Listening to pictures

Thanks to art, we can sometimes see what we otherwise can only hear. Edvard Munch's ''The Cry'' reverberates in our consciousness even though it is only a small black-and-white image, and Morris Graves's ''Bird Singing in the Moonlight'' pours out its heart, although its song appears only as a jumble of white lines.

There are other works of art that resonate with qualities that normally are not visible. Klee, Burchfield, Marin, and Bacon all painted pictures that seem as much directed at aural as at visual sensibilities. And I for one have never been able to pass a Kline without ''hearing'' a great deal of ''noise.''

Most painters, however, deal with silence. It would be impossible, for instance, to visualize a dog barking anywhere in a Cezanne landscape, kitchen noises erupting in a Vermeer interior, or any of Rembrandt's painted subjects actually speaking. The sum and substance of what these great artists have to communicate must come exclusively through our eyes, and must then mutely pervade our inner beings.

This is particularly true of classical art, in which silence can almost be weighed, and movement, if it exists at all, is slow and very measured. Silence, as a matter of fact, is an excellent criterion by which to examine the more severe forms of abstract art. Mondrian, for instance, meant relatively little to me until I began to sense the remarkable silence that surrounds his canvases. And nothing in this world can be more profoundly still than Rothko at his best.

Much the same holds true of the majority of Morris Graves's paintings and drawings. Silence, the condition itself, and the aura of watchful waiting it induces has been central to many of his images of birds, small animals, trees, flowers, ritual vessels, fish, and insects. Nothing could be more hauntingly still and silent than his ''Blind Bird,'' for instance, or his studies of hibernating animals.

And so it seems all the more surprising that Graves produced some of the most sound-haunted images of our time. ''Bird Maddened by the Sound of Machinery in the Air'' almost screeches in terror before us, and his paintings of wounded gulls cry out with pain as well as with rage.

It shouldn't surprise us, however, that Graves is so sensitive to sound, or that he can evoke it so well in his paintings. Anyone as drawn to and as aware of silence as he is must have very particular ideas about sound, and rather dramatic ones about noise.

That he does so is obvious from his series devoted to machine-age noise and the jarring effects such noise can have on sensitive living things. Noise in Graves's universe is not merely annoying, it is downright threatening; it has the capacity to inhibit true growth in things and creatures and to deflect humanity from its fullest realization of itself.

In this respect, Graves's preoccupation with silence, and his occasional intense focus upon the abrasive effects of noise, must be seen within the larger context of his search for spiritual fulfillment and meaning. If harmony and wholeness are the external measures of inner serenity and truth, then anything that impedes or subverts their realization is detrimental. And this would most particularly apply to the sounds of war and to those of machines gone mad.

To an artist of Graves's talents and sensitivities, the subtle tensions between a silver and a brown, or between the straight stem of a flower and the delicate curve of a vase, surpass in importance the more violently dramatic and aggressive shapes, colors, movements, sounds, and smells that demand daily entrance into our 20th-centuray urban - and even rural - sensibilities.

It is against this indiscriminate bombardment and the resulting possibility of desensitization that Graves directs this aspect of his art. And he is one of the very few artists to have done so. By and large, from the moment Pollock, Still, Hofmann, Kline, etc., appeared on the scene roughly 40 years ago, American art has reveled in bigness, noise, and passionate color. It has done wondrous things with them and, one hopes, will do wondrous things with them in the future. But we also need more still and quiet voices, more reminders that art need not always present itself at maximum strength and size. We need to be reminded that there are times and truths that demand subtlety, delicacy, and a gentle touch. And, even more, that we need a little peace and quiet within which we can meditate and ''invite our souls.''

One of the best ways to evoke such peace and quiet is by example. The vast majority of Graves's paintings - most particularly those of the past two decades - do have a remarkably quieting effect if given a chance.

And yet, there are times when an artist wants to confront the issue directly, when he wants to name names and to point the finger of guilt at the offending party.

Such obviously was the case with his series on machine-age noise. These represent very simple natural environments overwhelmed by visual approximations of noise. In No. 2, two black lines of force move downward with the speed of bullets. And in No. 3, delicate grasses and tiny flowers are bombarded by what appear to be heavy globules of explosive sound.

But it is in ''Spring With Machine Age Noise No. 4'' that Graves's intentions are most clearly exposed. In it, we are witness to an invasion and a violation. A gently rolling grassy area studded with flowers and plants is viciously attacked by screeching, cacophonous noise. It rends the air and violates all notions of peace and quiet, and totally dominates the environment that only seconds before had been calm and serene.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.