Joel Coon: A Piano’s Mysterious Presence

A large enshrouded grand piano occupies one side of the Spencer Museum of Art’s Central Court. This gallery contains Ann Hamilton’s figura, one of two installations in An Errant Line. A pink satin garment wraps around the piano’s perimeter, tethered to the gallery walls with four visible wires. Its pigment mimics the colors in the floor tiles and the prints that cover the walls. The drapery’s luminous folds reflect hues of varying brightness as the observer walks around the mysterious instrument. The fabric frustrates the viewer’s gaze by concealing the bodies of the piano and performer, offering only a glimpse of the legs and feet of the instrument, bench, and player.

Kneeling down, the observer is able to see the piano’s glossy ebony finish as well as the details of manufacture. Made by Carl Bechstein’s company in Berlin, Germany, this piano was played by Franz Liszt during his final European tour of 1886. A descriptive panel in an adjacent room notes that Liszt, in addition to his virtuosity as a pianist, composer, and teacher, was a devout member of the Franciscan order. Incidentally, it was St. Francis who brought the presepio figure tradition to prominence in 13th-century Italy after renouncing the material wealth of his father’s fabric merchandizing. Hamilton’s piano garment draws on these relationships; rather than merely obscuring the instrument from view, it envelops the piano’s musicality in religious and material connections. The hazy prints of the resepio figures, afforded an elevated vantage from the room’s walls, can peer down onto the dormant piano in anticipation of musical accompaniment. They watch and wait in relative silence for the instrument’s sound to animate their environment and interactions with one another. Although frustrating to the viewer, it is the piano’s blanketing drapery that ties its musical past and present to the figures’ material and spiritual tradition.

Joel Coon, undergraduate art history and anthropology major, University of Kansas

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