Brick House

Melissa Gronlund on Robert Beavers

Left: Robert Beavers, Early Monthly Segments, 1968–70/2002, still from a color film in 16 mm, 33 minutes. Right: Robert Beavers, The Ground, 1993/2001, still from a color film in 35 mm, 20 minutes.

SOME SOUNDS STICK WITH YOU, and three years after I last saw Robert Beavers’s masterful cycle My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure (1967–2002), the noise of fluttering pigeons is still madeleine material, a direct connection to the flapping birds in the Italy of the filmmaker’s tightly focused, mosaiclike works. Living abroad in the 1970s, Beavers documented old Europe through the lens of a young American, finding in its manicured gardens, crumbling facades, and handed-down craft techniques the problems of beauty, age, and artistic influence. In Ruskin (1975/1997), Beavers revisits the sites depicted in John Ruskin’s criticism, setting his film’s montages of Venetian stonework, Alpine peaks, and London statues against the sound of pages inexorably turning. In From the Notebook of . . . (1971/1998), based on the writings of Leonardo da Vinci and Paul Valéry, images of the filmmaker in his room in Florence intersperse with his handwritten notes for the film, at times anticipating sequences or camera movements to come, at other times appearing as retrospective descriptions.

Beavers has described his films as being built brick by brick, a comment that points as much to the meticulousness of their construction as to their static concretism; rather than narratives, they are precise assemblages, joined by formal or associative equivalence or by metaphors of suture. Work Done (1972/1999) compares the process of filmmaking to bookbinding and food preparation; in AMOR (1980) and The Hedge Theater (1986–90/2002), dressmakers’ stitching and sewing operate as stand-ins for the filmic procedures of editing and splicing. The idea of stitching, too, seems apposite to the feel of the films: their handmade quality, but also their refusal of sentimentality and poised manner of presenting the eroticism that runs throughout them. Shots of the naked torso of his lover, the late filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos, sporadically puncture the films’ visual austerity while clearly taking part in a rich system of allusions.

Markopoulos and Beavers left New York in 1967 and continued to work in isolation from the city’s avant-garde scene. Both artists limited screenings of their films—Markopoulos even requested that a discussion of his work be excised from P. Adams Sitney’s book Visionary Film (1974)—and Beavers’s films were not shown publicly again in the US until 1996. (Screenings of both filmmakers’ work are still rare, though dedicated pilgrims might venture to the Temenos, the once annual, but now irregular, screening in the Peloponnese of Markopoulos’s eighty-hour film cycle Eniaios [1948–2000], which Beavers and Markopoulos established in 1980 and which Beavers now runs.) The restoration of Beavers’s films, beginning in the late 1990s, brought out the Mediterranean’s blues and greens, the colors from his frequently used filters, and, particularly, the startling red of a vat of blood cooking in Work Done—emphasizing, though perhaps needlessly, the seriousness with which the filmmaker has taken the examination of beauty through the ages.

“My Hand Outstretched: Films by Robert Beavers” screens January 29–30 and February 3 at the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University. For more information, click here.