Philadelphia

Ed Emshwiller, Disintegration of a Field-Force, cover art for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (February 1957). © Estate of Ed Emshwiller/Dream Dance: The Art of Ed Emshwiller (Anthology Editions, 2019).

Ed Emshwiller, Disintegration of a Field-Force, cover art for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (February 1957). © Estate of Ed Emshwiller/Dream Dance: The Art of Ed Emshwiller (Anthology Editions, 2019).

Ed Emshwiller

Lightbox Film Center

The University of the Arts | Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery

Ed Emshwiller, Disintegration of a Field-Force, cover art for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (February 1957). © Estate of Ed Emshwiller/Dream Dance: The Art of Ed Emshwiller (Anthology Editions, 2019).

IN 1951, Ed Emshwiller (1925–1990), a World War II veteran and fledgling commercial illustrator from Michigan who had studied in Paris and at the Art Students League of New York, bought a house with his wife, Carol, in Levittown, a newly built community on Long Island that offered lines of credit to GIs. A prime midcentury symbol of cookie-cutter conformity, middle-class anxiety, and real-estate redlining, Levittown provided the Emshwillers with a secure base from which to launch their careers, Ed as an artist, Carol as a writer. The Emshwillers were perhaps the sole residents who fully dedicated themselves to the postwar American project of self-fulfillment and integrated personality (in a segregated community). “They were the only beatniks in Levittown,” recalled their then-teenage neighbor Bill Griffith, who went on to create the Zippy the Pinhead comics. His father, Griffith maintains, envied the Emshwillers. They didn’t commute to Manhattan every day.

Instead, Ed Emshwiller worked in his second-floor home studio, painting illustrations for the covers of sci-fi magazines, including Galaxy, Infinity, and Astounding Science Fiction, and cheap novels by Philip K. Dick, Leigh Brackett, and Samuel R. Delaney. Emshwiller was good at this, and successful. He won five Hugo Awards. He supported his growing family. Some months, his illustrations accounted for a third of all those published in the sci-fi pulps. He drew aliens on other planets, spacemen in cockpits zipping through the cosmos, and rats controlling men’s brains. He painted women in crazed poses with defiant looks in their eyes. A 1957 illustration titled Disintegration of a Field-Force features a blast of light behind a body-suited woman twisting and reaching in space, and it predicts the dance films he would make.

Ed Emshwiller, Dance Chromatic, 1959, 16 mm, color, sound, 7 minutes. © Estate of Ed Emshwiller

By the 1960s, Emshwiller, like Andy Warhol, had turned from commercial illustration to 16-mm filmmaking, blacking out the windows in his studio so he could make movies, Factory style, in Levittown. His singular body of work experimented with form, dance, narrative, and social psychology; he mixed them together, sometimes uneasily. “Dream Dance: The Art of Ed Emshwiller,” a film series and exhibition curated by Jesse Pires at Lightbox Film Center and the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, celebrated Emshwiller’s lifework across the popular and the experimental, combining his genre illustrations with his films, videos, and computer animations. Shown together, they reveal Emshwiller as a voracious bohemian workaholic.

His singular body of work experimented with form, dance, narrative, and social psychology.

Self-taught, he first experimented by photographing close-ups of paint, rewinding the film in the camera, then filming dancers so they would move around the brushstrokes. He debuted Dance Chromatic in 1959 at Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16 in Manhattan and promptly won an award. Soon he was part of the New York avant-garde. Jonas and Adolfas Mekas modeled for one of his illustrations, appearing as a space pilot and an emaciated wraith, respectively, on the cover of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Emshwiller returned the favor by acting in Adolfas’s Hallelujah the Hills (1963).

Ed Emshwiller, Hungers, 1988, video, color, sound, 28 minutes. © Estate of Ed Emshwiller/Dream Dance: The Art of Ed Emshwiller (Anthology Editions, 2019).

Emshwiller was as prolific a filmmaker as he was an illustrator, working on more than seven dozen films and videos in his lifetime. He also became a cinematographer, shooting Jonas Mekas’s The Brig (1964) and several documentaries. He shot black-voter-registration drives in Mississippi, cinema vérité style, and Resnais-like hallways filled with banks of data-crunching computers for a PBS film on mind control. He worked for the United States Information Agency as a director-cinematographer and made Project Apollo in 1968, a stunningly original spaceflight film. Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick both came to visit him in Levittown. It seems like they were the only filmmakers he ever turned down. While he was a dean at CalArts in the 1970s, he worked on primitive computer animations with Alvy Ray Smith, one of the guys who would go on to start Pixar.

“It’s Emshwiller’s body that is vomiting out its existential memories and suspicions,” Jonas Mekas wrote in the Village Voice in 1970. Emshwiller’s busyness, his constant Brownian motion, takes away from his most lasting achievement as a film artist. Post–Maya Deren and pre–Yvonne Rainer, he is the best director of dance films in experimental and expanded cinema. The two dozen or so he made, including Chrysalis (1973) and Film with Three Dancers (1970), surpass his earlier, knottier film work with an otherworldly beauty absent from death-haunted cascades of images like Thanatopsis (1962) and Relativity (1966).

Ed Emshwiller, Pilobolus and Joan, 1973, video, color, sound, 58 minutes. © Estate of Ed Emshwiller

His dance films take place “in space”; Film with Three Dancers features Creation of the Humanoids–esque performers in monochrome leotards and silver bathing caps who are lit with colored lights similar to those in Italian space flicks and horror movies. Made with the Alwin Nikolais Dance Company and often featuring the choreographer-dancer Carolyn Carlson, three movement studies connect Emshwiller’s view of natural landscapes and space flight to the human body. In other videos, like Scape-Mates (1972) and Pilobolus and Joan (1973), which was written by Carol, Emshwiller took dance from his homemade stage into the laboratory, where the real world met a virtual one inside his computer.

In the latter film, members of the dance troupe Pilobolus crawl in centipede-like formation against a chroma-key backdrop of the twin towers, serenaded at times by a folk singer. In the former, dance figures blip out of colorful grids and blocks. Both films are trippy, complex, and not a little nuts. A final work, Hungers (1988), an avant-garde space opera worthy of Sun Ra, with music by Morton Subotnick sung on-screen by Joan La Barbara, expresses the human soul flying free from corporeality, free from Levittown and any known planet. 

A. S. Hamrah is a film critic at N+1. He is the author of The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002–2018 (N+1 Books), named one of the top ten books of 2018 by New York Magazine.