“Open Plan: Cecil Taylor,” an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, inhabits a grand floor-through gallery on an upper tier of the building. The gallery measures an imposing 18,200 square feet, making it the largest column-free exhibition space in New York-and yet it seems barely capable of containing the irreducible creative energies of the subject at hand. That was the overwhelming impression left by a glorious, transfixing and challenging opening concert on Thursday night, featuring Taylor at the piano with two sets of volatile collaborators.
Taylor has been a restless paragon of the avant-garde for more than 60 years, leaving an incalculable influence on the development of free improvisation, while also embodying an ideal of rigorous interdisciplinary practice. At 87, he’s among the greatest living figures in American music, but no less seriously a poet, and something like a philosopher of movement and spatial dimension. To the extent that it’s a career retrospective, “Open Plan: Cecil Taylor” makes this point implicitly, with cases full of his hand-scrawled poetry and graphic scores, among other ephemera. On Thursday the point was also made explicit, in an emphatic present tense.