Robert Breer

A “retouched self-portrait” published in 1962 presents Robert Breer—an American artist born in Detroit in 1926—with his face half-photographed and half-drawn, as though he were being absorbed little by little into his work; he sits at a table in his studio, surrounded by reels of film and strange objects virtually animated by little arrows. This, then, is the surprising and amusing universe that the artist has constructed in all his drawings, films, and objects since the late ’50s, one entirely ruled by movement, abstract figures, and forms come to life. within the lineage of Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter, and parallel to Norman MacLaren. Breer’s animated films (photographed and projected drawings) use humor to construct stories of form and color. In a few short minutes, these abstract elements appear, encounter each other, collide in fits and starts, and eventually fade into light or to black.

Breer’s objects proceed from the same playful inquiry into perception. They transform the space of the viewer and his or her relationship to the works in a sly yet radical way not unrelated to Minimalism. Some time is required to see that the green cylinder you have taken for an ordinary coffee table is slowly moving toward you, just as it takes time to become aware of the tiny movements of the aluminum plates, pieces of polystyrene sheeting, and other small pieces of wood or rubber that are strewn along the floor of the gallery. First caught from the comer of your eye, these movements soon capture your attention and then command it. Before that, though, the visitor might have stopped to look at drawings for the film A Man and His Dog Out for Air, 1957, or to operate the optical or sound machines: For example, Dot Dash, 1964, a new optical instrument after Duchamp, is a piece of wood that can spin, making the shapes painted on each of its sides—a circle and a rectangle—blur into each other; Variations, 1970, a rotating tabletop with various objects on it, produces a kind of mechanical “concrete music” when you make it turn. Meanwhile, you might almost have tripped over a banal and apparently inert object that was in fact being animated by small invisible motors. All kinds of things were happening on the ground or on raised platforms: the movements of the polystyrene, the rustling of the aluminum, the collisions of the units—movements simultaneously aleatory and constant. The exhibition became a truly phenomenological experience and the vocabulary of the abstract tradition found itself revived in the image of these metal crotchets, platforms, and lengths of rubber motorized and mounted on rollers, which, in the course of their displacements, established an endless number of possible configurations, a multitude of drawings in space. Form and movement thus became closely associated, not with the jolts and cruelty of some of Jean Tinguely’s machines, but in an atmosphere that was alluring and serene.

Guitemie Maldonado

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.