The 3 Periods of Abstract Film & Video in the US
story © Michael Betancourt, August 7, 2011 all rights reserved.
Because understanding the present requires an awareness of the past, this discussion considers the broad development of abstract motion pictures over the course of the twentieth century. Within this larger history, it is possible to identify three distinct phases to the emergence and consolidation of abstraction as a specific genre of animation.
These periods correspond to avant-garde film’s engagement with the art world in the United States: a foundational period lasting from the beginning of motion pictures until 1946, marked by invention and fundamental innovation—the discovery of techniques, approaches and the initial development of themes and subjects that later artists would expand and explore; a second period, starting with the Art in Cinema series at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1935) that was marked by the new generation consciously building organizations to support their work and responding to the artists and works from the initial, foundational period; starting and the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, is the third period characterized by the institutionalization of media art as a form independent of commercial production. Where the first two periods are concerned with supporting, exhibiting and promoting the artists making what is various termed “avant-garde,” “underground,” or “experimental film,” what specifically defines this third period is the shift to a group of concerns with teaching the history of these other cinematic forms which inherently leads to the formation of a “canon” of particular films and film makers that are of greater and lesser importance. Works produced in this third period are generally marked by a greater historical awareness, self-conscious quotation of earlier, and an orientation to the new fields called into being by their movement into the academic environment.
The First Period
The first phase follows the invention of motion pictures and ends with the 1946 Art in Cinema exhibitions organized by Frank Stauffacher at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. What unites the first generations of abstract cinema innovators, experimenters, and inventors is an interest in creating abstract films that provide a kinetic analogue to then-recent developments in avant-garde art and painting. The attempt to create a systematic, universal language based on abstract form became a focus of some abstract painters such as Vassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich in Russia, and was a direct goal of the experimental animations produced by Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling in 1920s Germany. Other concerns with dynamism, movement, and visuals predicated on an analogy with music also provided subject matter, an visual aesthetic, and an impetus to create these early works.
During the “silent era,” film scores would generally be produced after the film was made to facilitate synchronization and counter-point of music and image. The modernist composers who did want to score films were compelled to collaborate with their friends who were making avant-garde films: this is why George Antheil scored Ballet Mécanique; Entr’acte was produced for Eric Satie and used his music; Ruttmann’s Lichtspiel films also had a scores composed for them; this convergence lead to screenings of abstract films at the International Music Festival at Baden-Baden in 1927. The introduction of optical sound reversed this production method—the score would come first: after recording it with the new film sound technology, the resulting optical sound track enabled the production of films with very tightly synchronized music and visuals. The synchronization of image and music, coupled with innovations in technique (color film) produced works that are immediately recognizable through their impact on later developments in motion graphics. Yet, at the same time, this period is also marked by experimentation and innovation—the artists active during these years were literally inventing their art. By the mid-twentieth century, these concerns were assimilated by second generation of film artists as the foundations for the language of abstract film, and by century’s end, one of the essential bases of motion graphics as a field.
The Second Period
The earlier developments of the avant-garde were discontinuous. The start of the second period in 1946 is defined by the continuity that emerged following the Art in Cinema symposium and screening series organized at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in October 1946 (curated by Frank Stauffacher, Richard Foster and George Leite). It marks an important transition point for the development of abstract film towards contemporary industry: the shift from being the occasional commercial production or rarely seen avant-garde experiment to a specific genre of film-as-art whose style and form appeared both unique and “modern.” This curated program of films marks the beginning of the second phase in the history of abstract film, characterized by the consolidation and the development of organizations devoted to the presentation of film as an art, independent of commercial cinema distribution. It became a screening series, programmed at irregular intervals, until Stauffacher’s death in 1954. The connections between the abstract film and commercial motion graphics emerge during this phase. The innovations of the first phase were promoted through historical screenings and through the commercial work done by both industry technicians and by these film makers’ work for the advertising industry.
Stauffacher’s first series was accompanied by a symposium catalog that is a valuable document of the transition from disparate artists to historically significant art. The project was possible because of the collaborative efforts of the artists shown, the ability to borrow films from the Museum of Modern Art in New York that had been collecting and preserving film since its founding in 1935 as the “Film Library.” Stauffacher’s history is concerned with the “experimental film”—a loose collection of works that range from the psychodramas of Maya Deren, to the anarrative work of Hans Richter (who abandoned abstraction after making Rhythmus 25).
Within the ten programs of “experimental film” are only a few abstract works, and the organization of the Art in Cinema shows was around thematic and national origins, rather than an aesthetic or art historical foundation. Surrealist, Dada/Constructivist and abstract films were screened with documentaries and short, commercial narratives in no particular sequence. Viking Eggeling’s Symphonie Diagonale was included in “Program One: Precursors,” and the “Fourth Program: Non-Objective Form Synchronized with Music” is principally a retrospective of Oskar Fischinger’s films; Mary Ellen Bute’s Rhythm in Light (1936) comes at its end. The early films of John and James Whitney were included in the “Sixth Program: Contemporary Experimental Films in America,” coming in between psychodramas by Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon, A Ritual in Transfigured Time, and Choreography for Camera), and The Potted Psalm by Sidney Peterson and James Broughton. It is a roster of film artists who would establish occasional relationships with the commercial world, in the process bring their concerns with synaesthetic form and montage to broader, popular audience.
The development of alternative networks of distribution and exhibition enabled the filmmakers emerging after World War II to not only places to exhibit their work, it also provided them with encouragement (and sometimes rental fees). The changes that began in the post-war era created an entirely new context for the experimental film, one the promoted and encouraged artists to start, or continue, making films. The east and west coasts of the United States developed independent, parallel organizations in support for their respective avant-garde filmmaking communities after World War II, attracting the attention of different film making communities in the process. The west coast institutions found interested audiences among the intellectuals and Hollywood film industry; on the east coast, these audiences also included the advertising designers, copywriters and executives.
In San Francisco the support organizations were created by film makers: Frank Stauffacher, who organized and ran Art in Cinema until his death in 1954 was also a filmmaker; Bruce Baillie, another filmmaker in San Francisco created both Canyon Cinema (1960) and the San Francisco Cinematheque (1961) as organizations to support experimental film. In New York, the relationship between filmmakers and organizations was more varied. Amos Vogel, a film programmer, incorporated Cinema-16 (1947) as a screening and distribution company; later organizations in New York would more closely follow the model in San Francisco of being artist-organized. The Film-Maker’s Cooperative (1962) was founded by a group of film makers including Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clary and Gregory Markopoulos (the “New American Cinema”) as a way to archive and distribute their work. The importance of the organizations founded between 1946 and 1970 to the development and organization of the American avant-garde film should not be underestimated. It was through these organizations and the screenings they enabled that artists became aware of each other’s work, developed mutual support networks and began establishing an on-going dialogue about the nature of their medium as an art form, rather than simply as commercial entertainment subject to review by censorship boards.
Particularly important to this development was Cinema-16, a private film club organized by Amos Vogel in New York to screen and distribute the new films being produced in the United States and Europe. Unlike the west coast exhibitor, Cinema-16 was organized as a business, and sought to distribute many of the new American films it programmed. Stauffacher encouraged the connection between east and west, sending films to New York, and arranging for personal and business connections linking the two coastal centers for experimentation. Between 1947 and 1963, when the club disbanded, Cinema-16 would become a major promoter of the new American avant-garde film, and would be responsible for premiering films from Europe in America, including films by Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda and other members of the Nouvelle Vague—known in the United States as the “French New Wave.”
Vogel organized his programs, and Cinema-16 as a commercial enterprise from the beginning, and was involved with distributing many of the films that premiered at his screenings. Cinema-16 was conceived and marketed as an alternative to the standard, public movie houses that were subject to censorship review in New York: by being an independent cine-club with a membership fee, Vogel was able to program films without first having them pass the censor’s review, thus allowing him to exhibit works that challenged the conventionally accepted mores of the period. In 1963 Vogel ended the Cinema-16 series, founding the New York Film Festival as its successor. The transition from a cine-club to a more film festival is logical given the range of films screened at Cinema-16. Programs were composed from a mixture of contemporary, experimental work, foreign films, older “classic” films from the 1930s and silent era, as well as educational films and documentaries. These screenings offered variety, and were focused on the promotion of cinema as a Modern, aesthetically and socially challenging medium, reflecting the ascendant values of the Modernist avant-garde during this period. This transformation is symptomatic of the shift towards institutionalization that characterizes the third period.
The Third Period
Starting and the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, is the third period that coincides with the creation of the Anthology Film Archives in 1970, the elevation of Video Art by the Museum of Modern Art in 1975, and the development of the Film Studies program in American colleges and universities. It is a period identified with the institutionalization and canonization of certain artists, films, and the differentiation of video art from television—as well as the dominance of a media-critical practice that adversarially engages with both television and Hollywood cinema.
The early phases of this period moved in contradictory directions: while some artists worked towards a formal medium-specificity for both video art and avant-garde film that followed the theorizations of Modernism proposed by the art critic Clement Greenberg; at the same time, other artists were working in the hybrid, overlapping spaces between video, film, and television—often using elements of all three technologies in the creation of avant-garde “movies” that exceeded the limitations of the various media used in their production. The development of installation art (both film and video), and experimental presentations based in manipulations of projection or using multiple projectors can be recognized as part of this hybridization known during this period as “expanded cinema.”
This period is marked by the institutions supporting the avant-garde shifting from a promotional and presentational mode to a primarily historical understanding of artists and avant-garde media: the creation of the Anthology Film Archives (1970) by the film makers Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage and Peter Kubelka, along with historian and critic P. Adams Sitney marks a transition point between the second phase of production-exhibition-distribution and the institutional period, since unlike the earlier organizations, Anthology Film Archives was conceived as a way to screen experimental film, collect and preserve that work, and publish books about it—an essentially historical project, unlike the more commercial organizations designed to promote and distribute films. This institutionalization of film and media art generally was accompanied by the canonization of artists and films who emerged during the second period as representative of the alternative to commercial, Hollywood cinema.
It is a shift that begins in the 1960s with the publication of critical studies focused on the specifically experimental film that become increasingly academic in the 1970s: Sheldon Renan’s An Introduction to the American Underground Film published in 1967, Parker Tyler’s The Underground Film: A Critical History in 1969, David Curtis’ The Experimental Cinema from 1971, and P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film in 1974. Sitney’s book developed from various articles published during the 1960s. They demonstrate the close connection between Sitney’s elaboration of a film avant-garde, and the role of filmmaker and programmer Jonas Mekas’ magazine Film Culture, in the critical dissemination, organization of artists, and creation of a particular history for the avant-garde film that happened in parallel to the development of the exhibition and distribution. That both men collaborated in the creation of the Anthology Film Archives in 1970 is not incidental in the creation of the particular history contained in Sitney’s book: it is a demonstration of the shifting from the expansive second period to the hierarchical third.
The Contemporary "Period"
What is problematic in the contemporary 'period' is the uncertain status of this institutionalization: to what extent is the third period still an on-going phenomenon? This question is significant--since while there is an abundance of contemporary work shown at festivals, galleries and elsewhere (such as online), the primary concerns of evaluation, critique and engagement remain largely oriented towards the historically institutionalized artists and works of the second period. The democratic aspects of internet publication has also brought about, paradoxically, a return to the dispersal and disconnections that dominated the first period. Instead of a limited accessibility, there is so much accessibility that the identification of what is important becomes difficult. Coupled with the "conservatism" inherent to how academics view contemporary history, the dominance of the institutional period appears secure.
Copyright © Michael Betancourt August 7, 2011 all rights reserved.
All images, copyrights, and trademarks are owned by their respective owners: any presence here is for purposes of commentary only.