Stella has said that he was inspired by the sense of motion in Scarlatti’s sonatas. Almost all music moves, or seems to move, so this is a bit like a composer saying that he was inspired by the colors in a Picasso. It adds a negligible amount of information to our understanding. It would be more interesting to know certain key facts, such as, does Stella listen to Scarlatti performed on the piano or the harpsichord? The former produces gradations of sound and a wealth of colors depending on the speed with which the key is depressed and released. The harpsichord, by contrast, produces a uniform burst of sound that often seems white, or bright, or monochromatic, though full of energy. That energy, the initial blast of sound, is a burst of overtones; not the metaphorical ones that inspired Kandinsky, but real ones related to the physics of how a plucked string produces sound.
Stella’s sculptures, often repetitive but always appealing, well-made and dynamic, seem to represent the harpsichord’s basic tonal palette more than they suggest the relatively simple, two-part structure of a Scarlatti sonata. They offer a burst of brilliance that resolves quickly, that overwhelms and delights and occasionally (depending on your taste) grows cloying. By referring to Scarlatti, Stella makes his work seem deeper, until you begin to analyze the reference, which makes the allusion seem both simplistic and all too revelatory: Maybe Stella really knows his Scarlatti and is subtly cluing us in to the way in which his sculpture mimics the mechanical, aggressive, showy splashes of sound that define a brilliantly performed Scarlatti sonata.
Music doesn’t liberate, or clarify or deepen visual art. It merely puts a cloak over the visual object itself, which ideally needs no further dressing. Kandinsky’s work of 1913 contains no actual overtones, and even the metaphorical ones are dubious. His “Improvisation No. 31,” also on display, works just as well or better without its reference to the free-form musical fantasies that were popular at the time (Kandinsky grouped his art work of this period into “improvisations,” “impressions” and “compositions,” all of which suggest musical ideas). So, too, Stella’s work chafes under the silly weight of his Scarlatti titles. The best of it, including three small works in titanium labeled k. 454, k. 419 and k. 478, and the giant K. 43 with its Pop Art sunburst of hippie colors barely hidden on its underside, work without explanation or apology.
If nothing else, the Phillips exhibition offers a succinct tour of a thought that has haunted abstract art from its origins to its present: What if it’s empty? This terrifying idea, which artists have often tried to hide under a carapace of pseudo-intellectual philosophizing (see Kandinsky’s “On the Spiritual in Art”) or a mantle borrowed from music, literature or architecture, is rather like the idea that haunts each and every one of us everyday: What if I die? And the answer is the same. Of course it’s empty, and of course we all die. Now enjoy the present moment, like a C Major chord on the harpsichord, a burst of consciousness-obliterating sonic sunshine.
the Harmony of Silence: Painting with White Border; Stella Sounds:
The Scarlatti K Series
Both through Sept. 4. The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW, is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday until 8:30 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For admission fees, go to www.phillipscollection.org.