Christian Marclay at the Whitney

Grant Chu Covell

[July 2010.]

I visited Christian Marclay’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum (http://www.whitney.org/) and was charmed by the older work and annoyed by the new. Marclay is best known for the art he has created with records. Remember records? As in vinyl? [New vinyl pressings are a thriving niche market. W.M.]

One room features footage of older, characteristic Marclay performance pieces. I couldn’t get the titles and dates in the dim light, but in one video, stop-motion filming provided the illusion of eating a record. (A different slant on sound bites perhaps?) In another clip, a stack of LPs is unwrapped, scratched, struck together, snapped to bits, and trampled. This excerpt summarizes the best of Marclay’s art: an inventive way to play (with) records.

I liked the container containing actual records Marclay used in performances. They satisfied several questions. Some discs had writing on their surfaces to indicate interesting content, and others, bright stickers over the bands to show where to drop the stylus. LPs entitled Recycled Records were cut and reassembled with glue, tape and rivets. Having tried this myself, it was instructive to see how the master does it. The same room offered comfy couches and a continuous loudspeaker concert of better than a dozen Marclay compositions. I recognized a few from More Encores (1988) in which recordings of a particular artist are chopped up and reassembled.

Most of the Whitney’s exhibit was given over to recent graphic scores, perhaps coincident with the compact disc’s dominance, which leads to a question: What happens when an artist’s material becomes outdated? Clearly Marclay had to change his game. As he made art of the LP’s spirals, he now creates music by ignoring standard notation. Welcome to the Post-Cage Age!

Prêt-à-Porter (2010) consists of a garment rack hung with clothing imprinted with musical designs. Models dress in the clothing and pose while musicians attempt to read the motifs. Marclay provides the performers with a bottle of single-malt whiskey. Sixty-four Bells and a Bow (2009) consists of — guess what — and instructions: to create music with the 65 objects. One wall enshrines Chalkboard (2010), a floor-to-ceiling sheet of manuscript paper upon which museum visitors are encouraged to write with chalk. I saw little music on the surface, mostly doodles and snide comments, including the clincher lifted from John Baldessari’s I will not make any more boring art displayed a few floors below. Mixed Reviews (1999-2010) strings a continuous line of music reviews at eye-level.

The Bell and the Glass (2003) projects two videos simultaneously, both chronicling Philadelphia subjects: the Liberty Bell and Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). Marclay instructs his musicians mostly to improvise, but they must accompany Duchamp’s speaking voice with precisely notated passages. Who dares question anything to do with an avant-garde hero? I thought this work particularly inane. I admit to a reluctance to endure long lines to gawk at a fractured bell. But I have marveled at the cracks in The Large Glass. I suspect that Marclay doesn’t take this work seriously: Chocolate figures in both parts.

Musicians really have very little to go on in these recent scores and must improvise. It’s wrong to say Marclay is a composer. He’s actually a collector and assembler. Curators and booking agents should get equal billing. The demands made upon the musicians aren’t completely unreasonable, however. Any competent musician will fall back on his training and experience to create something from what is, essentially, zilch. Marclay has used records improperly and now he deploys performers incorrectly. Part of the fun is watching the players trying not to trip up. Drifting through a live rendition of Screen Play (2005), I observed projected black-and-white images upon which color graphics meander and got the impression that the three musicians were attempting to maintain a modicum of professional deportment. Despite the addition of a Whitney performance to their résumés, they were, for me, pitiable.

Musicians, composers and music critics of my acquaintance come up with ideas like Marclay’s most recent and treat them as goofs, surely not worth enshrining. Ooh, here comes Bus No. 5! Quick, turn to that page and start playing! While Marclay’s fun has its place, the man hasn’t earned an invitation to the composers’ table, at least not just yet. As one of the first “turntablists,” he did demonstrate a winning ability to mix and sample others’ recordings. Drifting into live performances and improvisation, he’s been fortunate to rub shoulders with an array of established folks, but we all know that popularity and charisma often stand apart from integrity or skill. I do enjoy Marclay’s punning titles and clever one-beat sight gags, and yet my allegiance lies with musicians who’ve spent long hours mastering Czerny or Kreutzer — eminently qualified performers who scrounge around for opportunities to play the music they love. Good music is rarely easy. Certainly, great music comes after immense investment. Marclay offers easy music — if you can call it that — rarely good, never great.

Christian Marclay: Festival” unspools at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, until Sept. 26, 2010.