How Questlove Learned to Love Silence
EPISODE 3: HOW QUESTLOVE LEARNED TO LOVE SILENCE
Ok, so normally on this podcast, we walk around the galleries at MoMA and look at the art that’s hanging there. Normal stuff.
But today, I want to take you someplace… secret.
Someplace in the building that’s totally off-limits to the public.
[MUSIC / sound of walking through building]
OK, so to get there, you have to go down this little hallway and there’s like a bigger hallway and you have to go up some stairs and then you have to pay some dude. You know what?! I’ve said too much.
OK, but when you get where you’re going, you open this door and you’re inside … a lab.
And there are big work tables, giant suction tubes hanging down from the ceiling that sort of look like robot arms, there’s a lot going on.
Ellen Davis: Sometimes for certain kinds of treatments that aren’t necessarily too great for our health so we use these to extract the fumes.”
This is Ellen Davis and all around us… is just a ton of incredibly famous art.
Abbi: There's just like a Matisse leaning on a desk against something. I mean, in a very responsible way. But in way that's just so jarring to see work not, that not hung up. There's a Picasso next to it just on an easel.
OK, it was kind of like casually hooking up with a Picasso. It was incredible! OK, so what room am I talking about? Where am I? You guys are like “What are you saying?” So I’m standing in MoMA’s conservation department--and this is where paintings and other works of art go when then need a tune-up.
And so Ellen is standing with me and she has all these tools neatly laid out: a scalpel, cotton swabs, there’s tweezers, brushes, a ton of stuff.
Ellen Davis: They’re tiny little spoons.
Abbi: Whoa, they are miniscule spoons.
Ellen Davis: They’re used for corneal surgery.
Abbi: And at the end there’s a teeny tiny spoon for like a ladybug.
Ellen Davis: Yes it’s a ladybug spoon.
So when she was in college, Ellen studied painting and pre-med. Which is kind of perfect considering what she’s doing now. She’s been restoring art for 10 years....
Ellen Davis: And it still very special. The difference in seeing art in this space is that everything is much more real. Everything looks like a handmade objects; which is amazing because it's exactly what all of these things are. Everything is a physical thing that was made by one human being.
And that’s when I turn my head and see what she’s working on right now.
The thing I’ve come in here to see: a giant canvas … more than four feet wide by six feet tall, slightly rounded corners, and the most intense blue I’ve ever seen.
This is A Piece of Work and I’m Abbi Jacobson. So this episode is all about Monochromes. Those paintings that are just one color, where it looks like all the artist did was paint a canvas with a roller and then moved on. But there’s so much more to it than that.
[THEME MUSIC POSTS AND OUT]
Ok to give you a sense of this canvas I saw… I need you to take a moment to imagine something. Shut your eyes if you need to.
Imagine the color blue.
Now picture it deeper.
Now picture it sharper, almost electric.
Picture the kind of blue that’s the deepest bliss you’ve ever experienced. The kind of blue that’s the deepest sorrow or agony that you’ve ever experienced.
That is what the artist Yves Klein wanted to capture, this incredibly specific blue.
Klein filled hundreds of canvases with this special blue. This piece we’re looking at right now is from 1961.
Ellen Davis: Yves Klein made over 200 of these works. No two are identical, but they are all made with the same materials.
Abbi: I had to like turn my back while I was talking to you, away from it because it is so vibrant and it's pretty consuming. So, okay why don't you tell us about this piece that you've been working on for six months.
Ellen Davis: Six months, There’s still quite a bit of time to go on it.
Abbi: That’s nuts! Not to be frank but are you going crazy? Someone said that your mom's been sending you orange stuff to counteract the blue.
Ellen Davis: Yeah, she's really worried about me.
Abbi: What kind of stuff? Just oranges?
Ellen Davis: Whatever she finds that's orange. She'll just stick it in the mail.
Abbi: You should just wear orange.
Ellen Davis: Yeah, probably a good idea.
OK, back to the blue.
Ellen Davis: Klein found this color to be very seductive.
Abbi: It totally is. Should I start wearing this color?
Ellen Davis: Yeah, maybe. But people who stand in front of this painting also find it to be like irresistible. It is a very powerful color but because I'm working on it so up close and I'm focusing mostly on the texture of it. There's something that happens in your brain, I think it cancels the color out; especially when you're focused on a much smaller area.
But yeah, I have to take breaks. It couldn't be more damaging than looking at a computer screen all day.
Abbi: No, you're right. This seems a lot better. I think it's way better.
Ellen Davis: It's way better. Yeah, it's funny that for such a simple work there can be so much painstaking work to go into it. But Yves Klein, during this period, was fascinated by this color, which is Ultramarine Blue.
Abbi: This is when you go into an art store, this exists in every paint? And every brand makes this color?
Ellen Davis: Yeah. He was in love with the luminosity of this color in its unbound state. But he wanted to be able to put exactly this color on a vertical surface. So he worked with a scientist in Paris to create a formulation that would allow him to retain this luminosity but on a vertical surface. So it was applied to this surface with a paint roller. Um so if you look at the back ...
Abbi: Wow, let's look at the back.
Ellen Davis: You can see that it's made on a very fine canvas but it's mounted onto a board.
Abbi: Right. This is the thinnest canvas I've ever seen. It's almost like a linen.
Ellen Davis: It's a handkerchief linen. So the roller creates this really sharp texture on the front.
Abbi: Not that it's the same, but I've painted my room. You get this toothy ... It's that sound. The sound is the same as the texture, kind of. It's like a stickiness.
Ellen Davis: Exactly.
Abbi: You know, when you're talking about how he loved this color so much but he spent so much time trying to figure out how to make this color blue the same on canvas and worked with the scientist. Do you feel like in working on this, you're doing the exact same thing and it's all about this ... In this amazing way, it's all about this color?
Ellen Davis: Oh yeah, absolutely. It's all about this color….And it was all about this color for him. I mean it's very beautiful so he actually considered the physical painting itself. He called it, I believe, the ashes of his art. The painting itself is, in a sense, not really the art. What he was interested in is the effect or the memory of the blue on the viewer. Like you were saying, you have to be standing in front of it in order to really understand his intent. What he was wanting was for the viewer. So what he was he was wanting, and he used this word, he was pretty sexy, to be “impregnated by blue.”
Ellen Davis: Yeah, he's real.
Abbi: Impregnated by blue.
Ellen Davis: So, later on he made similar works with blue using sponges. He would physically impregnate the sponge with blue. He wanted the viewer to have that same feeling.
So I wanted to bring in a friend who I knew would appreciate this place, and this art. In fact, he has a blue monochrome print in his house.
Ahmir Thompson: This is amazing.
Abbi: Does the print do it justice?
Ahmir Thompson: The print reminds me that I don't own this yet. But this is amazing.
So, that’s Ahmir Thompson, founding member of the band The Roots, author, foodie and most well known as Questlove. And he was very excited...
Cayce: They want you to move away from the piece of art a little bit.
Abbi: Oh thanks. Oh, 'cause we're gonna hurt it? (laughter) We were standing very close to the painting, like scarily close that we would damage it.
Whoops. Ok, I knew how close we were. Nothing was going to happen. Anyways...
Abbi: I don't think I've seen a Klein in person. Definitely not in this way because this is a more casual way to view it than on the museum wall; which is kind of jarring. But people think well this is just blue. Some people have a hard time with this. I fuckin' love it but I'm-
Ahmir Thompson: To me this speaks more volumes than any amount of intricate work that’s available. 'Cause the print in my house, sometimes I'll sit and just stare endlessly at it because I don't know. What does it say to you? Does it calm you?
Abbi: It definitely calms me. I've been talking to all these different people. Just really going over the idea that when you view art, it's really about what happens between you and the piece. It's what it makes you think of and feel. Yeah, I find it very peaceful. The color blue is very calming to me. I like seeing all the texture. You have to get closer once the mics aren't in our face.
Ahmir Thompson: Once we're allowed to?
Abbi: But when you get close, it's all around you. Right now we kind of see ...
Ahmir Thompson: Yeah, you get lost in it.
Abbi: And I really love someone caring so much about one thing; this one color. There was so much that went into this one color. I think that, I don't know, that's kind of rare. I personally find myself torn in directions creatively. I don't know. I feel maybe ... You have your hand in quite a bit. It’s just like, this color was all he cared about during this time and experimenting also the corners are so dope. I just like that, that's the simple-
Ahmir Thompson: See it's good to hear your take on it because when the colors are more, what's the term, synesthesia? I hear stuff when I see colors.
Abbi: Oh, wow.
Ahmir Thompson: So, there's a particular, I don't know. This just reads B flat to me. Like a very low range B flat.
[MUSIC subtly starts to come up in this section -- beginning with a single B flat]
Ahmir Thompson: So when I see it, I hear ... I'll make a Get Out reference, I go into a sunken place. I hear very deep ... Okay, I sound like the art snobs that I was afraid I was.
Abbi: I love it. You actually don't sound like an art snob. You sound like exactly what you do for a living and why you create music. So when you see shit, you hear tones.
Ahmir Thompson: Yeah, I hear sounds when I see it. I think that's the primary reason why the print is in my house.
That metaphor, the sound of a single note … that really stuck with me. And after Ahmir and I talked, I did a little bit of research and discovered the craziest thing.
Yves Klein didn’t just make visual art, he also made music. Back in 1960, he wrote a piece for a full orchestra. He called it “The Monotone Symphony.”
It’s an hour long: it starts with 30 minutes of the entire orchestra all playing just one note…
And then… 30 minutes of silence.
[MUSIC OUT - LONG BEAT OF SILENCE]
That my friends is a Piece of Work. More in a minute.
[REJOIN MUSIC IN]
Abbi: When you were talking about that I'm like, I have no art on my walls.
Ahmir Thompson: I just started.
Abbi: It's a lot of pressure to find the right thing.
Ahmir Thompson: Go solid. Solid is timeless.
Abbi: I know, now hearing you talk about it. Should I just get a Klein?
Ahmir Thompson: Yes. Just write a few screen plays.
Abbi: You know what? It's a write off, right?
Ahmir Thompson: Yes, it is.
Abbi: This is work technically and it's a write off.
Ahmir Thompson: I guarantee you, this will last the standard of time.
So I bought a Klein. And it’s in my apartment. And I get very close to it. Just kidding!
But I did fall in love with Klein’s blue. So then I walked around the galleries and see what other monochrome paintings I might come across. And I found this whole room dedicated to the works of the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich. All the paintings in this room were made in the early 1900s around the time of the Russian Revolution.
I walk in, right in front of me there’s this painting of two white squares, one on top of the other. One square is a slightly different white than the other one. And the top one is a little askew.
Anne Umland: So I read a little bit about Malevich being…
Anne Umland: Malevich, Malevich
Abbi: I was saying Malovich, John Malkovich (laughter)
This is Anne Umland. She’s just a lovely human being who specializes in this stuff.
Anne Umland: I always think ... Oh I hope my brother-in-law is not listening. But my brother-in-law is always my audience in my mind 'cause he's an irrigation specialist.
Abbi: 'Cause he's not interested?
Anne Umland: He probably would walk up to this and say, "Huh two squares. I could draw two squares." And would just go by and then I would suppose I would try to get him to start thinking about, "Well they're two squares but the artist clearly had to make a decision about they're two different colors. Why is one on the diagonal and another not? And why would anyone choose to make a picture just of two squares?" And then maybe my brother-in-law would still say, "I'm not interested."
Abbi: This was probably so jarring and was risky. It just feels modern. It feels like against ... It's crazy that two squares could feel against something but it does feel like "Fuck you, I'm doing these squares."
Anne Umland: Right. And nothing else.
Abbi: You can look at some art that's so clearly, literally talking about the time-
Anne Umland: Illustrative.
Abbi: It's in the paintings or whatever. Yeah, I just don’t know.
Anne Umland: Oh I love what you said about that because I think for me, all other things aside, what a picture ... Like this white on white but it's just this white square on a white background; it's sort of this license to say, "We don't know. It's okay to feel uncertain." Pictures can mean many different things to many different people. If you just step past that. I know that this is the type of picture, that's still to this day, might make some people feel as though the artist was trying to pull over some sort of a joke. You know, is it a joke? That it's just this picture of nothing.
Abbi: Right. Where people look at it and they're like, "I just don't get ... Maybe I'm not seeing the thing that they're trying to say."
Anne Umland: To say. But then if you look at it, I always like when I give tours. I say to people, let's look at the picture for 30 seconds. And then tell me what you notice about it.
[A LITTLE AMBIENT NOISE FROM THE MUSEUM HERE FOR 10 SECONDS]
Abbi: At first, I found it very calming but then it started to make me uneasy because it's off kilter. Then I started to feel the box wasn't a true box in the center.
Anne Umland: Which it's not.
Abbi: It's not. It's off, right?
Anne Umland: Right.
Abbi: And so it started to make me feel like something that's so simple was making me feel not totally stable.
Anne Umland: Which I think, because it has no image, it's not constructed perspectivally there's no-
Abbi: Perspectivally. That's a great word.
Anne Umland: Is that a good word or is it just
Abbi: It's not constructed as a perspectivally.
Anne Umland: He doesn't make a box. He doesn't make lines. He's not creating the illusion of a space that is secure and grounded that we can relate ourselves to.
Abbi: You can think I'm drawn to this. You feel like-
Anne Umland: Or I know where my body is in relation to what's pictured there. This too was made one year after the Russian Revolution so it’s sort of like thinking oh I want to know more about the social, political historical context and this idea of creating a new language for a new era.
Malevich was one of the first artists to stop painting images of things in the visible world—like still lifes or landscapes--he was moving way from that.
He wanted to capture feelings with simple lines or shapes, which was pretty radical at the time.
Abbi: This is a big statement to say because I feel like we’re at an interesting time right now.
Anne Umland: Unsettling.
Abbi: And art is obviously being made in response to what’s going on and we probably won’t even know what the equivalent to this riskiness is…
Anne Umland: Until 100 years later
Abbi: So you can look at really modern, right now art and you can see new changes emerging but you won’t know what the thing. Wow..
Anne Umland: That was the revolution.
Abbi: That was nuts that they were doing that.
Anne Umland: And that means it’s an exhilarating time to be paying attention to art. Cause that moment can be anywhere.
Abbi: I do understand what it must have been like to be trying to express yourself in opposition of something.
Anne Umland: And to create something for the future which is what they did. It's just so great that the picture’s ended up in the museum. So we have that story to tell. Anyway, that's a little sappy but that's my ending.
Abbi: I love sappy stuff.
I really do love sappy stuff. And I also really love the idea of taking time. I feel like so often we’ll in museums with this idea that we have to see everything inside. Every famous piece of art. It’s like a mad dash to see all the most important paintings. And the works that we’re supposed to see that we’re told to see. But what if we just went in and looked at one piece for an hour? What would we see?
And this idea of taking time is something Ahmir has been thinking a lot about too.
Ahmir Thompson:: This is what I learned from Chris Rock. He said that “we need to learn how to get bored again.” And when he explained it to me theb not only did I understand the need to not fill up every space with entertainment. I used to make fun of a lot of my friends who had property in upstate New York. I have a bunch of, I'm sure you have a lot of friends in the acting communities like, "Oh we're going upstate this weekend to the quote to the cabin." And I would laugh at them. Cause my theory was like I need to be within at least 120 seconds of a Duane Reade just to feel safe.
Abbi: I might need something that's ... Everything is there.
Ahmir Thompson: I need a pharmacy at least a block away just to feel safe. But I just never dug the idea of isolation and silence. And you know, the danger in filling up all your time, especially now that we live in the age that we live in where like if you’re bored you’re first default move is to check your phone. “Ah, let me see my Facebook page. Ah let me see what’s on Huffington.” You know. You gotta fill up your mind. The problem with that is that there's an amount of silence that you need so that you can hear ideas that are given to you. I'll say that maybe like a year and a half ago I started ... I used to laugh at people that were meditating. I didn't realize how important silence is and that sort of thing. I'll say that as of now, maybe in the last three months, I've actually enjoyed being bored.
Abbi: I love that. I feel very busy. I don't think I'm even half as busy as you are, but I do feel like that workaholic tendency, where I don't say no to a lot. I'm like I gotta keep ...
Ahmir Thompson: Especially the zone that you're in right now. You're on a well loved, well crafted show that you've created. I feel as though, like every time I watch Broad City I'm thinking like "Oh they'll never top this one." And then the next week, "Oh they topped that one."
Abbi: Oh stop. Well really listening to you say that has ... I've been feeling that. I know I need what you're saying but I've been resisting it.
Ahmir Thompson: At first, I used to panic like "I gotta be busy" but then to do all the things I'm involved with, I feel as though I now have to make space to be bored and sit silent.
Abbi: I think it makes a lot of sense that you have a Yves Klein in your house. That's your cabin in the woods.
Ahmir Thompson: It's my safe space.
Let’s all get cabins in the woods.
Or just take the time. Time is good. You took the time to listen to this, and that’s very cool.
I’m Abbi Jacobson and this is A Piece of Work.
The show is a co-production of WNYC Studios and MoMA. And again, thanks for listening.