Program Notes: The Museum at the Dawn of the Video Age


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Carnegie Museum of Art film and video program note from March/April 1988. Image: Department of Film and Video archive at Carnegie Museum of Art.

In December, Jonathan Furmanski, a media conservator at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, will be coming to Carnegie Museum of Art to present The CRT Canvas: Television and Materiality 1969-1983, a program dedicated to the first generation of video artists and early experimentation in the medium. He will give a talk on the cultural circumstances that gave rise to these pieces and he will address the challenges of preserving works with strong technological dependencies. As part of the program, he will be screening select pieces by Bill Viola, William Wegman, Alan Kaprow, Wolfgang Stoerche and other video artists. He will also be showing a fragment from Dan Grahm’s 1974 installation Continuous Present Past(s) and a rare gem from Cynthai Maughan.

His upcoming visit prompted us to start thinking about the history of video art at Carnegie Museum of Art and about the integration of this relatively new medium into the museum’s film department, which was known in its earliest years as the Film Section, and later as the new medium became more established, the Section of Film and Video and the Department of Film and Video. Curators at CMOA installed the first video artworks in the galleries in 1981 but had been gradually introducing it to museum goers in Pittsburgh for nearly a decade. As part of the Time-Based Media Project, we have been working to piece this history together, and in the process, we have found some fascinating information and made some exciting discoveries in the archive.

It Started with Stephen Beck

The first video artist to visit CMOA as part of the ongoing Independent Filmmakers Series hosted by the Film Section was Stephen Beck in January of 1974. He was a major figure in the development of computer synthesized video imagery in the 1960s and was known for developing the Beck Direct Video Synthesizer, which merged music and video to produce psychedelic audio and visual effects. Beck’s visit signaled a change in the department, one which would unfold over the next decade.

Beck was one of many artists experimenting with the aesthetic possibilities of video in the 1960s and 1970s. As recording and broadcasting technology became more widely available to the public during this time, more and more artists explored the medium. New portable cameras, which were introduced in the mid-1960s, allowed greater flexibility but the equipment was expensive and still did not provide artists with the levels of customization that they wanted for their work. Artists like Stephen Beck, who had dual backgrounds in the arts and engineering, began developing their own tools and building technology that would allow them to create complex visual effects. Inspired by analog music synthesizers, these artists created image processors or video synthesizers, which altered signals and produced more abstract visual experiences.

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Ad for Stephen Beck and Jordan Belson program titled ‘Cosmic Cinema.’ Image: Department of Film and Video archive.

During his two-day visit in January of 1974, Beck presented a program of early experiments with his synthesizer, along with collaborative pieces he created with filmmaker Jordan Belson. He showed excerpts from their latest collaboration Cycles, which combined digital and analog techniques to create cyclical images on screen.

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Video artist Stephen Beck and CMOA Film Curator Sally Dixon introducing and discussing his “videofilms.” Image: Photographs by Robert Haller from the Department of Film and Video archive.

Beck also participated in several Q&A sessions in which he discussed the processes behind his and Belson’s “videofilms” (named because the artists mixed both mediums to create the artworks). Recordings of Beck’s sessions, as well as lectures and discussions with many other visiting artists, are preserved in the Department of Film and Video archive at CMOA.

Establishing an Artform

One year after Beck’s visit, William Judson replaced Sally Dixon as film curator at the museum. Judson was enthusiastic about the artistic potential of video and began integrating it into CMOA’s regular monthly programming. By 1977, the Film Section was co-hosting, along with the University of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Film-Makers Inc., a special semi-regular series called Experimental Video at the University of Pittsburgh’s Audio-Visual Center in the basement of Hillman Library. The series ran between 1977 and 1979 and included works by seminal video artists such as Ant Farm, Ed Emshwiller, Peter Campus, David Davis, Bill Viola, Willoughby Sharp, and Nam June Paik.

In addition to these screenings, Judson invited video artists to present and discuss their artworks as part of the Visiting Filmmakers Series. In March of 1979, Al Robbins, a video artist known for his gallery installations and innovative treatment of the medium, presented and discussed Anticatastrophe, a dynamic three-monitor video sculpture that explored the physicality or “surface texture” of video. Later that year, in October of 1979, artists Vibeke Sorensen and Tom Dewitt also came to the museum and presented their collaborations Videocean, Monocules, and Cathode Ray Theater.

In 1981, Judson’s efforts culminated in a complete rebranding of the museum’s Film Section. CMOA renamed the department the Section of Film and Video, and at the same time, announced the creation of its first gallery space dedicated solely to video artworks.

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Headline from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Image: Department of Film and Video archive.

The Buky Schwartz Exhibition

In the early 1980s, CMOA played host to a growing number of video artists and installations. The museum’s first gallery exhibition to feature video introduced Pittsburghers to the art of Buky Schwartz, a sculptor and video maker who was known for his large-scale, installation environments or “videoconstructions.”

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Carnegie Museum of Art press release for the 1981 Buky Schwartz exhibition. Image: Department of Film and Video archive.

The show opened in 1981 and featured four artworks by Schwartz, including two videoconstructions. For the piece Spring 1981, he combined organic elements with video recordings to create a surreal visual experience for viewers at the museum. He painted 18 tree logs with a continuous geometric shape that could only be seen through the television monitors. Schwartz also exhibited Unison, a 28 minute long single-channel video piece, and White Flag Triangle, a display of four cibachrome photographs taken of his landscape sculpture Tel-Hai in Israel.

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Booklet for 1981 Buky Schwartz exhibition. Image: Department of Film and Video archive.

Soon after this show, the museum purchased two single-channel pieces by Schwartz, Unison (1980), which was included in the 1981 exhibition, and Videoconstructions (1978). These were the first video purchases by the museum and marked the beginning of a new phase in the museum’s moving image programming and exhibitions.

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Polaroid images of the 1981 Buky Schwartz exhibition. Image: Department of Film and Video archive.

The Video Room Gallery Space

In 1982, the museum further established video in its galleries by creating the Video Room, a permanent gallery exhibition space dedicated to exploring new forms and uses of the medium. That same year, Stephen Beck returned to CMOA and inaugurated the space in January with a show titled Video by Stephen Beck. It featured three single channel video works: Video Weavings (1975), Anima (1974), and Union (1975), all of which were also acquired for the museum’s collection.

That same year, the museum welcomed two video installations by James Byrne. On display in the entrance to the gallery was Phase, a hanging diamond of four TV screens. Byrne also showed … this fountain is a field of fire, a site-specific installation that incorporated imagery he shot in the museum’s sculpture courtyard. The footage was played on seven monitors that were hung in the foyer near the main entrance of the museum.

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Booklet for James Byrne exhibition. Image: Department of Film and Video archive.

In addition to increasing its video exhibitions and screenings, the museum also began acquiring videotapes and video installations for the contemporary art collection. Some of the more notable pieces acquired during this time include Dara Birnbaum’s 3-channel video installation piece will-o’-the-wisp (1985), which was displayed at the 1985 Carnegie International, Bill Viola’s The Sleep of Reason (1988), and Buky Schwartz’s The Big Video Chair (1987).

A Video Landscape

By the late 1980s, video had been fully incorporated into Carnegie Museum of Art’s exhibitions and programing. In 1988, Judson organized American Landscape Video: The Electronic Grove, the museum’s first major large-scale exhibition presenting video art installations. The exhibition featured work by many accomplished artists in the medium, including Dara Birnbaum, Frank Gillette, Rita Meyers, Mary Lucier, Steina Vasulka, Bill Viola, and Doug Hall. It was on display at CMOA from May 7 to July 10 before traveling to the San Francisco Museum of Art and the New Port Harbor Art Museum.

Today the Carnegie continues to exhibit and support contemporary and historic artists who explore and push the boundaries of the medium. Visitors can currently view several video works from the collection in the Scaife galleries, including Tony Oursler’s (Telling) Vision #3, Bruce Nauman’s Bouncing in the Corner No. 1 (1968) and Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk) (1968), and Mark Leckey’s Pearl Vision (2004-2007).

Program Notes is an ongoing series that explores the preservation work being conducted as part of the Time-Based Media Project at Carnegie Museum of Art.