Raphael Montañez Ortiz

Duncan Terrace Piano Destruction Concert: The Landesmans’ Homage to “Spring can really hang you up the most”


Not on display

Raphael Montañez Ortiz born 1934
Wood, metal, paint, felt, textile and nails
Object: 1420 × 1245 × 280 mm
Accepted by HM Government In lieu of inheritance tax from the Estate of Jay and Fran Landesman, 2012 and allocated to Tate 2014


Duncan Terrace Piano Destruction Concert: The Landesmans’ Homage to “Spring can really hang you up the most” 1966 is a sculpture that resulted from a piano destruction concert that took place at the London home of the writer Jay Landesman and his wife the composer Fran Landesman on 10 October 1966. The happening, by the American artist Raphael Montañez Ortiz, took place following Landemans’s invitation. It formed part of the Destruction In Art Symposium (DIAS) held in London from 31 August to 30 September 1966, organised by Gustav Metzger and John Sharkey, which had brought Ortiz to London. The context of the symposium encouraged the artist to extend his practice from the studio and into the creation of sculptures as the end result of performances, a pivotal development in his practice. The work consists of the partially destroyed back frame and harp of an upright piano with some of its broken wires still attached. The frame has been turned ninety degrees to take on a portrait format and is displayed attached to the wall; some elements of the broken piano frame were glued and re-consolidated by the artist following the event.

DIAS is now recognised as one of the key international gatherings of happenings artists in the mid-1960s. Ortiz was arguably one of the more prominent participants (alongside Yoko Ono and the Viennese Actionists), both performing a number of destruction ritual events and taking part in discussions throughout the month-long symposium. These events included three piano destruction concerts (one filmed by the BBC, one by American network ABC; the Duncan Terrace Piano Destruction Concert was also recorded); two chair destruction rituals (one for the press conference opening of DIAS and the Duncan Terrace Chair Destruction); one mattress destruction ritual (at Duncan Terrace); two paper bag destruction concerts; and one self-destruction realisation (this latter directly influenced American psychotherapist Arthur Janov’s formulation of Primal Therapy in his publication The Primal Scream 1970).

Prior to the piano destruction, Ortiz had asked that the piano be tuned – it was the piano that Fran Landesman had used to compose a number of her popular musicals, including the hit for which she wrote the words Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most (1955) and the lyrics for her husband’s comedy musical Dearest Dracula (1965). Ortiz paid attention to the harmonics of sound made through the process of destruction or ‘un-making’ and in this event the sound was recorded (a recording accompanies the work), thus providing one aspect of the ‘redemptive’ power of the destruction concert. Ortiz envisages such rituals as part of a ‘shamanic and biblical redemptive sacrificial process, a Kwakiutl-Potlatch Destruction ritual of release, a synesthetic multi-dimensional release’ (Ortiz in email correspondence with Tate curator Andrew Wilson, 24 May 2012). In this description he refers to the practice among Native American groups, specifically the Kwakiutl, of ‘potlatch’, a ceremonial festival at which gifts are bestowed on the guests and property is destroyed by its owner in a show of wealth that the guests later attempt to surpass. The title of the finished work Duncan Terrace Piano Destruction Concert: The Landesmans’ Homage to “Spring can really hang you up the most” was decided between Ortiz and Landesman as a way of enshrining the history of the particular piano used.

Ortiz has described in detail the course of the Duncan Terrace Piano Destruction Concert, the audience for which included two curators from the then Tate Gallery – Ronald Alley and Richard Morphet – as well as the DIAS photographer John Prosser, gathered in the basement of the house as the piano was carried down the stairs:

The rest of us were holding ropes lowering the piano down to the basement when it rolled up on end and got stuck about a third way down the steps between the steps and the ceiling, again the lord works in mysterious ways … I announced there is an esthetic reason why the piano chose to be stuck there … The stairwell will act as a funnel projecting the sound with amplification into the basement … The first hit of the axe proved my theory, the sound resonated as I have never heard before, and in addition to the drama of the sound the sounds of pieces of the piano which would otherwise however far they flew just land on the floor played a much more dramatic role in the sound of the concert as they tumbled down the steps in an orchestration with the piano’s amplified sound of resonating strings … Another new potential piano destruction concert sound joined my repertoire.
(Ortiz in email correspondence with Tate curator Andrew Wilson, 24 May 2012.)

Further reading
Rafael Montañez Ortiz (Ralph Ortiz), Years of the Warrior 1960, Years of the Psyche 1988, exhibition catalogue, El Museo del Barrio, New York 1988.
Unmaking: The Work of Raphael Montañez Ortiz, exhibition catalogue, Jersey City Museum, Jersey City 2007 http://www.jerseycitymuseum.org/documents/ORTIZ_VirtualCatalog_SP07.pdf, accessed April 2013.

Andrew Wilson
April 2013

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