PRINT January 2012


Robert Breer

Robert Breer, Pat’s Birthday, 1962, stills from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 13 minutes.


ROBERT BREER AND I MET IN 1961. I think Billy Klüver introduced us. Bob had been working in Paris, and he had recently come back to America. He lived in Palisades, New York, along the Hudson, with his daughters and his wife, Frannie. We had some very nice parties up there. It was pretty casual, like a little vacation.

At that time, in ’61, I was doing performances, or what were called Happenings; in ’62, I did a series of these in The Store in downtown New York, and right after that I did a film with Bob during the summer. We decided that it should take place in the Palisades area.

I put together a kind of script. It was called Pat’s Birthday [1962] and focused on a party for my wife, Patty Muschinski. All the action took place outdoors. I set up a series of situations with volunteers: Lucas Samaras, John Weber and his daughter Kristin, Nancy Ellison, Joe Hyde, and Lette Eisenhauer. For example, Lucas would be lying on his back in the grass smoking a cigarette in a certain odd way. Bob could freely do what he wanted with the material. If he didn’t want to photograph Lucas, he’d photograph a tree or something. If he wanted to insert things from other sources, he would do that.

Bob always had a very personal way of working, and so he didn’t always photograph what I expected him to photograph. I was essentially making a performance, and he was photographing whatever he wanted from that event. It was an interesting meeting of two different aesthetics. Bob said he worked six months editing; the final film resembled a home movie.

Afterward, Bob wrote a piece on the film, with an ending that explained everything!

Next comes the big Birthday scene and Claes makes Pat a cake out of some handy car tires with candles and a real rooster on top. It is very beautiful! All of this is recorded forever on film including Popeye the goose, horse, nine puppies, cat, turtle and guinea pig and bonfire that winds things up. Why things happen after each other in this film is because there isn’t room for everything at once. But it’s really a still picture and time is not supposed to move in one direction any more than it does in the other. I’m sorry it takes half an hour.

Then came the summer . . . I moved to Los Angeles and traveled in Europe. I lost contact with New York artists until 1965.

I spent most of ’65 preparing for a show I was going to have at the Sidney Janis Gallery in March 1966. I had learned that Bob’s father was Carl Breer, who, in 1934, had developed the Chrysler Airflow—the first streamlined car. I remembered having had a model of it when I was a kid and loving its shape. Bob and I talked about it, and then I got the idea to use that as a theme. I was working in soft sculpture at that point and wanted to make a soft version of the Airflow.

The outside would be vinyl, but the insides were going to be canvas. It seemed to me that the first step should be to go to Detroit and meet Carl. He also had a very special early Airflow that I wanted to see and study. The way you draw from the figure, I wanted to draw from the car.

Patty and I studied the car very thoroughly, and I made a lot of drawings. But the car turned out to be too large to deal with in its entirety, so the project became a kind of anatomy of the insides, the motor, radiator, and other items. Only the giant tires were sewn of vinyl.

We never actually got to ride around in that big car of Carl’s. Afterward, though, I made a cover for Art News in the form of a box, which showed Carl standing next to his Airflow, seen from all sides. You bought the magazine and then you cut out the cover, folded it, and it became a box.

We continued to visit Palisades in the mid-’60s. I remember driving up to Bob’s house in 1968 when I needed worms for an Earthworks project. He posted a sign in front of his house for my arrival: WORMS FOR SALE, 12¢. We dug out about twenty, which I installed the next day in a show at the Dwan Gallery.

Around the end of the ’60s, Bob and I both participated in different pavilions for the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair. Bob worked on the E.A.T. [Experiments in Art and Technology] pavilion for Pepsi, while I was working on my motorized Giant Ice Bag [1969–70], to be part of a sort of rival project—“Art and Technology,” the LACMA program that would be exhibited in the US pavilion. (I was spending a lot of time in Los Angeles by then, so I wasn’t available to join E.A.T.) I remember that Bob made large moving “Floats,” as he called them, of fiberglass. A group of these self-propelled white objects with rounded tops moved around the terrace of the Pepsi Pavilion. He gave me two miniature versions of them that can be wound up to move around, which I placed in my Mouse Museum [1965–], next to a serving of wax sushi, also mechanized.

I also had two little rubber stamps made: one of a float of Bob’s, the other of my Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks [1969/74], simple signs that I intermingled as if they were falling from the sky. Perhaps this suggested a collaboration between us. We shared a liking for deadpan humor and a love of metamorphosis and should probably have tried doing more projects together. But the end of the ’60s overwhelmed us; our paths diverged, and unfortunately Bob and I had few occasions to get together after that.

—As told to Michelle Kuo

Claes Oldenburg is an artist based in New York.

Robert Breer at work at gb agency gallery, Paris, 2003. Photo: Eric Boutin.


NO ARTIST CAN FOLLOW in Robert Breer’s footsteps, and it would be foolish to try. The path he blazed through film was so utterly his own that no one will ever take it to quite the same heights he did. The films we remember him for could only have come to, or rather through, this great artist in all his particularity: through his eye and hand, and through his daydreaming, tinkering, and wily sense of structure.

Which is not to say that a deep seeing of his work can’t utterly transform the horizon of your own possibilities. Certainly his films have rewarded the close and repeated viewings I’ve given them since my first, teenage encounter thirty-some years ago. I remember his 1968 film 69 throwing me for a complete loop at the time. I realize now that it has been lurking in my mind ever since, a touchstone for my ponderings of offscreen space and reference, of 3-D illusion springing forth from and collapsing back into the 2-D plane, of structures that have as much to do with falling apart as they do with building up.

Only recently did it occur to me that Breer’s handling of structure is like that of his great contemporary Morton Feldman, unlikely though this pairing may seem. Though one was the master of speed in film and the other of slowness in music, both keep upending your expectations as you experience their work, pushing you back to the present instant of perception. Too rarely do we realize that firm structure has a way of deadening perception: What you know to expect, you stop attending to. In Breer as in Feldman, structures threaten to shift or give way on you at any moment, and since this means that future moments are unforeseeable, you have no choice but to concentrate on what’s happening now, before it vanishes.

Speaking of vanishing, I should point out that the vast possibilities of cinema were once on the point of doing just that when the masters of American experimental film (Breer along with Brakhage, Jacobs, and Warhol, among others) turned time backward, rebooting film from the point where the Lumières and Méliès had left off and then striking out on the paths that Griffith had closed off. I’m sure that what struck Bob Breer when, as a young midcentury painter, he first took up filmmaking was how out of step modern cinema was with modern art. The allover composition of Méliès, where anything could happen at any time in any zone of the screen, was after all much closer to Pollock or Rauschenberg or Cunningham or Cage than were the predigested frames of narrative film. It has been too easy to overlook Méliès’s importance as a truly great artist, valuing his work for its technical innovations but dismissing it as merely clever tricks for comic effect, and I suppose it has been a little bit the same with Breer and his whimsicality, not to mention the aw-shucks demeanor he always maintained. How much simpler it has been for the lazy to bestow importance on the self-important—not to name names here.

Bob was the son of an inventor, and in certain circles (automotive rather than artistic) the father’s fame outshone the son’s—primarily, as I recall, for breakthroughs in the aerodynamic streamlining of car bodies. When I first mentioned our OpenEndedGroup forays into 3-D projection, Bob recalled his dad’s having invented his own 3-D movie camera for anaglyph viewing: Breer family movies of the ’30s were as likely to be in 3-D as not. Bob inherited this Breer knack for tinkering, and when my daughters used to explore his studio with him (so much more interesting than my own, with its bland stacks of hard drives), they marveled over all his gadgets: the mutoscope viewers, the glacial floats, the useful little mechanical device he’d made to speed up the slow process of animation: a card flipper that would plunk down a hand-drawn card for quick single-frame capture by the lens before grabbing the next.

This tinkering brought Breer close to the materiality of the medium, which in turn allowed him to see it anew. In films such as Gulls and Buoys (1972), Fuji (1974), and TZ (1978), he made incomparable new use of the tired-out and nearly forgotten animation technique of rotoscoping, using felt-tip markers to trace the successive contours of movements caught in film footage. But rather than the enhancement of realism that this technique allows, what intrigued Breer was its collapse. In Gulls and Buoys, as the flickering hand-drawn contour of a swan’s neck, simplified down to a single elegant curve, merges with its watery reflection, it drowns its own likeness. An ineffable moment that lingers even through the tumult of the frames that follow.

Indeed, Breer is best known for the extreme speed he brought to film (the opposite of his treatment of kinetic sculpture). He must have been, if not the first, then among the first to cut on every frame, and his films just blaze by you (Blazes is actually the name of one such film, from 1961; Eyewash, from 1959, another). Not only that, but the speed of Breer’s subjects—by which I mean the chain of his split-second visual associations and digressions—keeps you forever on your toes as you try to keep pace with an eye and hand combining to move at (or even beyond) the astonishing speed of thought.

All this bears superficial resemblance to much of what we now find around us: our world of distractions, of quick switches and multitasking, of sensory overload. It might seem that MTV and its many offshoots have long since absorbed and subsumed Breer’s lessons (though without acknowledgment or, very likely, knowledge: The one time Bob ventured into that realm, for money, was in a comically misshappen music video for the rock band New Order, whose metronomic drum-machine beat canceled out Breer’s rhythmic complexity, which was in any case compromised by the director’s weird decision to intercut Breer’s contribution with segments of William Wegman’s cute dog videos).

No, what Breer offers you is far different from the barrage of blandishments and interruptions that our media world subjects us to. For rather than providing distraction, Breer opens you up to a new kind of attentiveness and concentration: the calm observation of the mind’s pell-mell flow, of consciousness that never reduces itself to predictable pattern or structure. It is this that keeps his films so deeply true.

Paul Kaiser is a digital artist and writer whose arts collective, OpenEndedGroup, creates works that span a wide range of forms and disciplines, including dance, music, installation, film, and public art.

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


AROUND 1960, Bob was living up in Snedens Landing in Palisades, New York. And I lived nearby, in a town called Alpine, which is the northernmost town in New Jersey on the Hudson, along with a number of artists who were spending time in the area. Bob had already had a much more sophisticated education than the rest of us because he’d spent so much time in Europe. He’d just come back from Paris, and he had his own little collection of films that he thought were important and that he was very interested in showing to us bozos who didn’t know anything about film history. I specifically remember him showing Ballet mécanique [1924], which is interesting, because it’s got a lot of fast cutting in it—and he probably felt in tune with that because of what he was doing with animation.

Years later, Bob came up with the idea of making a proposal for Expo ’70. Now, my understanding is that one of Bob’s neighbors in Snedens Landing was a Pepsi executive, who, over dinner or cocktails, mentioned that they were going to do a pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka. And Bob probably expressed curiosity and told this guy that Billy [Klüver] could collect a bunch of people who could do a much better job than the soft-drink company could. That’s how the E.A.T. [Experiments in Art and Technology] pavilion for Pepsi happened: We can lay all of that on Bob’s doorstep. A large group of us then worked on the project; Bob’s contribution was especially memorable. He made slow kinetic “float” sculptures that moved around the plaza in front of the pavilion. That was the funny thing: Although Bob made movies that were very fast, his sculptures were very slow.

In Osaka, we were worried about the entrance to the pavilion. The structure used negative air pressure rather than normal inflation, which blows air up into the space. Other structures at the fair were using precisely this more conventional inflation method, with a revolving door as an entrance, but that kind of typical entrance would not have worked for us.

So I had an idea that we would make a space underneath, shaped like a clam—we called it the Clam Room—and an entry that was like a tunnel, a tube, to get down there. Well, the Japanese architects went absolutely nuts. They wouldn’t do it. And Bob took charge. In retrospect, he was probably the only person who could have handled that with any kind of grace. I would have just been confused and thrown up my hands. But after much discussion, Bob finally got the architects to accept our solution. He asked them to do it as a favor. And they couldn’t deny that. Somehow he plugged into the culture of these guys—if you asked them for a personal favor, they felt obligated to go along with it. I have no idea how it all worked, but Bob’s sensitivity and skill got that done.

Bob’s floats didn’t just move; they emitted sound, too. You could hear them as they approached you, but only if you were paying attention, only if you really listened. The sounds only became audible when the thing was right next to you, going shhhh, or making a sawing sound or any of the other ambient sounds he had programmed into them. And they just sidled up, touched somebody, and that was enough to make the motor switch and make the sculpture move an-
other way. What I loved about the piece was that no one person heard or saw the same thing twice.

The whole idea of those floats is pretty funny. And that was Breer’s thing. Great stories and great humor, and such grace.

—As told to Michelle Kuo

Robert Whitman is an artist based in New York.