Robert Breer: Films

Exhibition: 28 June - 8 Aug 2008

Robert Breer’s work runs the gamut of experimental, animated film: from painting on celluloid to experiments with single frames, to abstract minimalist structures with graphic lines in constant, morphous flux. A hallmark of his films is the static and presence of a single image that rhythmically drives the film outside of a linear or narrative structure.

Breer started his artistic career as neo-plastic painter in the late 1940s. In 1949, he moved to Paris and developed his concrete painting under influence of Piet Mondrian. The first flip-books and slide projections (drawing and painting on colour negatives) were filmed and choreographed - frame by frame - with his 16mm camera. They formed the basis of his early animated film series of abstract, morphing shapes: the Form Phases I-IV. This exhibition presents Form Phases IV (1954). In 1958, the same year Robert Breer abandoned "absolute" painting in favour of film, he started working with Kodachrome film material, absorbing the abstract elements of his purist style. The progression and variation of form in his animated films such as Recreation (1956-57) and A Man and His Dog Out for Air (1957), play, as Laura Hoptman points out, with the moving and static image on the one hand, or a "concentration on unforgotten territories between two elements or notions, between abstraction and figuration, between his films and his painting and his later sculpture", and Marcel Duchamp’s idea of the "gauzy", the "infra-mince" on the other. ( Breer, 2006)

Although Breer was in close contact with many artists of his generation - among them Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Victor Vasarely and Agnès Varda, during his Paris years and Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, George Brecht, Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman in the early 1960s in New York - he never aligned himself with any particular movement or art form. Later on, he met filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger or Jonas Mekas, and stressed in a 1983 interview that his most important influences were John Cage, Hans Richter’s film Rhythmus 21 and films by Len Lye and Jean Vigo. In the sixties, Breer developed his Float sculptures, slowly moving into space. He sees them less as kinetic objects than as sculptures that either isolate movement or activate the surrounding space. They became key elements in his number films, varying the vocabulary of forms in Fuji (1974) and Bang! (1986). His often heterogeneous combination of single images, drawing, photo collages and sound elements resembles the pattern in a woven carpet, blending elements into and out of each other to form a larger whole.

Works in exhibition:

All films 16mm transferred to DVD

1966, 5’45’’, colour, sound

"Abstract, quasi-geometric study in interrupted continuity."
 - Robert Breer

1968, 4’25’’, colour, sound

"It’s so absolutely beautiful, so perfect, so like nothing else. Forms, geometry, lines, movements, light very basic, very pure, very surprising, very subtle." - Jonas Mekas
Like the number films 70 and 77, 66 and 69 belong to a series of geometric films investigating colour, speed, optical illusions, forms and outlines. While 66 animates two-dimensional forms reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s silhouettes, 69 appears as a sequence of animated, hand drawn and geometric shapes constantly rotating in pictorial space. Systematically repeating sequences are punctuated with electronic sound similar to a metronome or technical time-keeping device

Un Miracle
1954, 40’’, colour, silent

Robert Breer’s first collage Un Miracle is the product of his collaboration with Pontus Hulten. In it, he dadaistically depicts the juggling talents of Pope Pius XII, a newspaper cut out from Paris Match. Pius XII first juggles with balls, then with his head, eventually launching himself into paradise.

Form Phases IV
1954, 3’18’’, colour, silent

Form Phases IV is the last, closed and harmonic part of Robert Breer’s Form Phases series, focusing on abstract from in movement. Angular and round paper cut-outs mill in the background while changing shapes appear in the front before eventually dissolving into flickering vertical colour bars: everything is in flux. In this explicit reference to Hans Richter’s 1921 film Rhythmus 21, Breer underscores his interest in demystifying pictorial space.

Recreation I
1956, 1’39’’, colour, sound

While Breer’s early abstract films show each element moving in a controlled manner, the later film Recreation sets the entire screen in agitated motion. Breer uses numerous materials to this effect: found objects, silhouettes and his own canvases. He enhances and tightens the rhythm while reducing the duration of the image from three to one frame. Text runs counter to the image, affecting the film’s hurried rhythm. The soundtrack, a nonsense poem, was written and spoken by Noel Burch (French author, filmmaker and theorist; co-founder and director of the La Formation Cinématographique). It nearly anticipates Breer’s later Float sculptures with the line: "Rising suddenly from a greenish dot of light, the mysterious, contusive object sketches three extra-sensory circumvolutions then goes off to deck itself out for the little white beds".

A Man and His Dog Out for Air
1957, 2’01’’, b/w, sound

"A stew (in which) once in a while something recognisable comes to the surface and disappears again." - Robert Breer
This black-and-white film, drawn completely by hand, was created the same year as Recreation. Robert Breer captures the viewer with an endless whirl of lines coming together and falling apart at the same time. As a result, the image is neither closed nor legible. The lines eventually come to form the outline of a man’s silhouette as he takes his dog out for a walk. The film was featured at the 1962 New York premiere of Alain Renais’ "L’anné Dernière à Marienbad".

Jamestown Baloos
1957, 4’50’’, colour and b/w, sound and silent

For Jamestown Baloos, Breer combined various techniques used in his earlier films. In it, we see the cut-out animation from Miracle, Recreation speed, and the floating lines from A Man and His Dog Out for Air. Breer’s own pacifist, anti-military sentiments surface in a number of different ways: graphic (drawing), pictorial (paper cut-outs, drawing, blots) and typographical (newspaper cut-outs). This collage film is divided into three parts. The first black-and-white sequence begins with a drum roll and introduces various animated visual fragments from daily newspapers, along with pictures of military characters and war machines, accompanied by a series of abstract shapes. The second part is without sound but with colour. Water-colour drawings move faster and faster in front of the camera, coming in and out of focus. With this, Breer also uses illustrations of famous paintings, allowing them to lose their form and legibility. The third part is again in black-and-white and repeats the drums-and-pipes sound structure heard at the beginning of the film.

1974, 8’13’’, colour, sound

"A poetic, rhythmic, riveting achievement (in rotoscope and abstract animation), in which fragments of landscapes, passengers, and train interiors blend into a magical color dream of a voyage. One of the most important works by a master who like Conner, Brakhage, Broughton spans several avant-gardes." Amos Vogel.
In Fuji, Breer uses the rotoscope technique to record a wide-angle Japanese landscape from the window of a running train. The background shows the drawn silhouette of Mount Fuji while the foreground provides narrative elements with a train conductor or groups of waiting passengers. The images were taken during Breer’s travels to Osaka for an exhibition of his Floats at the Expo’70. These sculptures become animated elements in the film.

1986, 10’11’’, colour, sound

Bang! is not only Robert Breer’s most playful film but also his most autobiographical. In it, he combines various cartoon sequences with films from his personal archive showing him as child in a canoe.