Lewis Baltz in front of a collage in his exhibition in Hanover, Germany, 2012. Photo: Jochen Luebke dpa Corbis.


I GREW UP during the 1950s in the then rapidly expanding university town of Davis, California, living with my family in a brand-new tract-housing development at the very edge of a vast expanse of barley, alfalfa, sugar beet, corn, and tomato fields. My youthful roaming on foot and by bicycle regularly brought me and my friends into other nearby neighborhoods as they were being newly constructed, along with visits to some of the canneries and industrial buildings then sprouting up throughout Yolo County. We didn’t know it then, but we were living within a microcosm of the American West that was being transformed before our eyes.

Much later in life, when I moved to San Francisco in 1974 as a young artist and became a faculty member at San Francisco State University, I first met Lewis Baltz and encountered his photographs. Lewis was introduced to me by my good friend, Geoffrey Young, a talented poet and copublisher of The Figures press, who called my attention to Lewis’s Tract Houses of 1971 and his subsequent The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California of 1974. I immediately judged these photographic projects to be a compelling new form of acerbic visual literature, one whose content resonated fully with my own life’s experience. Geoffrey Young then rang my bell again in 1980, saying that he had hot in his hands a preview copy of Park City, Lewis’s brand-new photography book. It set forth another stirring visual survey created within the American West, one strongly supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, which documented a devastated tract of land extant not far from Salt Lake City that had been heavily mined during the nineteenth century. Here was another residential-real-estate boom in the making presented for visual contemplation, this one tied to that of rapidly expanding ski-resort areas then being developed in the West. And not only did Baltz present Park City as his own powerful visual essay of lament, he also tag-teamed it in his new book with a brilliant and insightful essay authored by the writer Gus Blaisdell. Up until this time, the only photographer I admired who had actively engaged a noted writer with his work was Robert Frank, whose introduction for The Americans by Jack Kerouac became a classic pairing of images and words that is still relevant today.

  • Lewis Baltz, Tract House #1, from the series The Tract Houses, 1971, gelatin silver print, 5 1/2 x 9”.

  • Lewis Baltz, Tract House #13, from the series The Tract Houses, 1971, gelatin silver print, 5 1/2 x 9”.

  • Lewis Baltz, Foundation Construction Many Warehouses 2892 Kelvin Irvine, from the series The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California, 1974.

I had a wonderful opportunity come my way later on, during the mid-’80s, when I was asked to nominate two artists to create works in response to the public land known as Candlestick Park located on the outskirts of San Francisco. Happily, both of my nominees, Lewis Baltz and David Ireland, were awarded such commissions. And here yet again was another track of devastated land to be carefully considered and documented by Lewis, an unnatural field of construction debris that had been dumped in vast quantities into San Francisco Bay as landfill in advance of a new sports stadium that was then built on the site. Once opened, it became the home of the Giants and the 49ers and also hosted numerous concerts. The park’s vast asphalt parking lots almost surrounded the entire stadium, an austere and rubble-strewn landscape that finally ended at the Bay’s waters.

I instinctively knew that Lewis would engage this spectacle in a trenchant manner, as he proceeded to do with his Candlestick Point project, 1989, and the new book that later accompanied it. He had a bit earlier in the decade taken a close look at another tract of despoiled bayfront land, on which one of California’s oldest maximum-security prisons stands in stark isolation against natural beauty of the most arresting sort. Many of us in the field of photography knew and admired Lewis for the fine work he did on both of these very public sites, but it was not until more than a decade later, here at the Yale University Art Gallery, that I was able to both purchase and exhibit his entire Park City survey, in 2002. It was shown simultaneously with Robert Adams’s What We Bought: The New World, 1973–74, and Emmet Gowin’s Aerial Photographs, 1998, and Changing the Earth, 2002—commanding photographic surveys attended with important books that offer powerful visual evidence of how humankind has been continuously transforming the natural environment within which we all live and work.

Lewis “Duke” Baltz has now left us, but his brave and remarkable legacy of visual literature will no doubt endure for a very long time via his many photographs. They provoke serious thought, waves of unease, and a terrible sense of beauty that cannot be easily shaken once they enter one’s eyes and mind.

Jock Reynolds is the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Lewis Baltz, untitled, from the series Candlestick Point, 1989.


Jane Freilicher, 2008. Photo: John Zinsser.


ON A HOT AFTERNOON in early July, 1949, Jane Freilicher, who had been busy painting, opened her apartment door at 170 Third Avenue to hand John Ashbery a key to his sublet. They ought to have had nothing in common. Jane was a twenty-four year old, formerly married, Jewish, Brooklyn-bred valedictorian who had won a merit scholarship to Brooklyn College and then studied painting with Hans Hofmann. John was a twenty-one year old poet, a month out of Harvard, Episcopalian, gay, and the son of a farmer in upstate New York. Their wariness about one another, however, did not last even a day; they connected over everything that mattered: their humor, shyness, intelligence, ambition, and melancholy. They had both escaped difficult childhoods for freer lives in Manhattan. They shared a wry sensibility, capacious curiosity, and a fine-tuned ear for the absurd, and they began to spend almost every day together.

Jane introduced John to her friends: painters Larry Rivers, Nell Blaine, Al Kresch, and Al Leslie. John had arrived in New York City with a plan to be a poet and almost no connections. Jane, already ensconced in a life of art, generously shared what she knew. That Jane was the very first person John met on the day he moved to New York was the kind of luck that only happens in the movies.

John did not have Jane to himself for long, though. She bonded with his new college friend, the poet Frank O’Hara, and they traveled among Cambridge, Michigan, and New York to see one another. In the winter of 1952, the poet James Schuyler returned to the city and helped Jane frame paintings. Jimmy was so smitten with Jane’s insouciant excitement about her upcoming professional debut at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York that he composed an affectionate surrealist play, “Presenting Jane,” in her honor. The lyricist and film producer John LaTouche arranged to make a movie of the play. For the very first time during the summer of 1952, Jane, Frank, Jimmy, John, and the poet Kenneth Koch, who had finally returned from a long stretch teaching in France and California, were together. This was not an easy set of personalities to meld, and Jane’s quick, honest, biting sense of humor served as glue. She also read their poems and plays with fervor and delighted understanding. In the iconic shot filmed that summer, Jane, angelically lit, walked on water, becoming in an instant the image and symbol of a goddess.

Jane Freilicher, Young Girl with Flowers, 1952, oil on linen.


Although a willing muse, her talents were not only for her friends but for herself. Her intrinsic, genuine modesty masked a formidable discipline and determination. In 1951, she began working on Young Girl with Flowers. By the time she finished the painting in 1952, it had become a crucial portrait of Jane, about thirteen, on the cusp of maturity, sitting next to a blue vase full of pink, white, and red flowers. Jane and flowers produced an untraditional double portrait. The two subjects were close, nearly touching, in silent communion. From the age of three, Jane had wished for a bouquet of flowers the way other children hoped for toys. The painting’s rendering of her delphic gaze away from that blooming, drooping bouquet suggested an intense scrutiny of her past and future passion.

The precise, enigmatic painting, priced at $150–200, did not sell. “But it should have,” she remarked much later, still irritated. Eventually, she took the fiercely beautiful portrait home from the gallery and hung it in her bedroom directly across from her bed, where it stayed for the next sixty years. Young Girl with Flowers captured her private origins as a painter and intimated her future: an independent mind deciphering mysteries central to her lifelong relationship with art.

Karin Roffman is a writer and teacher based in New Haven.


BELOW IS a slightly expanded version of the text that was read in my absence by Anne Waldman at the Poetry Project celebration of Jane Freilicher on December 12, 2014. It’s in the form of a letter to Jane and her late husband Joe Hazan’s daughter Elizabeth (Lizzie) Hazan, who is also an accomplished painter. Maxine Groffsky’s literary agency represented Robert Rosenblum, Kirk Varnedoe, and the New York School poets James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, and Harry Mathews. She is an editor emeritus of the Paris Review.

Left: Jane Freilicher, Narcissus, ca. 1955, oil on canvas. Collection of Bill Berkson. Right: Jane Freilicher, Flowers and Pine Trees, 1983, oil on linen, 33 x 41”.


Dear Lizzie,

It seems so odd. The past few years of us waving at each other across crowded rooms, and Jane and me doing mostly likewise, except for one terrific lunch at Maxine Groffsky’s last year . . .

It was at a Jane-and-Joe party in Spring 1959 that I met almost everyone––including Jane and Joe, Frank O’Hara, Maxine, and a few others––who would be important to me in the following years.

Everyone mentions Jane’s wit and no-nonsense approach to art and everything else, but at the core was that seldom-remarked-upon integrity. She was “Jane” in every respect.

Regrets: Why I never got to write about Jane’s work beats me. Maybe because she never asked––I don’t think she knew how I loved what she did, even though once or twice I tried to tell her. Maybe it went with missing too many of her shows after moving to California.

Speaking of which, one of my favorite moments: Jane alighting from a car in Bolinas after driving up from Santa Barbara, where she had a residency, remarking on the blue-green coastal landscape: “Now I see what the painters here are up against––that awful palette!”

Two of her pictures have brightened my life everywhere I’ve been since getting them, the first soon after that party in 1959, the other, a knockout “Plaster Venus” drawing in the early 1960s. Years later, when I showed her the first one, probably from the mid-1950s––its splurge of white narcissus with a decisive flat orange vertical in the center of the bulbous vase, all in a wilderness of red, green, and blue thumb-size marks––Jane said, “Oh, the years of struggle!"

I could go on, but this is really just to register a feeling of loss as well as what a wonder she was.

Love,
Bill

  • Jane Freilicher, Twelfth Street and Beyond, 1976, oil on linen, 50 x 60”.

  • Jane Freilicher, Windows, Flowers, Sherry Bottle, 1982, oil on linen, 40 x 60”.

Bill Berkson is a poet, critic, and professor emeritus at the San Francisco Art Institute, who divides his time between San Francisco and New York.

Jane Freilicher and John Ashbery at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1952. Photo: Walter Silver.


I’M WRITING THIS in a room that contains a number of pictures, mostly by women, as it happens. One is by Jane Freilicher, a still life in pastel that brings together a half-dozen miscellaneous objects, including a few roses that are having the floral equivalent of a bad hair day, a reddish-brown pamphlet that was probably an address book sent to customers by the phone company (remember those?) and a copy of Art News, flopping over the edge of the table, confronting the viewer, in the time-honored tradition of trompe-l'oeil perspective, but also subtly spoofing it. Jane gave the pastel to me once, perhaps to commemorate my becoming an editor at Art News in 1965 and moving back to New York after ten years in France.

Jane was in fact the first person I met in New York. When I arrived in June, 1949, fresh out of Harvard, my friend Kenneth Koch had said I could stay at his apartment while he was away; I had only to pick up the keys from Jane, who lived above him in a small walk-up building overlooking the Third Avenue El at Sixteenth street (one of Kenneth's favorite diversions was to don a rubber ape mask and gaze out the window at trains as they passed by). I rang the bell and Jane came down and invited me up to her place for a coffee. I didn't know much about contemporary art at the time, and had never heard of the exciting teacher Hans Hofmann, whom Jane and other painters I would soon meet had studied with. It turned out that Hofmann, an abstract expressionist, didn't try to impose his own ideas about art on his students, but somehow encouraged them to be more like themselves. I did notice a few small paintings of Jane's in her living room. They seem, in retrospect, funny, discreet, comforting—all things I associate with her.

On my desk is the announcement of her last show in September, 2014, a color lithograph still life called Roses and Chrysanthemums, 2014. It is more straightforwardly realistic than the Art News pastel, yet there are “mysteries of construction,” in Marianne Moore's phrase. For instance, one rose is so meticulously, magic-realistically rendered that it seems to belong to another picture, indeed to another century. But its “lovely companions,” more summarily sketched in, don't seem to notice or mind particularly. Each has a different agenda. Democracy rules.

That's what I love about her work—the democratic vistas. Her pictures seem to have come into being all by themselves—almost. The painter sort of showed them how to do it and then returned to her other work—fixing lunch, maybe, opening the mail, and coming back to check on the picture and make sure it hasn't gone off the rails. The resulting creations look unfinished and incredibly strong. I made this, each of them seems to say. The artist? Yeah, she helped a little, maybe even a lot. Okay, so it was her idea all along.

John Ashbery is a poet based in New York.

Jane Freilicher, Roses and Chrysanthemums, 2014, color lithograph, 27 x 34”.


Ulrich Beck. Photo: Augsburger Allgemeine.


I FIRST ENCOUNTERED Ulrich Beck as a (superannuated) postdoc. I was a Humboldt Stipendiat in Berlin, where in 1987, I heard the sociologist Helmuth Berking give a paper on Beck’s “Reflexive Modernisierung” (Reflexive Modernization) at a Freie Universität colloquium. I had already published a paper called “Postmodernity and Desire” in the journal Theory and Society, and Beck’s notion of reflexive modernization seemed to point to an opening beyond the modern/postmodern impasse. Today, Foucault, Deleuze, and even Lebenssoziologie (Life sociology) are all present in German intellectual life. But in 1987, this kind of stuff was beyond the pale. Habermas and Enlightenment modernism ruled. And rightly so: It is largely thanks to Habermas that Germany now is a land rooted less in fiercely nationalistic Blut und Boden (Blood-and-Soil) than in a more pluralistic Verfassungspatriotismus (Constitutional Patriotism).

Beck’s foundational Risikogesellschaft (Risk Society), however, abandoned the order of Habermas’s “ideal speech situation” for contingency and unintended consequences. This was hardly a celebration of contingency; Beckian contingency was rooted in the Chernobyl disaster; it was literally a poison, or in German a Gift. Hence Beck’s subsequent book was entitled Gegengift, or “Counter-poison.” It was subtitled Die organisierte Unverantwortlichkeit (The Organized Irresponsibility). Beck’s point was that institutions needed to be responsible for a politics of antidote that would address the unintentional generation of environmental crises. This was a critique of systematic institutional irresponsibility—or more literally “un-responsibility”—for ecological disaster. Beck’s thinking became more broadly accepted in Germany over the years. Yet the radically original themes of contingency and unintended consequences remained central to Beck’s own vision of modernity and inspired a generation of scholars.

Beck’s influence has been compared by Joan Subirats, writing in in El País, to that of Zygmunt Bauman and Richard Sennett. Yet there is little in Bauman’s idea of liquidity to match the power of Beck’s understanding of reflexivity. It was based in a sociology of knowledge in which the universal of the concept could never subsume the particular of the empirical. At the same time, Beck’s subject was still knowledge, not the impossibility of knowledge and inevitability of the irrational (not, in other words, the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns” that have proved so damaging to contemporary political thought). Beck’s reflexivity, then, was not just about a Kant’s What can I know?—it was just as much a question of the Kantian What should I do? and especially What can I hope?

For Beck, “un-responsible” institutions were still situated in what he referred to as “simple modernity.” They would need to deal with modernity’s ecological contingency in order to be reflexive. They would need to be aware of unintended consequences, of what environmental economists (and later the theory of cognitive capitalism) would understand as “externalities.” Beck’s reflexivity extended to his later work on cosmopolitanism and Europe. For him, Europe is not an ordering of states as atoms, in which one is very much like the other. It is instead a collection of singularities. Hence his criticism of German Europe’s “Merkiavelli”-ism in treating Greece and the European South as if all were uniform Teutonic entities to be subject to the principle of austerity.

Though Beck has remained highly influential, Bruno Latour’s “actor-network” theory has outstripped his ideas in terms of popularity, establishing a dominant paradigm among sociologists. Yet the instrumentalist assumptions of actor-network theory do not open up the ethical or hopeful dimension of Beck’s work. The latter has been a counter-poison, an antidote to the instrumentalism at the heart of today’s neoliberal politics, in which our singularity has been eroded under the banner of a uniform and possessive individualism. Because of the contingency at its heart, Beck’s work could never become a dominant paradigm.

Beck’s ideas clearly drove the volume Reflexive Modernization, which he, Anthony Giddens, and I published in 1994. There, I developed a notion of “aesthetic reflexivity,” and although in some ways I am more of a Foucault, Deleuze, and perhaps Walter Benjamin guy, Beck’s ideas still drive my own work today. Thus we should extend Beckian reflexivity to speak of a reflexive community, and of a necessary risk-sharing that must be at the heart of any contemporary politics of the commons.

I was offered the post to be Ulrich’s Nachfolger (successor) at University of Bamberg when he moved to Munich in 1992. In the end, I decided to stay in the UK, but we kept in touch. Although to a certain extent I’ve become a cultural theorist, Ulrich always treated me as a sociologist, and he was right: When I attended his seventieth birthday party in April 2014, all of cultural Munich was there, from newspaper editors to museum directors. Every February, when he was based at the London School of Economics, Ulrich and his wife Elisabeth would spend a Sunday afternoon with Celia Lury and me at our house in Finsbury Park/Highbury, enjoying a lunch of Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) and deli cheeses and hams. No more than a fortnight before his death Ulrich emailed me about February 2015. I replied sadly that I would be in Asia and for the first time would miss this annual Sunday gathering. At his seventieth birthday Ulrich was in rude health. I was honestly looking forward to his eightieth. Now neither the Islington Sundays nor the eightieth birthday will happen. It is sad.

Scott Lash is the Research Director at the Center for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London.


THE DEATH OF ULRICH BECK is terrible news. It is a tragedy for his family, for his research team, and for his many colleagues and friends, but it is also a tragedy for European thought.

Ulrich was a public intellectual of the infinitely rare kind in Germany, one that was thought only to exist in France. But he had a very individual way—and not at all French—of exercising this authority of thought: There was nothing of the intellectual critic in him. All his energy, his generosity, his infinite kindness, were put in the service of discovering what actors were in the midst of changing about their way of producing the social world. So for him, it was not about discovering the existing laws of such a world or about verifying, under new circumstances, the stability of old conceptions of sociology. No: It was the innovations in ways of being in the world that interested him above all. What’s more, he didn’t burden himself with a unified, seemingly scientific apparatus in order to locate those innovations. Objectivity, in his eyes, was going to come from his ability to modify the explanatory framework of sociology at the same time as actors modified their way of connecting to one another. His engagement consisted of simply prolonging the innovations he observed in them, innovations from which he was able to extricate power.

This ability to modify the explanatory framework was something that Ulrich would first manifest in his invention of the concept of Risikogesellschaft (risk society), which was initially so difficult to comprehend. By the term risk, he didn’t mean that life was more dangerous than before, but that the production of risks was henceforth a constituent part of modern life and that it was foolhardy to pretend that we were going to take control of them. To the contrary, it was necessary to replace the question of the mode of production and of the unequal distribution of wealth with the symmetrical question of the mode of production and the unequal distribution of ills. Coincidentally, the same year that he proposed the term Risikogesellschaft, the catastrophe of Chernobyl lent his diagnostic an indisputable significance—a diagnostic that current ecological transformations have only reinforced.

In turning the uneven division of ills into the common thread of his inquiries, Ulrich would gradually change the vocabulary of the social sciences. And, first and foremost, he changed the understanding of the relationship between societies and their environment. Everything that had seemed to be outside of culture—and outside of sociology—he would gradually reintegrate, because the consequences of industrial, scientific, and military actions were henceforth part of the very definition of communal life. Everything that modernity had decided to put off until later, or simply to deny, needed to become the very content of collective existence. Hence the delicate and intensely discussed expression “reflexive modernity” or “second modernity.”

This attention to risk would, in turn, modify all the usual ingredients of the social sciences: First, politics—its conventional definition gradually being emptied of its content while Ulrich’s notion of “subpolitics” spread everywhere—but also psychology, the elements of which never ceased to change, along with the limits of collectives. Even love, to which he devoted two books with his wife Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, who is so grief stricken today. Yes, Ulrich Beck went big. Perhaps this is why, on a visit to Munich, he was keen to take me on a pilgrimage to Max Weber’s house. The magnitude of Beck’s conceptions, the audacity of trying to rethink—with perfect modesty and without any pretension of style, without considering himself to be the great innovator that he was—truly made him a descendant of Weber. Like him, Beck wanted sociology to encompass everything.

What makes Beck’s death all the harder to accept, for everyone following his work, is that for many years he was making the social sciences undergo a kind of de-nationalization of its methods and theoretical frameworks. Like the question of risk, the question of cosmopolitism (or better, of cosmopolitanism) was one of his great concerns. By this venerable term, he was not designating some call for the universal human, but the redefinition of humans belonging to something other than nation-states. Because his investigations constantly butted against the obstacle of collected facts managed, conceived of, and diffused by and for states—which clearly made impossible any objective approach toward the new kinds of associations for which the empty term globalization did not allow—the methods of examination themselves had to be radically modified. In this, he was succeeding, as can be seen in the impressive expansion of his now leaderless research group.

Beck manifested this mistrust of the nation-state framework in a series of books, articles, and even pamphlets on the incredible experience of the construction of Europe, a phenomenon so admirable and yet so constantly disdained. He imagined a Europe of new affiliations, as opposed to a Europe of nation-states (and, in particular, in contrast to a uniquely Germanic or French conception of the state). How sad it is to think that such an essential question, yet one that is of interest to so few thinkers, can no longer be discussed with him.

I cannot imagine a sadder way to greet the new year, especially considering that Beck’s many research projects (we were just talking about them again in Paris a few weeks ago) addressed the most urgent questions of 2015: How to react to the world’s impotence on the question of climate change? How to find an adequate response to the resurgences of nationalisms? How to reconsider Europe through conceptions of territory and identity that are not a crude and completely obsolete reprise of sovereignty? That European thought has lost at this precise moment such a source of intelligence, innovation, and method is a true tragedy. When Beck asked, in a recent interview, “How does the transformative power of global risk (Weltrisikogesellschaft) transform politics?” no one could have suspected that he was going to leave us with the anxiety of finding the answer alone.

Bruno Latour is professor at Sciences Po Paris and Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics.

Translated from French by Molly Stevens.

A version of this text was published in German on January 5 in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

David Hall, TV Interruptions (TV Shoot-out Piece), 1971. © Deborah Hall/Estate of David Hall.


“AND NOW FOR THE VERY MATERIAL OF TELEVISION.”

These words, spoken by the well-known BBC newsreader Richard Baker at the start of This is a Television Receiver (1976), announce the primary concern at the heart of David Hall’s work. Hall, who passed away in October at age seventy seven, was already a successful sculptor when he began working with 16-mm film and later video, the medium for which he would become a key spokesman, curator, and historian. Throughout his career, Hall approached the moving image and its various containers, in a sense, sculpturally, emphasizing the plasticity of video and the TV set’s material properties.

With This is a Television Receiver, an update of his 1973 This is a Video Monitor for a special episode of the BBC’s program Arena, Hall presents a pedagogically materialist work in which the newsreader explains the technical and social affordances of the medium while his voice and image gradually deteriorate, his recorded likeness slowly blurring into abstraction as it’s subject to successive copies. The result is a witty demonstration of the specificities of video as a medium, but, like Alvin Lucier’s 1969 I Am Sitting in a Room , it makes perceptible a process of audiovisual decay: video’s ephemeral signal made corporeal.

In the UK in the early 1970s, television presented early video artists with a way of breaking out of various enclosures, including the dogma of specialization in the fine arts and avant-garde cinema scenes and the increasing exclusivity of the art gallery. As a popular medium, but also a potentially participatory one, it also offered the chance of reaching a wider audience—Hall always maintained that art must have a place outside of the gallery and the market—and possibly of making some money at a time when video’s relationship to the art market was still far from certain. To these ends, Hall was a vocal advocate for artists working with the medium, putting together the first art degree emphasizing video at Kent’s Maidstone College of Art, helping to curate the first major exhibitions of artists’ video in Britain (including the Serpentine’s “The Video Show” in 1975), writing a regular column on video for Studio International, and, in 1976, founding London Video Arts more or less out of his Brixton apartment. (LVA’s collection along with that of the London Filmmakers’ Co-op is now housed at LUX, which was formed in 2002.)

Left: David Hall, TV Interruptions (Interruption Piece), 1971. Right: David Hall, TV Interruptions (Tap Piece), 1971. © Deborah Hall/Estate of David Hall.


Hall’s work regards video as a distinct medium with unique formal properties—its paradoxical mix of the immaterial video signal and the boxy, wood-paneled television set, its ubiquity in public and domestic spaces, its seeming intractability as an art commodity. But it also allowed Hall to explore aesthetic concerns for a brief period in a broadcast medium. While working with Barbara Steveni’s Artist Placement Group in 1971, Hall was commissioned to make TV Interruptions, ten works that screened unannounced and uncredited on Scottish television. These include some of Hall’s most iconic images, including one of a burning TV set, and another that shows a running faucet that seems to slowly fill the television monitor with water. All of the TV Interruptions play with dead air and decontextualization—alien to the television format to this day—but they do so with surreal humor and a careful sense of the monitor’s dimensions and physicality. Tap Piece , as the latter “interruption” was later titled, wouldn’t work projected on a gallery wall. (This past fall, Tate Britain organized an installation of these works on monitors, which coincidentally opened the week of Hall’s death.)

Hall’s “interruptions” are, by design, very much of their medium rather than against it, offering other possibilities for the televisual experience rather than a militantly “antitelevision” one. He saw his work as reflexive without being oppositional—to address and challenge the medium’s affordances without falling, as he put it, into the “reductive anti-illusionist cul-de-sac.” “Video as art largely seeks to explore perceptual and conceptual thresholds,” he wrote in 1978, “and perhaps incidentally, perhaps intentionally, and implicit in it is the decoding and consequent expansion of the conditioned expectations of those narrow conventions understood as television.” By the time MTV commissioned a new set of five interruptions in 1993, it seems the kind of “break” that Hall had in mind had already become a part of the viewing experience—fully incorporated, for better or worse, into television’s flow.

Nonetheless, opportunities on broadcast television were few, and much of Hall’s most indelible work found expression in installation, where he could explore television’s inherently sculptural dimensions and its ambiguously interactive relationship with the viewer. Hall called his work “a complex analogical mirror where the viewer interacts with his/her image as collaborator rather than spectator,” and many of his works make this metaphor literal, such as Vidicon Inscriptions, 1973/75, which makes use of video’s capacity for real-time image-making through the use of ghostly traces of light burnt into the tube’s photoconductive signal plate. TV Fighter (CAM-ERA-PLANE), 1977, also plays with the experiences of real-time and the video copy, presenting in several iterations a fragment of World War II footage taken from the point of view of a fighter plane as it machine-guns targets on land and sea. Using a Russian-doll structure of images repeatedly rerecorded and reframed, Hall toys with the viewer’s manifold experiences of live and recorded time: the historical time of archival footage, the live experience of watching it on a screen, the déjŕ vu of watching that “live” footage again on another monitor. This nesting of recorded images within other recorded images implies an emergent sensibility in which the present moment is continually being recorded and reframed by audiovisual apparatus, but crucially Hall’s approach to this phenomenon is as playful as it is provocative.

David Hall, 1001 TV Sets (End Piece), 1972-2012. Installation view, Ambika P3, University of Westminster, London, 2012.


Hall’s most imposing evocation of television’s material presence comes in his “TV Sets” series. Originally a collaboration with the artist Tony Sinden, the installation was first shown as 60 TV Sets in 1972, then grew to 101 TV Sets for “The Video Show” three years later. A room full of television monitors, each blaring out its own signal, has become a familiar sight on the showroom floors of electronics stores the world over, but for our era of ubiquitous computing, wearable technology, and mounting quantities of technotrash, it also functions as an index of the television monitor’s rapid penetration into every corner of midcentury life, both physical and psychic. Hall revisited the piece for the University of Westminster’s Ambika P3 gallery in 2012—now with 1001 CRTs and re-subtitled End Piece. The installation took on a new elegiac tone during Britain’s transition to digital television broadcasting between April 4 and 18 of that year, when the screens’ audiovisual melee gradually became a monotonous hiss as the last analog signals were broadcast from London’s Crystal Palace. An era had ended, but its material presence may last for thousands of years.

Leo Goldsmith is the editor of the film section of the Brooklyn Rail and a PhD candidate in the department of cinema studies at New York University.