Installation view of Stan VanDerBeek, 2008, Guild & Greyshkul
When Stan VanDerBeek (1927–1984) wrote in a 1961 manifesto (“The Cinema Delimina–Films from the Underground”) that artists were increasingly “abandoning the logics of aesthetics, springing full blown into a juxtaposed and simultaneous world that ignores the one-point-perspective mind, the one-point-perspective lens,” he could well have been describing the vertiginous presentation of this retrospective of his own work. In the main space, three film loops, six 35-mm slide projections (three looped and three still), and an image of a collage were projected on screens clustered in front of one wall, their sound tracks cacophonous. Forty-seven framed collages lining the opposite wall, photocopies of a mural by VanDerBeek, and a two-channel video on monitors completed the display.
Abolishing any pretense of sustained, individual viewing, the show’s seventeen short films, spanning 1957 to 1972, were projected alongside Found Forms, 2008, a “multi-projection film performance” presented in 1969 and reconfigured here. The montagelike installation could have been fractious and heavy-handed, but instead served as an intimate demonstration of VanDerBeek’s layered compositional strategies and seemed to argue, as he did, that people can take in, associate, and categorize an excess of simultaneous imagery—here both moving and still, amusing and harrowing. Sara and Johannes VanDerBeek, cofounders of the gallery and established artists in their own right, organized the show, and their initially distracting yet ultimately analytical and resolute layout captured the innovative spirit of their father’s multifaceted work.
For Found Forms (the most complicated and structurally ambitious piece) an “electronic assemblage” of newsreels and miscellaneous footage was projected on a central screen flanked by slide projections of figurative sculptures and journalistic photos documenting contemporary conflicts; completing the multiscreen composition were computer-generated mandala-like drawings that slowly rotated to the left and right. As the non-synchronous groupings of images repeated their circuit, a haunting photograph of battered civil rights activists might have found a recombinant reading with, say, a Grecian torso and sumo wrestlers. Sports and entertainment snippets intercut with war footage further conveyed VanDerBeek’s mordant vision of an increasingly volatile and interconnected world in which images of armed conflict, political protest, and ritual celebration readily mingle with vehicles racing at top speed, absurd feats of human strength, fashion shows, hurricanes, and the occasional dancing bear. Although a forerunner to multichannel installations and searchable image databases, Found Forms is perhaps more reminiscent of Aby Warburg’s anachronistic Mnemosyne Atlas, 1924–29, in its penchant for delirious cataloguing and cross-referencing of gestural expression and figurative similitude.
Alongside the installation were VanDerBeek’s short films (a unique mix of stop-motion animation, live-action scenarios, and found footage), which made him a central figure in the avant-garde cinema scene of New York in the 1960s. The comic style of VanDerBeek’s films recalls not only the knockabout farce of Dadaist filmmakers like René Clair and Hans Richter—and, in turn, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Georges Méliès—but also Max Ernst’s episodic collage narratives, Harry Smith’s esoteric animations, and Joseph Cornell’s found-footage reveries. Breathdeath, 1963, is a particularly potent example: A riff from the song “I Put a Spell on You” propells a danse macabre of collage sequences in which a human foot slips out of Nixon’s mouth, a newspaper announces US SKY BOMB A SUCCESS, Marilyn Monroe’s face is blackened into a death mask, an elegant couple dining are super-imposed over footage of a fire-bombed building, and Chaplin’s head splits in two to reveal a billowing atomic mushroom cloud. A seeming influence on such divergent collage projects as Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Martha Rosler’s “Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful,” 1967–72, VanDerBeek’s work shows him to be a fascinating figure in need of more extended presentations and critical reconsideration.