Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
Through July 10
by Julie Thomson
The span of Stan VanDerBeek’s life (1927-84) paralleled numerous technological developments. As new advances emerged, VanDerBeek responded with creative experimentation. His landmark films, notion of expanded cinema and a mural transmitted by fax are just some of the many works on view in Stan VanDerBeek: The Culture Intercom, a long overdue museum survey of the artist’s work co-organized by the MIT List Visual Arts Center and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.
VanDerBeek is best known for his films, and these are highlighted in a theater in the center of the exhibition. Viewers encounter one of the five different film programs depending on when they visit. Program One includes VanDerBeek’s triumphs in stop motion animation with screenings of Wheeeeels No. 1 (1958), A La Mode (1958) and Science Friction (1959). All three engage social or political issues through humor and the unexpected juxtapositions that collage allows. The seductive masterpiece Breathdeath (1963) humorously warns us about our inattentiveness to the potential effects of developed bombs. The wall behind the theater displays 34 exquisite collages from some of VanDerBeek’s most celebrated films, allowing for sustained viewing of these graphically powerful images not otherwise possible in his sometimes frenetic films.
In lieu of a strict chronological installation, an emphasis on process and technology informs the exhibition at the CAMH. Paintings and photographs offer a glimpse of VanDerBeek’s early work. The lines and compositions of his paintings from the 1950s, informed by his study of painting at Cooper Union, often resemble works by Paul Klee. While VanDerBeek’s paintings reflect his interest in series, he seems most limited in this medium. On an exterior wall of the film theater four early photographs of dancers from VanDerBeek’s 1949-50 studies at Black Mountain College are on view. Two of these photographs stand out due to his use of double exposure, indicating his growing interest in conveying motion.
As computer technologies developed in the 1960s VanDerBeek explored their possibilities by creating Poemfields, films that used computer animation to present a series of words. The four on view are visually engaging due to their vibrant color and patterns. While they are a technological feat (the punch card programming was done by physicist Ken Knowlton), their large pixel size and the slow rate of multiplication or dissolve make the words challenging to read and remember. Typescripts on view reveal powerful phrasings such as “memory/memory is a tight/is a tight rope/a fire.”
VanDerBeek’s legendary Movie-Drome (1963-65), a domed theater that he built at his home in upstate New York, is represented in the exhibition through photographs, notes and an 8-mm film. It presented the viewer with multiple images on which to focus. These and other works constituted VanDerBeek’s research and attempts to create a “non-verbal, international picture language” which he called “The Culture Intercom,” a phrase also used in this exhibition’s title. The concept reflects his utopian belief that a language of pictures could make communication possible across the world.
In his pursuit of expanded communication VanDerBeek also fused murals, a long tradition of public art, with technology. During his residency at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies he realized Panels for the Walls of the World (1970/2011). Originally created using an early fax machine, he transmitted facsimiles of collage panels to six different sites in Boston over a four-week period. As each page came through the machine, a person at every location would hang it up, creating the mural through this process. While the fax machine nears obsolescence today, seeing this reproduction of VanDerBeek’s mural (the original fax papers are too fragile to display), particularly the individual panels, encourages the viewer to imagine the potential excitement and mystery accompanying the receipt of each page.
Movie Mural (1968/2011) re-creates another work by VanDerBeek through an impressive cacophonous installation that employs thirteen projectors and two speakers playing clips of music and speeches. VanDerBeek’s original films and art are shown amidst projections of found media, including images of dancers, ancient art and Martin Luther King Jr. The viewer is constantly challenged by the various formats and must decide on which area to focus. Like the Movie-Drome, this work embodies the non-intentionality for which composer John Cage praised VanDerBeek; the experience of the work is left up to the viewer to determine.
In CAMH’s process-based installation the viewing experience of some works is unfortunately impacted by the noise bleed from Movie Mural. John Cage’s audio, an integral part of Variations V (1964-66), is particularly hard to hear. Nonetheless the opportunity to see this film is still rewarding due to its indeterminacy and collaborative creation consisting of a composition by Cage, choreography by Merce Cunningham, films by VanDerBeek and television screen interventions by Nam June Paik. Similarly the audio suffers in Violence Sonata (1970), VanDerBeek’s pioneering two-channel video work that was simulcast in Boston; the sound is barely audible when one stands far enough back to view both monitors.
As the Internet, Facebook, YouTube, iPhones and email fill the hours of most of our days VanDerBeek’s active engagement and experimentation with emergent technologies challenges and reminds us to continue to embrace new developments with a spirit of exploration. The possibility VanDerBeek envisioned for communication with the world is now available to us. We just have to decide what we want to say.
Julie Thomson is a Critical Studies Fellow in the Core Program at the Glassell School of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.