words by Simone Menegoi
At first sight, the sculptures of Robert Breer look like nothing more than objects set on the ground, fairly heterogeneous in shape and size: small monochrome blocks cut out of polystyrene or foam rubber (a kind of vernacular variant of minimalist primary structures), crumpled sheets of plastic, large rounded objects of industrial manufacture. An uninformed and hasty viewer will see nothing else. Those who know their secret—and even those who don’t know it, but give themselves enough time to watch them—will notice instead that the sculptures move. They very slowly traverse the spaces in which they are placed, indoors or outdoors, following straight lines. When they meet an obstacle, they stop and change direction, like certain electric toys whose mechanisms they share (rubber wheels, a small and silent motor), or like simple animals such as snails or other mollusks, with which they share a slowness of movement and apparent autonomy. In fact, in an interview with Yann Beauvais in the early 1980s, Breer described his sculptures as “motorized mollusks,” but added that when he came up with them, in the early 1960s, it had not been his intention to imitate nature. Rather, he had been thinking about sculpture as a discipline, and his objective was to set his sculptures free from the pedestal and make them autonomous. For Breer, an American who was familiar with the avant-garde on both sides of the Atlantic, “autonomy” took on a different meaning at that time from the one that it might have had for the artists of previous decades—a meaning defined on the one hand by the clattering automata of Jean Tinguely, who was a friend of Breer’s, and on the other, by John Cage’s experiments with chance operations, which allowed the work to evolve according to a logic extraneous to the preferences and choices of its creator. To these two sources of inspiration, Breer added the element of slowness, an element that catches you off-guard in two ways: firstly, because you don’t expect a sculpture to move, and secondly, because if it does, you don’t expect it to move so slowly that it runs the risk of passing unobserved.
Breer, who was born in 1926, grew up in a climate of passion for research and technical innovation. His father Carl, an engineer and inventor, became famous in the 1930s for having designed the first automobile frame based on aerodynamic principles (the Chrysler “Airflow”), and in the 1940s was already making short films in 3D with a double camera of his own invention. The whole of Breer’s career has been molded by a creative restlessness, by a bent for experimentation in the effort to break fresh ground. It is this dynamic impulse that has led him to make forays deep into at least four fields of expression: painting (which he practiced professionally for around a decade, from the end of the 1940s to the end of the 1950s), animated films (he made his first in 1952), optical devices and finally sculpture. Only one of these activities, painting, has been abandoned, or rather has been transformed into his work with animated drawings; the others have continued to be part of his output right up to the present day.
After attending Stanford University, where, notwithstanding the realist slant of his teachers, he was able to practice abstract painting, Breer moved to Europe in 1949. Obviously, he headed for Paris. There he came into contact with the crème de la crème of the avant-garde in the first half of the century, from Picabia to Man Ray, and made friends with some of the figures who were to shape the history of the second, from Tinguely to Pontus Hultén. In Paris, his style, which was rooted in the neoplasticism of Mondrian, was in keeping with that form of geometric abstractionism that constituted “an artistic ‘third way’ between Picassoid, socialist realism and the existentialist Informel” (Laura Hoptman). While Breer’s pictures fell within the neoplastic tendency (to the point of being shown at Denise René’s prestigious gallery), they were not very orthodox. The forms arranged on monochrome grounds were as flat and “hard edge” as you could wish, but skewed and irregular; instead of giving rise to orderly patterns, they seemed to occupy the surface of the canvas in a capricious manner, swarming at the edges of the picture and leaving the center empty, or floating around like pieces of a puzzle that were incapable of fitting together. As Hoptman has written, it is hard to resist the temptation to see in those paintings a prefiguration of the sculptures to come: flat colored shapes moving slowly over black asphalt or the gray floors of museums and galleries.
If Breer’s paintings grew increasingly animated and unpredictable over the course of the 1950s, it was partly because in those years the artist was experimenting with images in movement. As a boy, he had amused himself making flip-books, those booklets in which a figure, repeated with small variations, comes to life when the pages are flipped rapidly between the thumb and the index finger. He remembered that game at the beginning of the 1950s, at a time when he was starting to have doubts about the principles and results of his work as a painter. Says Breer, “In that neo-plastic period one made ‘absolute’ paintings. It was ‘art concret.’ So I made about one ‘absolute’ painting every week, and it occurred to me that there was a contradiction in being able to make so many absolutes. So I thought that maybe the interest was, for me, in arriving at the absolute rather than being there. So I thought maybe the process was more interesting than the product […]. I made a flip-book of small paintings to try to understand how I arrived at making this final painting.” Out of that flip-book sprang two trends in Breer’s production, both linked to the idea of borrowing the elementary mechanisms of the cinema in order to subvert them: optical devices and animated shorts. The optical devices were inspired by the toys that represent the prehistory of the cinema, such as “thaumatropes” and “mutoscopes,” capable of creating the illusion of movement with static images. Breer made a few examples of those devices in which he replaced the 19th-century repertoire of images (wrestlers, ballerinas…) with his own abstract images. He made his first animated film in 1952, during a brief return to the States. It was filmed with a 16-mm camera borrowed from his father, using a technique as primitive as it was laborious: large hand-painted slides, projected onto the wall and then filmed with the camera, one frame at a time. The film was called Form Phases I, a title that reflected his desire to hark back to the abstract animation of the 1920s, to artists like Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter, with their syncopated dances of black and white silhouettes.
From that moment on, Breer began to experiment frantically with the possibilities offered him by the cinematic medium. He made a clean sweep of the conventions of mainstream film in general and those of animation in particular, commencing with the most elementary: the fluidity of the moving image. Instead of lining up hundreds of frames with small progressive variations, he started to change the subject completely every handful of frames, rising to the fever pitch of a new image every frame. The result, as can be imagined, is a true retinal bombardment, one of the most bewildering since the times of Man Ray’s Le retour à la raison (1923). (Duchamp, to whom Breer gave a private screening of the film, quietly asked the artist, “Don’t you think they are a little bit too fast?”). A pressing or even frenzied pace soon became a constant feature of Breer’s cinematic production. Another recurrent element was the discrepancy between soundtracks (mostly collages of sounds and silences) and images: coming from painting, Breer regarded montage as an independent form of visual rhythm with rules of its own, and wanted it to be free from the obligation to conform to a musical rhythm. Apart from these two canons—speed and autonomy of the visual rhythm—Breer set no limits to his experiments: his shorts of the 1950s and 1960s include, among many other things, an extremely rapid montage of photographs and filmed sequences (Recreation, 1956–57), a sort of animated collage (Jamestown Baloos, 1957), an abstract animation in action-painting style (Blazes, 1961) and the shooting and reworking of films of performances by artists like Robert Rauschenberg or Claes Oldenburg, whom he had befriended in the meantime.
In fact, the end of the 1950s saw two major changes in Breer’s career: the final abandonment of painting and the return to America, more precisely to New York, where the artist still lives. His return to the States allowed Breer to find a congenial milieu, made up both of the pioneers of American postwar experimental cinema (Jonas Mekas, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage) and of the visual artists who were soon to give rise to movements like Fluxus, Pop Art and minimalism. Just as in Europe, Breer did not adhere to any specific movement or tendency, but this did not prevent him from forming friendships, exchanging ideas (not always amicably: he recalls having heated arguments with Rauschenberg, whom at the outset he considered a mere imitator of Schwitters) and carrying out collaborations. One of these linked him with Billy Klüver, an engineer with a passion for art who had helped to build Homage to New York, the famous self-destroying machine shown by Tinguely at the MoMA in 1960. In 1966, Klüver founded EAT, Experiments in Art and Technology, an association whose aim was to promote collaboration between artists and engineers. Breer, the artist-son of an engineer and an enthusiastic constructor of mechanical contraptions, was obviously on the same wavelength. EAT’s most spectacular creation was born thanks to his contacts: the association was commissioned by Pepsi to realize a pavilion at the Osaka Expo in 1970. What emerged was somewhere between a work of public sculpture, a space for multimedia performances and an interactive environment: a gigantic geodesic dome swathed in artificial mist, inside of which were staged technological happenings and outside of which Breer’s self-propelled sculptures moved with their customary phlegm.
The last to appear in the work of the American artist, the sculptures are now perhaps his best-known creations, his “signature pieces.” While interest in his activity as a filmmaker has never flagged, the last decade has seen growing attention paid to his whole body of work, and to the sculptures in particular: the “floats,” as the artist calls them, referring both to markers at sea and the vehicles used to carry allegorical exhibits in a parade.
The originality of the floats has stood the test of time, overcoming their superficial resemblance to other works of the period (for example, the kinetic sculptures of the Belgian Pol Bury, famous for their extremely slow movements). Breer has addressed the question clearly: “The difference is that parts of [Pol Bury’s] sculptures move and in my case the whole piece moves, gliding along the floor. I knew Bury at Denise René, he showed in that same gallery with Vasarely and Tinguely and co. [...] We both used very slow motion and when I first started making my pieces I said to him: ‘Look Pol, I’m sorry that I have to use slow motion like you do, but it’s the only way for my pieces.’ And he said: ‘oh sure, fine.’ It’s like he owned slow motion. Now really the point of my pieces is that they travel.
They move around the space by themselves. [...] For one thing the sculpture has been taken off the stand, and not only that but its connection between itself and the floor is a very active area and this has no precedents for sculptural concern. There is no way to deal with this, the bottom of this piece that is sliding along and its relationships to the floor. That’s a very intense area of unresolved aesthetic.” If Breer’s peculiar “floorness” owes nothing to the minimalists (not even from the chronological point of view: the first documented floats are from 1965, while Carl Andre’s historic Lever dates from 1966), the idea of a trajectory of the works through space, slow enough to pass almost unobserved, is no less original. The most fitting words to describe the effect are, paradoxically, the ones written by Rosalind Krauss on Pol Bury in Passages in Modern Sculpture (1981): “The drama of motion is one that the spectator completes or bestows on the assembled work, his participation enacting in large scale or explicit gesture the ‘subliminal activity’ which the work suggests. The sculpture makes the spectator complicit with the direction of its ‘journey’ through time; in being its audience, he becomes, automatically, its performer.” Anyone can see how this passage is even more appropriate when referred to the American artist instead of the Belgian. In Breer, the “theatricality” that Michael Fried criticized in the minimalists is taken as a positive value—and raised to a higher power.
At the fine exhibition “The Death of the Audience,” organized by Pierre Bal-Blanc at the Secession in Vienna (July–August 2009), Breer showed an enormous, unexpected and astounding float: an entire partition wall, on which drawings were hung in a regular pattern but slid imperceptibly to the right and left. We can now consider it the first materialization of an even more ambitious project, dating all the way back to 1969 and so far unrealized: a whole building capable of moving slowly over long distances, from which the visitor would emerge in a completely different place from the one in which he had entered it, and perhaps even an unknown one. A building, imagines Breer, to be used for political and artistic meetings, one in which to make “big decisions.” Its purpose would be the same one that the artist himself has pursued over a career of half a century: undermining preconceived certainties, starting with his own. It goes without saying that we would very much like to discuss art, and perhaps even more so politics, in that self-propelled meeting room. Keep it up, Mr. Breer.