At the Menil Collection, silence is golden. The Houston institution, which includes the famous Rothko Chapel, firmly believes in fostering the capacity of art to address the heart before the mind. To this end, it eschews wall text, docent tours, and other such noise; the works are allowed to speak for themselves, in their naturally quiet ways.
This philosophy motivates Silence, an exhibition investigating its eponymous theme, curated by Menil's Toby Kamps. Now at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, which collaborated with Menil on a complementary film series, Silence is a blockbuster show by measure of its artist roster: works by René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman, Christian Marclay, and Tino Sehgal, among others, occupy three of the museum's floors.
Some of these works seem to exude silence palpably. Sehgal's performance — consisting of a dancer writhing noiselessly on the museum floor (reproduced with the artist's permission, the performance is constantly ongoing during gallery hours) — and Magritte's paintings of cramped interiors occupied by enormous fruit, for instance, grip the viewer and enshroud her in a noiseless, airless atmosphere somewhere between sublime reverence and terror. Others, like Nauman's neon sculpture metronomically illuminating the words "Violence, Violins, Silence" and Doris Salcedo's concrete- and lace-filled armoires, reference the cultural and political consequences of keeping (or being kept) quiet.
The trouble with a silent exhibition, however, is that for some it is bound to be a mute one. Indeed, if many contemporary art exhibitions feel something like walking through a textbook, it is for a reason: Art nowadays often inheres not so much in the physical object as in the system of relations that it sets up or from which it emerged, and this means some contextual background may be necessary to draw what matters into the viewer's awareness.
For example, one of the best galleries in Silence presents a series of screen prints by Christian Marclay that respond to a striking, peripheral aspect of Andy Warhol's Electric Chair series (also featured). A block of wall text here — the only one in the show — helpfully situates Marclay's dialogue with Warhol.
Steve Roden's abstract paintings, however, receive no such contextualization. In fact, they are visual "translations" of musical scores and, as such, play meaningfully against the artist's other, nearby contribution to the exhibition: a diary of observations made while performing John Cage's 4'33 (which entails sitting silently at a piano for that duration) daily. Without this background, though, the significance of Roden's work is muffled, to say the least.
Silence, then, is decidedly more like walking through visual poetry or collage than an art history book. You may return to a given segment several times without ever puncturing its opacity, but the experience will be no less enjoyable for it. And for those who crave the footnotes, the catalog will be worth every penny.
Silence runs through April 28 at the Berkeley Art Museum (2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley). 510-642-0808 or BAMPFA.Berkeley.edu