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Guitars, stars, and attitude

A Jerry Lee Lewis piano is part of “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll,” which runs at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art through Oct. 1.
A Jerry Lee Lewis piano is part of “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll,” which runs at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art through Oct. 1.(Courtesy of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame)

What is likely to prove this year’s single most inspired bit of exhibition display — it’s easily the most aesthetically resonant — occurs in “Medieval to Metal: The Art and Evolution of the Guitar.” The show, which runs through Sept. 22 at the Currier Art Museum, is one of several music-related museum exhibitions dedicated to the very happy proposition that seeing can be listening — and vice versa.

“Medieval to Metal” has three elements. There are more than 20 photographs by Neil Zlozower of various guitar gods (Beck, Clapton, Page, et al.) and a few goddesses (Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Chrissie Hynde). There are also a couple of dozen LP covers. Both are peripheral to the main business of this winningly unfussy show: 40 musical instruments from the collection of the National Guitar Museum, in Orlando.

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Each instrument gets its own display case, where it’s presented for maximum visual effect: individually lit, behind plexiglass, and in front of a black background. The instruments are displayed upright, as if saluting both museumgoers and themselves, and deservedly so. There’s such beauty in these objects, combining utility and ornament: sound as fury, sound as finery. If you doubt that, just look at the B.C. Rich Red Warlock. It could be a piece of sculpture.

A guitar has such an interesting appearance. Biomorphic curves and Euclidean straightness are a marriage made in geometric heaven, and just to keep things from becoming too rarefied you have frets and strings and tuners and sound holes.

There are guitar forerunners here: an oud, a theorbo, a charrango (with a soundbox made of armadillo skin). There are examples of guitar royalty: a Telecaster and a Stratocaster, from Fender; a Gibson Les Paul. Best of all, perhaps, are the guitar oddities. It shouldn’t be surprising that the electric guitar has had so many national variants. It was the foremost worldwide culture object of the second half of the 20th century, globalization with a whammy bar. There are guitars from Sweden, Brazil, Japan, Italy, Vietnam, each with its own distinctive variations. A Tonika Soviet Guitar is from way back in the USSR.

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All of which sets the stage for that bit of inspired presentation. It’s easily overlooked — or even assumed to be a mistake. It’s an empty display case. Whuh? Look at the label: “Air Guitar.” This is a very funny joke. Like any good joke, it speaks to a larger truth. Really, isn’t air guitar the ax to end all axes, the most popular musical instrument there is?

The appeal of a guitar — of any musical instrument, but a guitar especially — is threefold: the sonic beauty it can produce (thank you, says the ear); its handsomeness as an object (thank you, says the eye); the associations it conjures up (thank you, says the imagination). Air guitar, as a concept, is about self-conjuring. So much of the marvelousness of “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll,” which runs at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art through Oct. 1, has to do with the conjurations of others.

None of the guitars in “Medieval to Metal” belonged to famous musicians. That’s fine; it bespeaks the show’s seriousness, with a focus on music rather than celebrity. But what a total kick when music and celebrity play a duet, as is the case with the 130 instruments in “Play It Loud.”

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James Jamerson’s upright bass
James Jamerson’s upright bass(Courtesy of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame)

A random sampling might include Jerry Lee Lewis’s piano, one of Ringo Starr’s Ludwig drum kits (those anvils on which so much of the ’60s was beaten into shape), Ravi Shankar’s sitar, the upright bass played by the legendary Motown session man James Jamerson, Brian Jones’s Mellotron. Yes, there was such a thing as a Mellotron, and, yes, a Rolling Stone owned one. Go back and listen to “Their Satanic Majesties Request.”

Big deal: Jimmy Page owned a theremin. “Play It Loud” includes said item, as well as one far more familiar to Led Zeppelin fans, Page’s double-necked Gibson. The variety of instruments in the show is formidable. Face it, though, the guitars are the stars. Begin with the acoustic Martin played by Elvis during what would become known as “The Sun Sessions.” Bo Diddley’s rectangular Twang Machine is on display, as are guitars once owned by Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Prince. You get the idea. Looking at Muddy Waters’s Telecaster is like getting to see Sophocles’s stylus.

Its well-worn state raises an interesting question about the merits of aura versus appearance. There’s a pristine Stratocaster in the show. Is that preferable to Muddy’s proudly battered Telecaster? Or to the Edge’s chipped and much-played Strat? You don’t need to be Walter Benjamin to go with aura.

So much of the appeal of the electric guitar has to do with its being so forthrightly a cultural product of what Benjamin called the age of mechanical reproduction. Few of the instruments in “Play It Loud” were custom-made. Two exceptions were made for Jerry Garcia by Doug Irwin: the Wolf, from 1973, and Tiger, from 1979. The latter is an object of surpassing beauty, right down to the names of its materials: cocobolo maple, flame maple, padauk, and ebony.

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The Wolf guitar Doug Irwin made for Jerry Garcia
The Wolf guitar Doug Irwin made for Jerry Garcia(Guernsey's, New York)

Those two guitars are extreme examples of a truth both “Medieval to Metal” and “Play It Loud” demonstrate: the way sight can complement sound. Looks matter with rock, all the way back to Elvis’s sneer and Chuck Berry’s duck walk. The Who’s Pete Townsend wasn’t kidding when he said, “We won’t let our music stand in the way of our visual act!” Note the exclamation mark.

The 69 photographic portraits in “The Bright and Hollow Sky” remind us of just how visual the music is. The show, which runs at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art through April, takes its title from an Iggy Pop song. In a nice touch, the first and last pictures are of Iggy, from 1970 and 2007. The rock ’n’ roll ravages have done their thing, but those fabulous cheekbones — and that stare — remain intact.

Rock is no less about attitude than it is about sound or appearance. So in another nice touch the show includes photographs of kindred spirits, as one might call them: the photographer Nan Goldin, the cartoonist R. Crumb, the novelist William Burroughs.

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Of course the affiliation can work both ways. All sorts of rock stars have dabbled in the visual arts, from John Lennon, with drawing, to Patti Smith, with photographs. “Chrissie Hynde: Paintings” runs at Mass MoCA through August and coincides with a July 26 concert there by Hynde and her band, the Pretenders. Also currently at Mass MoCA, speaking of rock-star art, is “Annie Lennox: ‘Now I Let You Go. . .’,” which runs through January. It comprises two bows to memory and life’s passage. One is a harshly lit mirrored alcove full to bursting with gold records and other glittering prizes. Bring sunglasses. Around the corner is an excavator-worthy heaping of dirt with an extensive scattering on its surface of everyday objects with personal significance for Lennox. Seeing this, one might think: “Oh, Robert Smithson shopped at Woolworth’s.” Except that gives far too little credit to Smithson and rather too much to Woolworth’s.

Also at Mass MoCA is “Gunnar Schonbeck: No Experience Required,” a longstanding exhibition drawn from the collection of oversize musical instruments built by the late Bennington College professor. It runs through the end of next year. May it run far longer. Enchanting as the instruments are to look at, playing them is that much better. Yes, play: Museumgoers are encouraged to try their hand at them. Air guitar shmair guitar! Medieval to metal to Met to Mass MoCA — here, there, and everywhere — play it loud.

A selection of guitars from “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll”
A selection of guitars from “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll”

MEDIEVAL TO METAL: The Art and Evolution of the Guitar

At Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash St., Manchester, N.H., through Sept. 22. 603-669-6144, currier.org

PLAY IT LOUD: Instruments of Rock & Roll

At Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York, through Oct. 1. 212-535-7710, www.metmuseum.org

THE BRIGHT AND HOLLOW SKY

ANNIE LENNOX: “Now I let you go . . .”

GUNNAR SCHONBECK: No Experience Required

At Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, through April, January, and 2020, respectively. 413-662-2111, massmoca.org


Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.