Abstractions is a suite of five movements inspired by five contrasting contemporary artworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art and from the private collection of Rheda Becker and Robert Meyerhoff, for whom this music honors.
1. Marble Moon - inspired by Sara VanDerBeek‘s Marble Moon (2015)
2. Auguries - inspired by Julie Mehretu’s Auguries (2010)
3. Seascape - inspired by Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Caribbean Sea, Jamaica (1980)
4. River - inspired by Ellsworth Kelly’s River II (2005)
5. Three - inspired by Brice Marden’s 3 (1987-88)
In drawing inspiration from these artworks, I have tried to capture the feelings or imagery that they evoke, the concept of the work, or the process adopted by the artists. Such examples are the filtered blues, and the contrast between light falling on the earthy stone and the mysterious moon, that characterize VanDerBeek‘s Marble Moon; the long arching lines, compact energetic marks and dense shifting forms of a system on the verge of collapse in Mehretu’s Auguries; the serene horizon with rippled water in Sugimoto’s Seascape; the stark juxtaposition of the energetic black and white lines that enlarge Kelly’s brushstrokes in River II; and the lines, which, inspired by Asian calligraphy and the structure of seashells, appear to dance in Marden’s 3.
Some common threads between the artworks are their use of limited color palettes, references to nature, and the capturing of time as a current that flows – distilling and preserving it so that we can contemplate it as the viewer. I was also attracted to the structures of these works – for example River II and Auguries, which at first sight could be seen as random, and even chaotic, are in fact created within a sense of order – they feel both dynamic and structural.
Thank you to Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony for this wonderful opportunity to write music in honor of Rheda Becker and Robert Meyerhoff, and to Kristen Hileman, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the Baltimore Museum Art, for her generosity of time and knowledge.
More information about these artworks by Kristen Hileman:
Marble Moon (2015)
Digital chromogenic color prints
During her childhood in Relay, MD, Sara VanDerBeek and her family observed a total eclipse by projecting it through a hole in a piece of cardboard onto a neutral surface, creating a rudimentary pinhole. They then used a regular still camera to photograph the projected image. VanDerBeek discovered the picture as an adult visiting her family home and re-photographed it, all the while reflecting on the various memories and meanings it represented. Through technical processes, cameras capture unique moments in time foregrounding some details and obscuring, even "eclipsing" others. Likewise, memory grasps at emotions and experiences, filtering and altering the past along the way. In the work Marble Moon, VanDerBeek juxtaposes her re-photographed image with a recently taken photographic detail of light falling on the marble architecture of Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. Together, these pictures present a series of symbolic contrasts: earthly stone alongside the mysterious moon; a familiar and tactile material alongside a rarely seen and distant occurrence; and an enduring substance alongside a fleeting phenomenon.
12-part color etching with liftground aquatint and spitbite
Julie Mehretu embodies the complexity and interconnectivity of the contemporary world with her arresting abstract vocabulary. The artist’s dynamic compositions of long, arcing lines and compact, energetic marks might suggest the spectacle of ambitious architectural structures, as well as a visualization of the informational and technological networks that define today’s culture. In Auguries, the dense and shifting forms further convey the crescendos of a musical orchestration or the naturally choreographed movement of flocks of birds. The latter could explain the reference to auguries, or signs of the future, of the work’s title. In some traditions, the appearance and activities of birds were interpreted as omens. The frenetic and ambiguous sense of space in Mehretu’s print also evokes a system either on the verge of collapse or formation—a condition ripe with provocative implications if applied to such aspects of the early 21st century as the global economy, climate change and environmental sustainability, and international political and military affairs.
Caribbean Sea, Jamaica (1980)
Gelatin silver print
For Hiroshi Sugimoto, an artist who explores the concept of time through the medium of back-and-white photography, the sea represents a primordial force from which life emerged. The vast expanse of time represented in the story of our planet’s bodies of water provides a counterpoint to the typical view of photography as a means for documenting a single "decisive moment" in time. To achieve a sense of timelessness in his Seascape series, Sugimoto carefully chose the vantage point for shooting his subject so that the horizon line divides each composition perfectly in half, always creating harmoniously balanced rectangles of light and water that show no signs of human presence. The artist’s large format camera and long exposure times capture details of atmosphere and texture that are perceptible within these larger forms. There is a sense of beauty and the sublime in Sugimoto’s photographs, which resonates with the Abstract Expressionist paintings of Mark Rothko.
River II (2005)
Two lithographs clear-coated and mounted on two aluminum panels
Ellsworth Kelly explored the relationship of color and shape in celebrated paintings, prints, and sculpture from the 1950s to his death in 2015. Although he developed a distinctly abstract vocabulary, the monochromatic blocks and arcs of evenly applied color that characterize his paintings were informed by observations of the world, including its architectural details, the play of light and shadow, and natural forms. The energetic black and white lines of the lithograph River II evoke the dynamic surface of water and also demonstrate another of Kelly’s interests: the role that chance can have in arriving at compelling compositions. Intrigued by cut-down pieces of trial proofs that he had rejected for a print project, Kelly enlarged and repeated four of these fragments—each depicts the details of his own brushstrokes—to create an eight-section grid.
Oil on linen
3 is one of a series of twelve works in which Brice Marden introduced webs of elegant, subtly colored lines into his painting. Inspired by Asian calligraphy and the structure of seashells, the marks were made with Marden standing at a distance from the image’s surface, holding a long-handled brush at the end of his out-stretched arm in a manner that physically engaged the artist’s entire body in the act of painting. The importance of gesture in making these paintings, as well the distribution of non-representational line and color all over the image field is reminiscent of the work of Jackson Pollock, an influential Abstract Expressionist painter.
“Abstractions, a suite based on five contemporary paintings in the Baltimore Museum of Art, veers between controlled chaos (rapid figurations in the strings cascading over one another frantically) and icy stillness (the first section, “Marble Moon,” has a single pedal point in the double basses throughout). The swooping arpeggios of the closing section, “Three,” give the work a giddy, exhilarating send-off.” —The Washington Post
“Each movement is rich in ideas and instrumental shades.” —Baltimore Sun