'Space Light Art - A Film Environment' features a new re-creation by the Center for Visual Music from Fischinger's restored original nitrate film. 'Signs & Symbols', the third in a series of six exhibitions focused on the Whitney's collection, takes stock of the period from the mid-1940s to the end of the 1950s, drawing upon the Museum's deep collection of paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints and photographs.
'Space Light Art - A Film Environment'
curated by Chrissie Iles
This summer, the Whitney Museum of American Art presents Oskar Fischinger: Space Light Art – A Film Environment, on view from June 28 to October 28, 2012. The exhibition is curated by Chrissie Iles, the Whitney’s Anne & Joel Ehrenkranz Curator, and features a new re-creation by the Center for Visual Music from Fischinger’s restored original nitrate film. Oskar Fischinger worked in animation, filmmaking and painting. An influential pioneer of abstract cinema, Fischinger started his career in Weimar-era Germany during the 1920s. Working with multiple- projector formats, he redefined abstraction during this period, with spectacular films that explore the interplay of abstract shapes, color, and light. Inspired by the German painter Walter Ruttman and his 1921 experiments in “painting with time,” Fischinger, working along with Hungarian composer Alexander Laszlo, first combined film and music with projections of abstract color in the mid-1920s. The Whitney’s exhibition focuses on Fischinger’s Raumlichtkunst (Space Light Art), one of the first multimedia projections ever made. Debuted in Germany in 1926, this multiscreen film series was radical in format, creating, in Fischinger’s words: “an intoxication by light from a thousand sources.” The projection format and unique combination of abstract shapes and hypnotic patterns was, as Iles states: “decades ahead of its time, establishing Fischinger as a key figure in the history of multi-media projective environments.”
The re-creation of Raumlichtkunst on view at the museum was first photochemically restored by the Center for Visual Music, then recreated in high-definition from original 35mm nitrate film material. Using modern digital processes, the restoration re-creates the rich coloration of Fischinger’s originals from the 1920s. The projection on each screen displays layers of geometric animations echoing Fischinger’s earliest experiments with abstract forms, including spirals and staffs, moiré patterns, and tinted liquid patterns.
Center for Visual Music acknowledges film restoration support through the Avant-Garde Masters program, funded by The Film Foundation, administered by The National Film Preservation Foundation.
About the Artist
Born in Gelnhausen, Germany, Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967), initially pursued a career in music, studying violin and organ construction, before enrolling in a trade school devoted to architectural drafting and tool design where he eventually earned an engineer’s diploma. Moving with his family to Frankfurt, Fischinger was introduced to the work of abstract film pioneer Walter Ruttman in 1921, and soon began to develop his first and most radical films, experimenting with colored liquids and three dimensional structures composed of wax and clay.
Fischinger moved on to Munich and then Berlin to pursue a career as a full-time filmmaker. From this period onward, Fischinger would alternate commercial work and his personal, experimental filmmaking. While he preferred to work in an avant-garde direction, Fischinger’s commercial work allowed him both the financial security and access to the latest technology on which his personal work depended. His technical prowess and special effects work soon garnered him the name ‘The Wizard of Friederichstrasse,’ after the location of his studio.
After the Nazi government declared all abstract films ‘degenerate,’ Fischinger found it increasingly difficult to obtain necessary permits and moved to Hollywood to pursue his work first at Paramount and later at MGM and Disney. Feeling constrained by the demands of the studios, Fischinger increasingly turned to oil painting as a creative outlet, producing over eight hundred canvases, and did not receive any funding for his personal films after 1947. In total, Fischinger produced more than fifty films.
Signs & Symbols
Signs & Symbols, the third in a series of six exhibitions focused on the Whitney's collection, takes stock of the period from the mid-1940s to the end of the 1950s, drawing upon the Museum's deep collection of paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, and photographs. This exhibition reconsiders this critical postwar moment--a time perhaps most frequently associated with a select group of Abstract Expressionists and their large-scale, highly abstract canvases and gestural brushwork. By contrast and through a more textured narrative, Signs & Symbols highlights primarily abstract work completed on diverse scales, engaged with more figurative signs and symbols, and by a larger group of artists, many of whom are lesser known and rarely exhibited. The exhibition, curated by Donna De Salvo, the Whitney's Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Programs, in collaboration with Jane Panetta, opens on June 28 and remains on view through October 28 in the Mildred & Herbert Lee Galleries on the Whitney's second floor.
Donna De Salvo comments: "The postwar period that Signs & Symbols makes its subject has become so identified with the heroic abstraction of New York School painting that it's easy to overlook the broader, more nuanced investigations into representation and abstraction that occupied artists throughout the country at the time. The Whitney's collection is wonderfully rich in these experiments as they play out nationally. And from the vantage of 2012, the range and variety of abstractions mediated by figurative signs and symbols takes on a new order of interest."
While key canonized Abstract Expressionists play an essential part in the exhibition (often represented by atypical examples of their work), among them Jackson Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell, Richard Pousette-Dart, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko, the show's scope extends to the work of artists less immediately associated with the period such as Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, Will Barnet, Forrest Bess, Byron Browne, Dorothy Dehner, Herbert Ferber, Ellwood Graham, Morris Graves, David Hare, John Ward Lockwood, Boris Margo, Alice Trumbull Mason, Alfonso Ossorio, Anne Ryan, Charles Seliger, Theodoros Stamos, Richard Stankiewicz, Mark Tobey, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Hugh Townley, and Steve Wheeler.
In considering the nature of this work, the exhibition presents examples indebted to a range of diverse influences, including Native American art, the role of mythic imagery, Eastern calligraphy, and the surrounding natural world. These influences worked to establish a new national aesthetic imbued with universal meaning that attempted to move beyond European Cubism and Surrealism. To achieve this, many of the artists presented here utilized highly personal and symbolic systems as the formal basis for their work--whether through calligraphic marks, pictograms, invented languages, or symbolic forms functioning as referential markers.
For example, the installation includes artists such as Morris Graves, Norman Lewis, Charles Seliger, and Mark Tobey--abstract artists often sidelined in this narrative despite having made calligraphic and highly symbolic work related to notions of a universal unconscious. Artists such as Adolph Gottlieb and Bradley Walker Tomlin explicitly utilized pictograms and calligraphic mark-making as an alternative to representation, striving to establish an alternative vocabulary for abstraction. The show also highlights Indian Space painters such as Will Barnet and Steve Wheeler--artists whose all-over compositions were inspired by the flatness and geometric characteristics present in Native American art. Ultimately, these varied investigations contributed an important foundation for the next generation of artists that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s; Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein, also included in the exhibition, readily embraced distinctly American subjects while similarly incorporating highly individualized systems of signs and symbols into their work.
This is the third in a multiyear series of six shows reassessing the Whitney's collection in anticipation of the Museum's move downtown in 2015. The earlier exhibitions were Breaking Ground: The Whitney's Founding Collection and Real/Surreal. The fourth in the series is Sinister Pop, which opens on November 15, 2012. Exhibition Support
Ongoing support for the permanent collection and major support for Signs & Symbols is provided by Bank of America.
About the Whitney
The Whitney Museum of American Art is the world’s leading museum of twentieth-century and contemporary art of the United States. Focusing particularly on works by living artists, the Whitney is celebrated for presenting important exhibitions and for its renowned collection, which comprises over 19,000 works by more than 2,900 artists. With a history of exhibiting the most promising and influential artists and provoking intense debate, the Whitney Biennial, the Museum's signature exhibition, has become the most important survey of the state of contemporary art in the United States. In addition to its landmark exhibitions, the Museum is known internationally for events and educational programs of exceptional significance and as a center for research, scholarship, and conservation.
Founded by sculptor and arts patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1930, the Whitney was first housed on West 8th Street in Greenwich Village. The Museum relocated in 1954 to West 54th Street and, in 1966, inaugurated its present home, designed by Marcel Breuer, at 945 Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side. While its vibrant program of exhibitions and events continues uptown, the Whitney is moving forward with a new building project, designed by Renzo Piano, in downtown Manhattan. Located at the corner of Gansevoort and Washington Streets in the Meatpacking District, at the southern entrance to the High Line, the new building, which has generated immense momentum and support, will enable the Whitney to vastly increase the size and scope of its exhibition and programming space. Ground was broken on the new building in May 2011, and it is projected to open to the public in 2015.
Current and Upcoming Exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art
Yayoi Kusama’s Fireflies on the Water Opens June 13, 2012
Sharon Hayes June 21-September 9, 2012
Signs & Symbols June 28-October 28, 2012
Oskar Fischinger June 28-October 28, 2012
Yayoi Kusama July 12-September 30, 2012
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