The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is pleased to present Abstract Rhythms: Paul Klee and Devendra Banhart ,on view through February 24, 2008. The exhibition explores the relationship between music and visual art, pairing Klee’s works on paper with those by the young contemporary artist Banhart. Organized by Apsara DiQuinzio, assistant curator of painting and sculpture at SFMOMA, Abstract Rhythms includes 27 works, and is part of an ongoing presentation within Matisse and Beyond, an exhibition that highlights the museum’s painting and sculpture collection, and draws from Dr. Carl Djerassi’s gifts and extended loans to SFMOMA of more than 150 pieces by Klee.
Featured alongside the work of the master are 13 new works by Banhart (b. 1981), who is also a popular musician, known for his surrealistic lyrics. Like many artists working today, Banhart considers Klee an important creative touchstone. The drawings were made in conjunction with his fifth and most recent album, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon(released September 2007 on XL Recordings). These drawings are featured in the 64 page book included in the deluxe limited edition version of Smokey along with 10 additional drawings and a series of exclusive photos of Devendra with his friends and family who contributed to the new album. Both the drawings and the album spring from a personal narrative developed around a fictional protagonist named Smokey-an archetype of a person Banhart frequently encounters while on tour. In these drawings, he depicts the invented persona assuming character traits culled from a diverse array of mythological and ethnic references.
In Kadmon Smokey (2007),Banhart thematically draws from the kabbalah, presenting Smokey as the primordial Kadmon Adam (the first being created by the cosmos), pictorially represented as an abstract, mountainous form around which colorful planets revolve. In Banded King Snake and Thunder Maiden (2007),Banhart blends myriad cultural myths, including a reference to Quetzalcoatl, the ancient Aztec god who is half-bird and half-snake. In the drawing the snake’s vibrant colors signify the plumes of the quetzal bird. Similarly, lightening bolts radiate from the hybrid figure’s hat-an allusion to Indra, the god of thunder in Hindu mythology. Just as Banhart’s drawings reflect divergent sources of inspiration, so does his album, which features him singing in several different languages and employing diverse musical genres that range from samba to gospel to reggae to doo-wop, among others.
Banhart’s otherworldly drawings are populated by whimsical characters that seem suspended in an undefined pictorial space, recalling some of Klee’s surrealist works. Furthermore, his relationship to music, like Klee’s, is interdependent on his visual art practice: “I sing what I can’t draw and draw what I can’t sing,” he explains. Though Klee and Banhart were born a century apart, both oscillate between abstraction and figuration-a tendency enlivened by each artist’s invisible rhythmic pulse.
In conjunction with the exhibition, Banhart will present a musical performance at SFMOMA 17, January 2008. Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon and an accompanying booklet that features reproductions of his drawings are available at the SFMOMA MuseumStore (www.sfmoma.org/museumstore).
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