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Early film, video art gets retrospective

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP

NEW YORK, Jan. 9 (UPI) -- The Whitney Museum has mounted the largest exhibition to date of early film and video installations that found their way into art galleries when the radical new wave of installation art was still in its infancy.

Titled "Into the Light: The Projected Image in America Art, 1964-1977," the show purports to be a retrospective of an aspect of art on which the final verdict is not yet in from a large segment of the museum-going public. Many viewers still appear to be baffled rather than fulfilled by what they see and spend little time trying to grasp what the artist has to say.

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Art conservatives still regard film and video installations as too cinematic to be accepted as fine art and displayed alongside paintings and sculpture that depict images, no matter how abstractly, filtered through the sensibilities of artists working as craftsmen.

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Museum curators are aware of this, but keep pushing projected images as a transforming element in contemporary art along with computer art images, the subject of a pioneering Whitney show last year. This is as it should be, and the Whitney's show organizer, Chrissie Iles is to be congratulated on a handsome presentation of works by 19 artists, many of which have not been seen since they were first exhibited decades ago.

Even the most retrograde art philistine will come away from this show with a sense of having encountered some challenging ideas beautifully expressed.

Perhaps the most successful of the installations (several are distinct failures) is Dennis Oppenheim's 1973 "Echo," consisting of four black-and-white film loops with a sound track transferred to video tape and projected simultaneously on four walls. The image is of Oppenheim's hand slapping the walls, producing loud echoes that ricochet around the room-like space.

It obviously is an attempt on the part of the artist to break through what he sees as the impasse presented by gallery walls by suggesting the possibility of bursting through their physical limitations with a bombardment of sound. The viewer has a mesmerizing sense of human energy as Oppenheim's video projection explores physical limitations both visually and aurally.

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By contrast, there is the serenity of Yoko Ono's 1966 "Sky TV," the only video work by the artist wife of Beatle John Lennon and one of the earliest examples of video sculpture.

She places a closed-circuit video camera on the museum's roof and trained it on the sky, then relays live images -- mostly of passing clouds - to a color television monitor in the museum. Ono has said the installation implies the necessity of considering an infinite world beyond the human ego. It is a particularly pure example of how an artist's conceptual idea is transformed into the subject of a projected image.

Another effective work is Robert Whitman's 1964 "Shower," a film loop transferred to videotape of a woman taking a shower that is continuously projected onto a shower curtain behind which water cascades inside a shower stall. The water occasionally turns to colored paint that pours over the woman then washes off her and reverts to water.

The artist obviously was inspired by the famous shower scene in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, "Psycho," in creating this early example of shifting the projected image away from the movie screen into a projective installation. It is almost hypnotic in its realistic effect.

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Andy Warhol, a pioneer in mixing photography and art, is represented by "Lupe," a double-screen film dating to 1965-66 about the suicide of Hollywood femme fatale Lupe Velez," with Warhol "star" Edie Sedgwick playing the actress. Warhol attempts to dismantle linear cinematic time by cutting a single film in half and projecting the halves side by side, but the result is boring as is much of Warhol's film work.

"Spinning Spheres," a 1970 silent color film loop projected simultaneously on four walls, is the work of Bruce Nauman who has attempted through architectural installations to destabilized the viewer's perception of space. A fast-spinning ball in a white cube creates a dizzying vortex that makes the viewer feel as though he is inside a laundromat machine.

Another discomfiting experience is to step into Peter Campus' 1977 closed-circuit video installation fitted out with a surveillance camera that is mounted upside down on a wall. While the viewer is trying to figure out what is going on in this blue-lit space, he glimpses the shadowy image of his own head and shoulders, large scale and inverted, aping the retinal structure of vision itself before it is corrected by the brain.

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Beryl Korot's "Dachau, 1974" takes the viewer on a tour of the infamous German concentration camp by means of a four-channel video installation that shows the same vista at different moments, and Mary Lucier projects black-and-white slide images on four walls of a gallery, including croquet players, that slowly disintegrates because the image has been repeatedly duplicated on a Polaroid photocopier.

"Free Will," an exercise in minimalism by William Anastasi (1968), consists of a monitor placed on the gallery floor that provides a live-feed video of a corner of the gallery that blocked from view by the monitor. The artist describes this as a "paean to the here and now" stripped of all allusions to traditional forms of art. No argument about that!

Dancer-artist Simone Forti is represented by a holographic performance work, "Striding Crawling" that defined a new language of movement in 1976.

It consists of a ghostly image sequence activated by the viewer's movement around a Plexiglass cylinder balanced on three bricks and lit from underneath by a candle. It recalls magic lantern peep shows of the 19th century and is a curious hybrid of film, performance, and sculpture.

Other more or less effective works in the show are by Robert Morris, Keith Sonnier, Dan Graham, Anthony McCall, Michael Snow, Gary Hill, Paul Sharits, and Vito Acconci. The show will run through Jan. 27. A fully illustrated catalog (Harry N. Abrams, 185 pages, $45) has a text by Chrissie Iles, the best thing written so far on film and video projection art.

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