The famously charismatic, world renowned conductor Gustavo Dudamel has begun his term as Princeton University’s first conductor in residence, and he is keen to bring an interdisciplinary focus to his stay. In an interview with U.S. 1, a sister paper to the Echo, he noted: “What this residency offers is a rare opportunity to bring all these diverse points of contact together: friends and colleagues from many disciplines, all woven together into a kind of personal, creative, intellectual, philosophical, spiritual, and educational tapestry.”
Adding the visual arts to that conversation is Princeton-based artist Marsha Levin-Rojer, whose exhibit “Music Made Visible: Metaphors of the Ephemeral” is on view at the Woodrow Wilson School’s Bernstein Gallery through Thursday, January 31. An associated panel discussion takes place Wednesday, January 9, at 4:30 p.m. in McCosh Hall 10 on the university campus followed by a reception at the gallery. Both events are free.
Levin-Rojer was drawn to art as a child in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, but was drawn to a more career-oriented field in college at Temple University, where she studied math. She worked in medical research and as a cryptanalyst for the NSA, but resumed drawing and taking art classes after the birth of her daughter in 1976. She also continued working — as a systems analyst for Deloitte & Touche — until age 50, when she earned a certificate in fine art from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.
Her art work has been exhibited regionally and internationally. Her Bernstein exhibit is not her first foray into the intersection of music and art. In 2016 she created an installation titled “The Musical Line” in Richardson Auditorium to accompany the university’s Performance Up Close concert series.
In a recent artist’s statement, Levin-Rojer explains the thought processes and influences behind the varied art projects she has pursued.
I draw inspiration from many sources: the beauty and complexity of Nature, the transcendence of music, and the power of human emotion. A common, although not exclusive, element throughout my work is organic form and a recurring theme is that of contrast: light v. dark, the ephemeral v. the concrete, order v. chaos, being v. not being. Trained as both a mathematician and an artist, I constantly struggle to find the proper balance between logic and intuition.
My work has moved along a series of parallel paths over the last 30 years. Exploring a variety of styles and mediums, including landscape drawings, organic drawings, watercolor grids, and musical landscapes, I see each, in its own way, as a “drawing”, with a focus on linearity and mark-making. My process is an iterative one — depending a lot on erasure. The often seemingly random line, heavy use of black and emphasis on negative space allow my images to emerge from darkness.
My series of organic abstractions are inspired by work of Martha Graham from the 1940s. By encasing the dancer in cloth, Graham used the folds and tensions of the fabric to express the emotions of the piece and I try to capture this in my drawings.
The Mandala Series began with a very detailed drawing of a small cluster of moss. Because the image had a cosmic quality and the creative process was so meditative, I named it Mandala (Sanskrit for circle or completion), a ritualistic design symbolic of the universe that is often used as an aid to meditation. I have since created large and small mandalas, using graphite, charcoal, ink, oils, rubber stamping, wire, tape and cut paper. Each mandala takes on a slightly different quality and energy and opens up new possibilities for another.
I have taken a more mathematical approach along some of the paths. For the musical landscapes, I envisioned mappings of rhythm into line, harmony into plane, and the intersection of the planes into the landscape itself — music suffusing and infusing the world. The grids are explorations of color in which I impose a set of constraints (size of square, color/no color) to see what different forms, architectural or organic, can be created by manipulating such a limited set of parameters. For a “City Rhythm” series, I was most interested in the edge between being and not being — where the colored squares reach a critical density and a building emerges.
Most recently, I have moved the line “off the page” by using wire, tape, beads, monofilament and cut paper. For these works, the three-dimensional “drawing” is often played against its shadow to create a “conversation” between two and three dimensions. For the Princeton University Concert Series 2015-’16, I created three individual installations, titled “The Musical Line,” to be suspended above the musicians and move in response to the energy and air currents generated by the performers.
The current exhibition: “Music Made Visible: Metaphors of the Ephemeral” is an extension of “The Musical Line” where the primary focus is on the magical transformation of invisible, evanescent sound waves into the “concrete” musical forms that we perceive. With a nod to the wave/particle duality of energy, light and sound, I have used both lines and dots throughout much of the work to capture the energy and movement. The titles and inspiration for several of the works come from direct quotes by Maestro Gustavo Dudamel, whose residency with the Princeton University Concert Series gave rise to this exhibition, and from the “Partita for Eight Voices” by Caroline Shaw, a PHD graduate of the Princeton University Department of Music.
Fortunately, the very different bodies of work with which I have engaged seem to play well off each other as I continue move back and forth among them with hopefully fresher eyes and new insights.
This article was originally published in the January 2019 Princeton Echo.