PRINT November 2010


View of “Hors-Jeu” (Out of Bounds), 2001, gb agency, Paris. Foreground: Robert Breer, Float, 1970. Middleground: Robert Breer, Rug #5, 1965. Background: Robert Breer, Beam, 1966. Photo: Marc Domage.

I SAW ROBERT BREER’S SCULPTURES before I saw his films—nearly ten years ago, when looking at photographs of the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka. Funny things, white fiberglass domes that stood like alien statuary in a monumental drape of fog. Little did I know that these mesmeric objects would actually have been moving: They crept glacially, only to reverse direction whenever they bumped into anything.

Breer’s career is no easier to pin down. A looming but fugitive presence in postwar art, he is legendary as an experimental filmmaker; periodically, his other work will startlingly come to the fore, then recede again into our fickle histories. The artist’s pioneering practice has been just as mercurial and expansive. Breer began his mature work while in Paris on the GI Bill, around the same time Ellsworth Kelly was there; collaborated with Jean Tinguely and Pontus Hultén; orbited kinetic art, Happenings, Pop, Nouveau Réalisme, and Fluxus; and became a key participant in Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), the group responsible for the Osaka pavilion that Breer’s strange sculptures graced in 1970.

Yet Breer stuck with certain concerns. One was the destruction of narrative, and with it the abolition of traditional figure-ground relations—a problem that carried over from the artist’s paintings into his earliest animated films, often drawn on index cards with a black Flo-master pen. In film, motion automatically implies a story, even if it is simply a matter of the viewer following one roving element within a static field. To get rid of this diegetic impulse, Breer has said, “you have to counter one movement with another.” The dispersal of vision into an allover field—with no single point of focus—was Breer’s discovery upon his initiation into film circa 1952. And although we usually associate the allover composition with Pollock’s sprawling skeins, Breer’s presentation of the diffusion of vision would have been closer to the paintings of Mondrian and the mutating geometries of Hans Richter’s films. Breer learned that he could overcome the hierarchy of front and back through action and speed, overloading retinal movement via a flicker effect or spatial distraction, thereby transforming not only abstract shapes but also collage film and found footage: “I want every square inch of the screen potentially active, alive—the whole damned screen,” he enthuses.

Taking the moving image to its perceptual limits, Breer would attempt the same with objects. Where fellow filmmakers such as Peter Kubelka were undertaking to isolate and rigorously control the cinematic experience, Breer began opening up his films to the spaces around them. At first, around 1960, he produced extravagant hybrids between pictures and things and movies—hand-cranked, freestanding flip books and other devices. Then, in late 1964, he decided to construct small geometric forms, sliced out of Styrofoam as easily as one might pen a line, and implanted them with tiny toy motors. These “Floats” (he later added crumpling “Rugs”) would ambulate slowly across a surface, appearing from above as shifting abstract shapes that nevertheless impeded one’s path. They were seen and encountered. Yet their courses were unpredictable, ungraspable. Their movement was so gradual that it nudged the precise threshold of perception, with a calculated velocity noticeable only when viewed against a ground or a fixed marker. This resulted not in flowing motion but in an apparent sequence of discontinuous, telegraphic frames.

Almost immediately, Breer made films to be screened with the “Floats”—near-hallucinatory alternations of shapes and images that resonated with the forms at one’s feet. No hazy merging of media occurred, though. While the films often rip into such high speeds that, paradoxically, they appear nearly static—much the way a rotating wheel can look as if it is still—the “Floats” are so dilatory that their relocation is all the more profoundly registered. In the presence of these works, the viewer is elegantly unmoored from relative orientations of figure and ground, movement and stasis, image and afterimage, up and down, fast and slow.

Breer tests sculpture’s status as a discrete, three-dimensional mass that obeys conventional laws of space and plasticity; he tests film as the continuous integration of discrete frames. His works foretell the processes and events that Richard Serra would deftly unleash several years later. But Breer also seems to have sensed, with grinning wit, that this quality of relentless and contingent movement would come to be our environment. Our response, he knew, would lie somewhere between awareness and reflex, science and spectacle.

Michelle Kuo

Self-propelled dome-shaped sculptures included in Robert Breer’s exhibition “93 Floats,” at Galeria Bonino, Ltd., New York, 1970. Photo: Peter Moore. VAGA, New York.

Michelle Kuo: The beginnings of your interest in kineticism were very much tied to your interest in film, while you were working in the orbit of the Galerie Denise René in Paris. How did you view your initial forays into both fields in relation to action painting and its legacy in Europe?

Robert Breer: Once I joined the Denise René gallery in 1950, I was absorbed by the prevailing practice and approval of abstract, hard-edge, geometric painting. In our gallery, at least, tachism was considered weak and irrelevant. And action painting in America à la Pollock or de Kooning was dismissed in France as a desperate bid for attention, until Dorothy C. Miller shocked the French art world with her triumphant show of New York painting in Paris in 1958. René, though, would never accept Pollock. Feeling a bit like a rat leaving a sinking ship, I would soon decide it was time to go home!

One way out of the absolutism against both figuration and gestural art was kinetics. Even before joining Denise René, and then afterward, I was hanging out in Montparnasse with Jean Tinguely and Pontus Hultén and enjoying various Dada-type high jinks. By the early 1950s, I was starting to make films using a Bolex 16-mm camera and departing from oil painting on canvas. I had also begun to encounter various surviving icons of the 1920s Montparnasse art world, including Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Kiki de Montparnasse, Giacometti, Jean Arp, and Le Corbusier (who, when I met him, had been prohibited from building within the Paris city limits).

MK: At that time, there was a receptiveness toward experimental film—in terms of both audience and institutions—that seemed to coincide with the foreclosure of certain possibilities in painting and geometric abstraction.

RB: The first solo show of my paintings in Europe was in 1956 in Brussels at the Galerie Aujourd’hui, Palais des Beaux-Arts. (For personal reasons, it also coincided with my independence from Denise René in Paris, although I had of course participated in the “Le Mouvement” show there in 1955.) At the same time, my film Form Phases IV [1954], a kind of stop-motion animation related to my abstract paintings, was coupled with F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise at the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique. It was received with great enthusiasm—but my paintings were mostly ignored. I had an epiphany—I realized I could get major attention by making and showing films instead of paintings, since paintings disappeared into private collections, never to be seen again. This had already happened to my favorite painting—sold from René to a wealthy plastic surgeon in Switzerland. With a film in distribution, I could make good copies, keep the original, and profit with each public showing. In 1958, I met Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Peter Kubelka (we were kindred souls), and others at the Brussels experimental-film festival, which cemented my interest in nonnarrative film.

Little did I know that wide public distribution of my short abstract films would not happen for many years. Recently married, first child on the way, I needed money. I knew that even [Victor] Vasarely made commercial art to survive. How I earned money was nothing shameful but nevertheless kept private: I animated the backs of children’s playing cards!

MK: There’s also a mechanical, technical interest in motion that stems from your very early life, your interest in aviation and cars. What was it about speed, distance, the automatic?

RB: Growing up, I had intense fantasies about airplanes—in those days, bi-wing, open-cockpit pursuit planes. I spent hours and days making balsa-wood replicas. On Sundays, I was forced to attend Catholic church with my mother. I regularly tuned out the priests’ Latin chanting at the altar by listening for airplanes overhead and fantasizing about being up there and free. Later, in Paris, I took up lessons in stunt flying with a twin-cockpit biplane—until the other student crashed it!

My father was chief engineer for Chrysler, and automobiles were, of course, very important in Detroit. My childhood friends and I had small gasoline-powered vehicles. In 1949, in Paris, I got to know a Hungarian racing enthusiast living in Montparnasse and soon bought a very used 1935 BMW open-cockpit sports/racing car. At that point, I was living on my generous GI Bill stipend, for my previous two years of military service. Like all American ex-GIs in Montparnasse, I was enrolled at the decrepit art academy and painting in my one-dollar-a-night unheated hotel room across the street (the Hotel Liberia, nicknamed Siberia). My paintings were on their way toward hard-edge abstraction. I had become inspired by Mondrian, whose work I had recently seen at the San Francisco Art Institute, though I was soon looking to accommodate my other impulses and was greatly inspired by Matisse, as well as Kurt Schwitters.

Meanwhile, I began to spend more time working on my new/old car. (We installed hydraulic brakes.) Driving in Paris was a dream! The war having recently ended, food and gas rationing still in effect, there were few vehicles on the highways. While beautiful, the countryside was dramatically war-torn and the city gray, Notre Dame darkly looming (before being turned into the wedding cake it is now). At one point, I was even being seduced into entering professional car racing and shared ownership of a racing car! It was time to get serious about being an artist. Which I did.

My work always made this link between animation and mechanics. Later, around 1980, I built an animation stand for Peter Kubelka’s art school in Germany, at his request. Part of it depended on attaching a vacuum cleaner. Because of the noise, it had to be put outside on the window ledge; the neighbors complained, and it was eventually shut down. Otherwise, it worked very well!

Robert Breer’s “Floats,” 1969, in situ outside the Pepsi Pavilion, World’s Fair, Osaka, Japan, 1970. Photos: Shunk-Kender. © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.

MK: Your fascination with play, with unruly machines, and with indeterminate visual and temporal effects of the film apparatus would have been a natural catalyst for your close relationship with Jean Tinguely. These concerns seem reflected in your use of certain devices (double exposure, alteration of camera speed) when filming one of your landmark pieces, Homage to Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York [1960].

RB: Tinguely invited me to make a film during the unveiling of his self-destroying sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden. When I pointed out that I was not a documentary filmmaker, he assured me that I had total freedom to do what I wanted. I agreed, in spite of not getting any money for film from the MoMA film department. Of course, it was inevitable that I would shoot film of his sculpture during the week it was getting made. I had misgivings about my film becoming a dull report instead of an independent work. The event itself was crowded with reporters with cameras in a circle around Tinguely’s collapsing sculpture. I could barely get near it, so when I finally shot my roll of film and ran into the sculpture garden’s Fuller dome to reload my camera, I replaced the spent roll with one I had already shot! The resulting mix of double-exposed images astonished me and ultimately made the whole film more interesting. Normally, I never would have stooped to using such gratuitous effects deliberately, but in this film they saved the day.

I also went so far as to change the apparatus on the front of the camera in order to change the exposure setting for the single frame. So I had a device on the outside that physically turned the stop on the lens so I could switch back and forth and moderate the speed. When I wanted to, I could run it slow or fast.

In the private screening afterward, the museum’s director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., was delighted. He pointed at Margareta Akermark—who, as the head of the film department, had originally refused to even pay us for the film stock—and announced, “I want this film!” When she called me later, I had already doubled the price! In any case, Margareta and I soon became very good friends.

MK: How did the work of Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling, or that of Alexander Calder, impact you? All of them would have been important historical figures in the context of kineticism, like the strange brew of sculpture and film in Pontus Hultén’s “Art in Motion” exhibition in 1961.

RB: Billy Klüver and I originally connected in New York through Pontus, then soon to be director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Billy, a Ph.D. in physics, was working at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey, and I was looking to find a New York art gallery to support my cinema projects and objects. After some near misses, they all chickened out (and that’s how I ended up animating children’s playing cards). Billy and I became close friends. Pontus joined us in New York, and we were soon tagging along with him to visit the older generation of artists who had fled occupied France. Some were living in the countryside upstate or in Connecticut. They included Calder, Richter, and Naum Gabo.

I got to see more of Calder, who was getting ready for his big show at the Guggenheim, and I also got to show Richter my films. Of course, I was excited to meet Hans; his early abstract “Rhythmus” films from the 1920s, their play with figure and ground, clearly influenced my early “Form Phases” series.

MK: How were the first “Floats,” from the 1966 Galeria Bonino show on, related to your abstract films? What was your conception of space, movement, and duration in these works?

RB: I have kept my floats and films as separate projects. I wanted them both to have their particular identities without either one being diluted by the other. The floats were autonomous and aleatoric; they were independent of external control. I didn’t want them to have animal intelligence but to behave independently. A new idea, still within the art world, I hoped. Of course, they did relate to my past fascination with automobiles and planes.

Klüver brought Jasper Johns out to see the floats in my studio. At that early stage, they each had small bumpers that triggered them to move in the reverse direction when they bumped into something. After studying them a bit, Jasper’s only comment was “hmmm.” That night in bed, I wondered if he was as bothered as I was by those bumpers, and I came up with the brilliant solution to have the whole piece become the bumper! I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten to thank Jasper.

MK: Objects that were all reaction, in other words. What about the various materials and scales you employed in the floats—their incredible economy of means, their hidden motors?

Robert Breer’s “Floats,” 1969, in situ outside the Pepsi Pavilion, World’s Fair, Osaka, Japan, 1970. Photos: Shunk-Kender. © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.

RB: Klüver, who was already helping Jasper and Bob Rauschenberg with their projects, found a source for secondhand DC timing motors that got me started. I experimented with a large variety of Styrofoam blocks carved into different shapes and painted different colors for my first floats. Their physical relation to the environment and to one another was a completely new realm of experience.

For my first show of them at Bonino, for whatever aesthetic reasons, I decided to put multicolored floats in one of the two rooms that connected and white-painted ones in the other room. I did not anticipate that in a few moments, they would be completely intermingling in both rooms!

I haven’t yet come to terms with their relationships to the surfaces they glide over or bump into. I do think there’s an implication that they’re floating objects, that they penetrate the floor; and that can be exaggerated or diminished by whether it’s a cube that’s been truncated on the bottom plane so that it looks like it’s partly underwater. And the fact that that bottom base never rested, so that you’ve got a very—what’s the word?—insecure situation there, two planes facing each other but one plane is always moving away from the other, in relationship with the other. So that made that part of those pieces already fragmentary. The other planes are complete in relationship to the rest of the environment, and that was one of the big factors. The other thing was the surfaces that were meeting one another.

MK: This boundary between planar surface and moving image was presaged in your mutoscopes, which are strange hybrids between flip books and primitive cameras.

RB: Mutoscopes are ancient precinema devices that I had found for sale in a New York flea market years ago. I was going to buy one, but Walt Disney bought the whole collection before I got there. Their higher prices suddenly put even one out of reach for me. The original small wooden ones that I made with my drawings ended up in Pontus Hultén’s personal art collection.

For me, the hand-cranked mutoscope allowed for seeing and pacing the transition from single, static images into their combined form as “cinema” and back again. I wanted to revive the excitement of the original “movie” experience, of the persistence of vision. I also roughly traced consecutive live-action images—seagulls in flight and such—from my 16-mm movies onto four-by-six-inch index cards, to allow for flipping them in various sequences in my hand-cranked mutoscopes. These fairly crude copies of realistic movement seemed somehow more realistic and alive than ever. I constructed the simple plastic light boxes and such myself.

A later freestanding mutoscope that I made in 1963 was in a gallery show visited by John Cage, who played with it for such a long time that the gallery owner asked him whether he might want to buy it; he said, “I’m an artist, I can’t afford to buy it!” The dealer, [John] Berggruen, knew he was John Cage and called me! As a big fan of Cage, I had gotten to know him and immediately called him and told him that I wanted him to own it. Though I think he was pleased, he asked me to hold off because he was moving to the city and would let me know when he would have room for it. I named it Homage to John Cage.

MK: Your interest in chance and contingency, and control and certitude, seems to be both an engagement with and a reaction against Cage—and with Western systems of belief in general. At the time, atheism and anarchism were obviously part of the conversation surrounding Cage, but their implications are reflected in your films like Un Miracle [1954], where the pope juggles his own head.

RB: I’m not sure when, around age seventeen maybe, or how, but I read the novel about a hypocritical traveling grifter-preacher type named Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis [1943]. The novel made a very convincing case to me that God did not exist except in the prurient imaginations of simple folk. My reaction was to sit in my room looking at the ceiling and to challenge God to manifest himself. I gave him twenty minutes. After no response, I went downstairs and announced to my mother that I was not going to go to church anymore. My two older brothers came up to my room to tell me that I was breaking my mother’s heart. I didn’t give in and never did go back. Many years later, at Stanford, I took a course on Buddhism taught by a wonderful professor named [Frederic] Spiegelberg, who said that before he died, Buddha told his followers not to deify him. Which they did, as soon as he died!

MK: What was your intention in going to the more ethereal yet bigger scale and of course collaborative context of the Pepsi Pavilion floats? What was the inspiration for the piece, and how were they fabricated?

RB: It was a book written by Jack Burnham in 1966, which compared the experience of being with my floats to the Ryöanji garden in a Zen temple in Kyoto, where the groups of rocks sitting on a bed of white sand seem to have moved after a day’s viewing. This started me thinking: “What if . . . ?” When the Japanese division of PepsiCo planned a pavilion for the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair, this comparison jumped into my head. I submitted drawings of the pseudo–Buckminster Fuller dome being designed, surrounded by my floats. It didn’t take long before the Japanese bottler’s pavilion became an enticing project in the New York art world and a kind of contest between Klüver and Rauschenberg’s Experiments in Art and Technology group and the performance group starring Andy Warhol. I was a neighbor and friend of a Pepsi VP, David Thomas, who hosted Billy and myself at a dinner to help us make a proposal to the Japanese bottlers. We won the contest, and I got my Ryöanji garden! Through a lucky connection to a wonderful engineer named John Ryde, I was able to have my grand, six-foot-high fiberglass floats made in Los Angeles by a surfboard manufacturer and shipped to Osaka. I thought how typically American it would be to actually motorize a Zen garden!

“Robert Breer,” a solo exhibition, opens at CAPC, Musée d’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux, on Nov. 18.