ideas, small results." I always thought the two things that jazz and art shared were constantly risking absurdity and death. I never thought of either as bland or chasing security. "Balancing on eyebeams above the sea of faces," was how the beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti put it in his collection of poems "A Coney Island of the Mind."
"Jazz and Visual Improvisations" claims to look at the relationship between jazz and created improvisation as "quintessential forces in the development of American art after World War II," but it fails to address the really big questions about liberating oneself from the strange suburban shoes of the great American demi-democracy that dominated this era. Alienation was basic to the period as was existentialism and the artist's eye obscenely seeing this surrealistic landscape.
Beginning in the late 1940s with the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, Ms. Bernard attempts to connect the development of artists as diverse as Kandinsky, Stuart Davis, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell, Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Alma Thomas, Jean Michel Basquiat with jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp, John Coltrane and Earl Hines to mention only a few. In attempting to make a case for the "Americanism" of American art, jazz is used as a springboard for a number of theories i.e "call and response" a prominent feature of African American music, that supposedly account for relationships between visual systems and jazz improvisations.
One of the things that first attracted me to jazz was the fact that it was smart and sexy rather than a kissproof world full of mindless parasites in gray flannel suits. This show that knows nothing about having made a hungry scene or two, in fact it's a show with strings attached. First, let's nix the nationalism. Abstract Expressionism as so many of its practitioners point out was inspired by European art movements. Mondrian's Victory Boggie Woggie series comes immediately to mind. Yes, it was inspired by urban traffic and the energy of the city as Bernard's catalogue suggests but the underlying aesthetics resulted from experiments in continental modernism and had more to do with variations on rectangles and right angles than jazz per se. Mondrian's own term for his adventures in composition was "Tableau Losangique." Using the circle, square and diamond forms and marrying them with cubism, Mondrian's variations were based on nature and the real world. The style he developed was labeled "De Stijl" The question jazz fans need to ask themselves is the one Mondrian always asked of his compositions, "does this work?" "Fox Trot" which is not included in this exhibition is one of Mondrian's first diamond pictures that tries to incorporate the overall dynamics of dance as a focal point of his composition.
One of the problems with "Jazz and Visual Improvisations" is that it never gives us any insights into how jazz might have influenced or inspired compositions like "Broadway Boggie-Woogie" or "Victory Boggie-Woggie "or Stuart Davis's "Pad" pictures or "Egg Beater" paintings, or even Jackson Pollock's drip style. It's worth noting that Pollock's inspiration came from a variety of sources including the dance-the body in Pollock's canvases is an essential factor and his own dynamic movement, the pure vitality of his physicality animates his work. Hans Hoffman once said to Pollock "But you don't paint nature." Pollock replied, "I am nature." That sums up Pollocks aesthetic. He was also influenced by American Indian sand painting, psychoanalysis, surrealism, literature, movies and poetry.
Unfortunately, when we begin to examine the relationships suggested by Dr. Bernard and the "African-Americanism of jazz" stressed by Stanley Crouch we are presented with yet another Ken Burns style circus. Art and jazz are versatile and innovative creativity opens new directions rather than confirming what's safe. This is a show that is frightened by the sound of real jazz, it is a show that doesn't sing on hot wires and slay turkeys and black knights in racist suits of armor and it never really gets the audience closer to the spirit of art and jazz.
For that we must dig deeper than the flattering falsehoods of Stanley Crouch. We cannot accept the rhythm and harmonic freshness of African American artist Alma Thomas's work as "urban" jazz rather we need to get in touch with the artist's appreciation of the natural world and her backyard garden.