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Reviving the Rose with conversation and Gene Davis

Published: October 26, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.


The first of many interdisciplinary art discussions took place at The Rose Art Museum on Wednesday. The discussion of Gene Davis’ “Moondog” is part of new director, Christopher Bedford’s desire to make The Rose a more prominent institution on campus.

Bedford himself was one of the two main voices in the conversation, alongside Judith Eissenberg, founder of the Lydian Quartet at Brandeis and professor of the Practice of Music “Moondog.” The object of analysis is a psychedelic work of art consisting of uniform stripes of varying colors. The piece was created in 1965 and given to the university as a gift from Davis the following year.

The piece’s true depth was argued by Bedford in a remarkable display of artistic rhetoric. He explained that “Moondog” was created by Davis for an arts magazine: Journalist Gerald Nordland wished to document the total creative process behind creating a work of art, and observed Davis in his studio until the painting was complete. His findings were published in the 1966 issue of Art News, which gave considerable insight into the creative process. Bedford remarked that “Moondog” was a piece created for critics rather than a wider audience, as Davis knew that the story of the creation of his piece would be intrinsically tied to its merit as a work of art. In that spirit, “Moondog” gives the appearance of having structure while simultaneously disobeying all of that structure’s rules.

The colors of the stripes demand that the viewer move so that he or she does not view one facet of the piece at a time. Davis would complete roughly eight stripes a day, with a pair taking around 2.5 hours to complete, the set of which he would consider a complete painting. Despite this, however, he did not create the stripes in a linear order from left to right; his clusters of eight cropping up in various orders around the canvas.

Bedford continued to detail what differentiates Davis’ piece from others like it. Because the creation of the stripe is a repeated mechanical gesture, its importance is removed from the piece, placing emphasis on color. Bedford attributes this to Davis’ beginnings in abstract expressionism, and observed that while we have limitations in describing art, the fact that those limitations exist means that art itself is completely limitless.

Eissenberg proved knowledgeable on the music side of the discussion, revealing the origin of the piece’s title and some possible inspiration for its creation. “Moondog” was the pen name of Louis Hardin, born in 1916 in Kansas to an Episcopalian preacher and his wife. Blinded at 16 via an accident involving a dynamite cap, Hardin learned the principles of music theory, ear training and composition from various schools for the blind across the Midwest. In 1943, Hardin moved to New York City to make a living as a street musician. Hardin took the name Moondog from a hound he knew back in the Midwest that howled at the moon nearly every night. Because of his unusual style of music and his tendency to dress as the Norse god Odin, he quickly earned the nickname “The Viking of 6th Avenue.” Despite the poverty associated with busking, Hardin did not want for friends or occupancy; Hardin was well acquainted with several jazz musicians and composers, including Leonard Bernstein and Philip Glass, the latter of whom he lived with for a year. Hardin also maintained an apartment for most of his time in the city, but preferred to live on the streets. In 1974, he moved to Germany, composing and touring until his death in 1999.

Eissenberg further elaborated on Moondog’s relation to the piece’s title by playing some of his music. Hardin was a pioneer of early minimalism, arranging certain instruments in autonomous loops and layering them together to create new sounds. “Moondog” could be thought of as a piece that can be translated into a song; Eissenberg’s initial reaction was, “How do I hear this painting?” The linear pattern of stripes lends itself well to having each color represent a pitch, making Davis’ painting an abstract musical score. Coupled with the piece’s tendency to make the viewer’s vision wander, “reading” the painting as a series of notes is incredibly easy.

The discussion was incredibly informative and interesting. The audience listened to Bedford and Eissenberg with rapt attention, occasionally asking questions; one member had the privilege of seeing Moondog perform live, and related his story to the crowd.