Arthur Wesley Dow, who promoted drawing and painting as “visual music,” the result of which can be detected in some of O’Keeffe’s early nonobjective charcoal drawings and in her appropriately titled paintings, such as Blue and Green Music (1921); Music — Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918), and Music – Pink and Blue No. 1 (1918), the last of which is in the show.
For its sheer brightness and color saturation, Red Music (circa 1965) by Ribak can hardly be contained on the wall. Far removed from his early depictions of social realism and different in tone from his circa 1975 stripped-down, black-and-white piece called Rhythms (Rhythms 43), this large-scale work has elements integral to Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting. More calculated in execution and more frequent in making musical associations, Mandelman — Ribak’s wife — executed a series of small paintings that, as Udall writes, “saluted [Bach’s] ability to manipulate multiple textures in music.” Most striking is Black Quartet #15 (circa 1970), in which she positions more than 10 large black rectangles within a field of yellow into a composition that measures no more than 10 by 12 inches. The juxtaposition of the densely painted black shapes with that of the unpainted borders conveys a feeling of airiness and movement, similar to a Bach fugue.
Burchfield, known for infusing his work with wavy, nervous lines, is well represented in the exhibition. In terms of unseen energy generated in nature and by the interventions of humankind, Burchfield’s paintings attest to the artist’s keen awareness of sound and movement in his daily life. A notebook entry by the artist in 1917 conjoins sound and color: “The awesome August north that looms with the cricket chorus is the first impression of the hideous black midwinter north pushing into summer.” In The Moth and the Thunderclap (1961) Burchfield paints a cacophony of sight and sound sensations that come close to pure abstraction. Only the wings of the moth surrounded by distorted plant life and the illuminated lightning bolt suspended from a turbulent sky above seem grounded in reality. Of the artist’s storm paintings, Udall writes: “Fueled by the synergy of multiple sensory stimuli, they enabled Burchfield — who once described a storm’s fury as ‘rising to a hideous shriek now sinking to a half mournful half evil moan’ — to convey that intensity in visual form.”
Although Burchfield never identified his visualizations of sounds as being synesthetic, his work is clearly grounded in synesthesia. Beginning in 1917, he altered his artistic style to allow “specific patterns for distinctive sounds of insects and birds, and he gave human characteristics to inanimate objects,” writes Nancy Weekly, Burchfield scholar and Charles Cary Rumsey Curator of the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, New York, in the catalog. “Throughout his life, the artist also credited the significance of music and natural sounds, such as wind and vibrations of telegraph wires, to his ability to provide additional layers of meaning to large paintings that conveyed vivid memories.” Weekly refers to Burchfield’s symbolic visual notations as “audio-cryptograms.” Telegraph Music (1949) is a good example, in which the telegraph wires are rendered as a continuous series of short, undulating lines that echo the life force emanating from the ground below and animate two homes seen in the distance.
Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran, behavioral neurologist and director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, suggests that synesthesia is seven times more common in those connected to the arts than among people in the general populace. If this is true, then Santa Fe must be teeming with synesthetes. But in the catalog, Udall notes, “Anyone who has ever heard a sound that evoked a certain color, or whose imagination linked a musical tone with a number has experienced synesthesia.”