In the midst of the buzz surrounding Chris Ofili's retrospective at the New Museum—entitled "Night and Day", his first major solo U.S. exhibition—silence reigns supreme. On the third floor of the museum, sandwiched between the clanging of his early dung-adorned paintings below and the psychedelic riffing on Modernism (Matisse, Cezanne, and Blake), we find something remarkable: quiet.
Here resides Ofili's Blue Rider series. The U.K.-born artist executed the works shortly following his move to Trinidad in 2005. The series' title stems from "Der Blaue Reiter," an artist collective of the early 20th century led most notably by Wassily Kandinsky, the influential Russian painter and art theorist. Seeking to imbue in their paintings a secularized, self-referential spirituality, the group laid the theoretical bedrock for pure abstraction. In their ineffability and aesthetic harmony, they achieved a visual musicality.
The Blue Rider series at the New Museum. The environment was designed by the artist himself. Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW. All artworks copyright Chris Ofili. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.
Ofili's Blue Rider paintings take this relationship between music and art a step further. They don't liken themselves to sound, but instead exist in both the visual and auditory realms. If you had to name a musical equivalent, the best might be John Cage's 4'33". Much like a pianist sitting still before the piano, Ofili's cavalry of eight monochromatic blue paintings besieges and decimates nearly every sound, sparing (and thereby producing) one of its own: silence.
At first, it's almost impossible to make out the Trinidadian night scenes promised in the wall text outside. It all just seems a poorly lit abstraction in deep blues and purples. In this way, by complicating our viewing, the works demand quiet. They loom like high priests in the pulpit. In their presence, everyone is focused and no one dare speak, for fear of interrupting or missing a spiritual undertaking. The result is a noticeable and wonderful void in a city where silence is elusive. This room lets us hear it—see it. And synesthesia sets in.
Figures and landscapes slowly reveal themselves. And as eyes adjust, so do ears. Like Cage's four-and-a-half minutes, Ofili's eight paintings (we can even call them performers) transport hushed viewers into a state of hyperconsciousness. Every interruption of silence becomes amplified. We are rustling up on our tiptoes one minute and creaking down to our knees the next, all in an attempt to gain a vantage point. And then comes the epiphany: we become hyper-aware of our own role in the performance—our desperate act of viewing. The tone of the room changes. Having pieced together the paintings, we realize the subject matter at hand—in one a hanged body, in another a black male surrounded by an all white police force. Silence resumes again.
Chris Ofili: Night And Day cover the artist's career since the 1990s and occupies the New Museum's three main galleries until February 1. The museum is located at 235 Bowery and is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and until 9pm on Thursdays. Admission is $16.
Adrian Muoio is a professional stoop squatter based in NYC. He also, from time to time, writes about art.