Key Component: Pianos are Making a Play in the Visual Art World

NEW YORK—Pianos have been showing up in visual art exhibits around New York City recently. Sanford Biggers included two in his “Sweet Funk—An Introspective” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum earlier this year, and currently, pianos are featured in the “This Side of Paradise” exhibit at the Andrew Freedman Home in the Bronx, the Whitney Biennial (actually a pipe organ), and at the James Cohan Gallery. The presence of the instruments has generally been symbolic and sculptural, but in 2010 pianos were part of a public art project whose central focus was their ability to play music—by anyone who happened by and wished to command the keys.

“The Ravages” by Nicky Enright.

Pianos for the Public
“Play Me, I’m Yours” is a British-born project that distributed 60 upright pianos painted by various artists around New York City for two weeks. In 2011, the city launched another public piano project, a pop-up installation of 88 upright and grand pianos sponsored by Sing for Hope. Similar projects featuring one-of-a-kind painted pianos have been hosted by other U.S. and international cities. The “Play Me, I’m Yours” project is currently in Los Angeles where the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is sponsoring 30 pianos decorated by local artists that have been stationed throughout the city. Paris and London will participate in the project in June.

The Art of Piano Parts
The components of pianos—the intriguing shapes, materials and patinas—also lend themselves to visual art. Artists Shauna Holiman and Penny Putnam dismantled three old pianos donated by Faust Harrison Pianos in White Plains, and also acquired stray parts dating back some 200 years. The two Connecticut painters have discovered a new medium and used the inspiring bounty to demonstrate the appeal of art composed of piano parts. Their creations are featured in a pair of exhibits: “Piano as Art” included 37 mixed-media and sculptural works and was on display at Faust Harrison through March 15 and “Piano Pieces” is on view at Finn Gallery in the Greenwich Library in Greenwich, Conn., from March 22 to May 3, 2012.

All photos by Arts Observer

“The Ravages,” 2012 (piano, typewriter, speakers, CD player) by Nicky Enright at “This Side of Paradise” at the Andrew Freedman Home in the Bronx.

The above piano used in Nick Enright’s work was found in the sprawling, dilapidated mansion that once served as a retirement home. For the special show, artists were invited to create installations throughout the building and allowed to source salvaged objects for their work. The piano plays music recorded by Enright that evokes the Latino heritage of the neighborhood’s current residents. “This Side of Paradise” is on view through June 5, 2012.

“Pipe Organ,” 2009-11 (tin, paint, speakers, wire, Yamaha organ) by Lutz Bacher at the Whitney Biennial.

Detail of “Pipe Organ” by Lutz Bacher.

“Polychromatic Scales,” by Chris Soria shown in July 2011 in front of Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center was a part of the Sing for Hope pop-up piano project in New York.

Similar public piano projects have been hosted in Austin, Texas (“Play Me, I’m Yours”) and Denver (“Keys to the City”). On May 4, the “Rescue and Redemption” exhibit in Fort Collins, Colo., will include work by five artists who will create new objects using decommissioned pianos from the city’s “Pianos About Town” installation.

“Blossom,” 2007 (steel, Zoopoxy, silk leaves, wood, piano with MIDI system) by Sanford Biggers at “Sweet Funk: An Introspective” at the Brooklyn Museum (Sept. 23, 2011 to Jan. 8, 2012). Watch a video of Biggers discussing “Blossom.” The Brooklyn Museum has acquired the piano sculpture and it is currently on display in the museum’s Great Hall.

“Kalimba II,” 2007 by Sanford Biggers at “Sweet Funk: An Introspective” at the Brooklyn Museum.

Just as the Biggers exhibit was closing, Cuban artist Glenda Leon’s show “Listening to Silence” was opening at the New York gallery Magnan Metz. On view from Jan. 12 to Feb. 18, 2012, it featured a grand piano with flowers blossoming from it. The gallery described the piece thus: “The focal piece in the show, Objeto Mágico Encontrado #5 (Magical Found Object) presents a broken Baby Grand piano resting on the ground, missing one leg, with flowers growing out of its interior. The work exemplifies the artist’s optimism: the piano in ruins brings forth flowers, a metaphor of music’s power to continue to blossom in ones soul.”

Detail of “Dualing Pianos: Agapé Agape in D Minor,” by Mauricio Ancalmo at the James Cohan Gallery.

“Dualing Pianos: Agapé Agape in D Minor,” 2011 (player pianos, music rolls, word processor). James Cohan Gallery describes the installation thus: “The piece consists of two player pianos facing each other, with a word processor separating and mediating the two instruments and a large loop of paper moving slowly between the machines, fueling a three-way conversation.” The exhibit is on view from March 30 to May 5, 2012.

Installation view of “Dueling Pianos” by Mauricio Ancalmo.

“The Ravages,” 2012 (piano, typewriter, speakers, CD player) by Nicky Enright, shown at left with “Orange Mirror,” 2012 (mixed-media on red cedar wood) by Justen Ladda at “This Side of Paradise.”

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