Silence considers the absence of sound as a subject and a medium in contemporary art. Whether a positive source of inspiration, an enigmatic force, or an unsettling limbo zone, silence is a powerful force in art and human experience. It can signify absence, presence, and the passing of time; it can inspire calming meditation or unsettling anxiety. The art objects in the exhibition—paintings, drawings, a musical score, sculptures, installations, performances, and sound works—are not all without sound, but they all investigate the experience and idea of silence to inspire a range of physical and psychic states. In Houston on the Menil campus, the exhibition is anchored by the architectural spaces of the Rothko Chapel (1971), a world-renowned place of meditation containing large panel paintings by abstract expressionist Mark Rothko (1903–1970), and by the 1987 Renzo Piano-designed Menil Collection building itself, which was conceived by the architect and Dominique de Menil to be a quiet “place apart” for contemplating art.
The exhibition features paintings and sculptures from the Menil’s collection of modern and contemporary art and a selection of historical and new works in a variety of media by an international group of 28 artists. Works from the Menil’s permanent collection include a Monogold painting by Yves Klein; René Magritte’s iconic painting of a giant green apple in an interior, The Listening Room (La Chambre d'Écoute), 1952; and Sound Figure, 2007, by Max Neuhaus, permanently installed just outside the museum’s front door.
Other artists and works include Marcel Duchamp’s legendary, enigmatic small sculpture With Hidden Noise, 1916; John Cage’s famous 1952 musical composition 4'33", a score for piano performance involving no notes or actual playing for the duration specified in its title; Joseph Beuys’s sculpture The Silence (Das Schweigen), 1973, and zinc-coated reels of the film of that name by Ingmar Bergman; Robert Morris’s iconic Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961, a small, spare wooden cube containing a three and one-half hour audio recording of its fabrication; a film of a 1972 silent performance in London’s Hyde Park by Marcel Broodthaers entitled Speaker’s Corner; and documentation of One Year Performance 1978–1979 by Tehching Hsieh, in which the artist spent 365 days in a cage without speaking, reading, writing, listening to radio, or watching TV.
One room of the exhibition is devoted to an installation by Christian Marclay that mixes silkscreen paintings from Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair series with his own painting and studies. The works of both artists are based on a photograph of the execution chamber at San Quentin Prison, but while Warhol’s concentrate on the electric chair in the center of the image, Marclay’s zoom in on a sign reading “Silence” above a door on the right.
An important component of the Silence project are performances by artists and musicians, including pianist Sarah Rothenberg and a realization of John Cage’s 4'33; a work by Austin-based choreographer Deborah Hay, a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater known for working without music or other sounds; and a piece built around the room tone of the Rothko Chapel by Jacob Kierkegaard.
Silence is documented in a catalogue with essays by exhibition curators Toby Kamps and Steve Seid, as well as a piece by Jenni Sorkin.
Organized by The Menil Collection, Houston, and the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
This exhibition is generously supported by Louisa Stude Sarofim, Fayez Sarofim, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Leslie and Shannon Sasser, Michael Zilkha, The Four Seasons Hotel Houston, Paul and Janet Hobby, Ann and Henry Hamman, Lea Weingarten, proceeds from Men of Menil, and the City of Houston.