I had the opportunity to attend a BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Arts talk on their current exhibition of avant-garde painter/animator/sculptor Robert Breer. I’d been recommended to look at the exhibition because of Breer’s use of form as an abstract and ambiguous quality.
The talk by BALTIC chief curator Laurence Sillars brought out the primary focus of Breer’s work: namely the tension between the figurative and the abstract, the static and movement. The story I was told was that Breer began art school doing figurative work, but had a revelation when he snuck away from his class group during a 1946 trip to the San Francisco MoMA and stumbled on a room of Mondrian paintings. He immediately changed his style, shocking nearly all of his tutors in the process, but then winning a school award on graduation that allowed him to buy a one way ticket to the home of his mentor: Paris. It would be here that he would become fully immersed in the local art society before eventually moving to New York.
Though the early paintings are clearly influenced by Mondrian, Sillars pointed out that their philosophies were fundamentally different: while Mondrian strived to distill the essence of life to simple colour and line, Breer was more interested in contrasts, and that each painting he did would have its own pure truth.
It was pointed out to us how Breer’s paintings create tension on the picture plane by making shapes appear about to move, fall, change. While we’re pretty acclimatised to abstract art by now, some of Breer’s techniques such as having black lines stop mid through the painting were things that were just not done at the time. Even now the pictures still teem with tension and energy.
We were told that many art-animators turn to animation with a fetishitic zeal. Breer wasn’t one of them. He moved to animation because he had run out of opportunities to play with form and movement through painting and needed to be able to control time.
His experimental movies are a wonder. As Sillars explained, Breers began very early on to play with analogy: while his pieces don’t have a narrative as such, they do have progression, and the viewer begins to make stories about how the movements. I was amazed at the physics of his work: when one object is animated colliding with another, the deformation shown on screen really makes you believe that it was deformed. I can’t help but wonder whether his one miserable year of engineering perhaps played more of a role than might be believed, or that his father’s influence (he famously realised the aerodynamics of early cars were better for reverse than forward, and created streamlining). Again, like his paintings, his animations are a curiously physical experience.
Breer’s play with the static and movement, abstract and representational is show at perhaps its most brilliant and playful with the delightful A Man and His Dog Out For Air (1957). The lines are sensuous and hypnotic, giving us temporary flashes of representations until the utterly charming denouement, almost like the punchline of a joke.
His collage works share the same whimsy, but are at times more of an assault on the eyes, no more so than Recreation (which, in a testament to its making, still looks frenetic today). Caution: contains strobe-like effects.
Breer’s flipbooks are beautiful items of art in themselves — but more importantly, a means of obtaining control. For Breer, animation inverted the power relationship between the art and the painter: for while paintings were subject to the eye of the viewer, animation controls it (the eye automatically follows a moving object).
However, the top floor of the exhibition was were the really interesting work was: his sculptures. While I don’t want to ruin the surprise for anyone who hasn’t been there yet, he has a wonderful idea that inverts what the curator describes as “objects that look like plain, boring, modernist objects”. My favourite comment from one of the audience members was that the installation felt like “Hitchcock meets Doctor Who”.
What struck me listening to all the people in the room discuss the objects, was how they all assigned human agency to the objects. While some were standard ones you hear for electronic objects (they were ‘asleep’ or ‘dead’), others were more unexpected: object collisions were “cranky”, one wall was “angry”. This again ties back to Breer’s wonderful ability to play with analogy without being explicit.
While doing the background research to write this, I came across Harvard Film Archive’s description of Breer as a “kinetic poet of the avant-garde”. Above all, what comes across in this is his need to find ways to express form, no matter what that medium need be.
Flipbook and Floating Sculpture image from gb agency