Sally Dixon’s office was, in a word, stunning. Back in the early 1970s, before the present-day museum of art building was constructed, Carnegie Institute was sorely in need of extra space. So when Dixon launched the museum’s film program in 1970, the attic space above the Carnegie Lecture Hall (now part of the Carnegie Library’s main branch in Oakland) was offered to her and she transformed it into an office. With large windows and a mishmash of scavenged furniture and knick-knacks—not to mention the beautiful letterpress posters on the walls, many of which we have in our archive—it became an important meeting place for filmmakers, curators, and scholars from near and far. This Pittsburgh Press article, dated February 8, 1970, offers a vivid description of Dixon’s office, with the reporter playfully referring to its decor as “Early Museum Basement.”
On this day in April of 1970, Jonas Mekas became the first filmmaker to visit Pittsburgh as part of Carnegie Museum of Art’s brand new film program (also known as the Film Section, the Section of Film and Video, and the Department of Film and Video). Film curator Sally Dixon invited him to screen selections from his films and talk about his ventures in experimental cinema in New York. Mekas was the first of many non-narrative filmmakers to visit the museum (names like Robert Breer, Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Peter Kubekla, and James Broughton are common in our Program Notes), but more than any other film or video artist, he set the tone for moving image programming at CMOA.
For the past four months, I’ve been volunteering with the Time-Based Media Project at Carnegie Museum of Art. Primarily, I’ve been writing content that will appear online in the catalogue—working to help put the films in their larger historical and artistic context. In other words, I’ve been watching the films and videos and writing about them, something I already do for my job in Film Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. I’ve especially enjoyed this project because—even though my professional research concerns Mexican narrative and feature films—I’ve always been a fan of American experimental films. Since starting this project, I’ve been watching old favorites that I haven’t seen since my early years in graduate school and reading about their history for the first time.
I’ve noticed, however, that when people write about experimental film, whether in histories, magazines, or journals, it appears as though they’re writing for those already converted—viewers who already know and appreciate particular films, and are, strictly speaking, “fans” like myself. The authors address a rather small group of filmgoers: scholars, filmmakers, artists, and occasional cineastes. Whether amateur or professional, these are viewers who haven’t just seen particular films but know the historic details surrounding the films, or which filmmakers worked with other filmmakers, or stories of how so many films were made by circles of friends with little money or resources. While this idea of a small, committed viewership of experimental cinema probably has some accuracy, the archival collection of materials at CMOA suggests that there was a sizeable audience during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s—the peak years of the Film Program when audiences filled the theater to see programs of new works or the monthly (or bi-weekly) experimental film programs from the permanent collection. Of course, experimental film has never garnered the broad audience of conventional film, but the experimental film theatrical experience was diverse and sustained, showing older, favorite experimental works and promoting younger, unknown independent filmmakers, something that happens far more rarely in Pittsburgh today.
Next Thursday, Andrew Lampert, Curator of Collections at Anthology Film Archives, will be visiting Carnegie Museum of Art to present Towering Turrets of Tomorrow Land: The Films and Writings of George Kuchar. Lampert’s visit is part of our ongoing DoubleExposure series, in which curators, artists, archivists, and experts come to CMOA to consult on our Time-Based Media Project and present on a topic in their wheelhouse. Lampert will be discussing his recent book on George Kuchar, The George Kuchar Reader (Primary Information, 2014); reading excerpts from the filmmaker’s personal notebooks, and showing five rarely seen 16mm works: Eclipse of the Sun Virgin (1967, 15 min.), Power of the Press (1977, 16 min.), Forever and Always (1978, 20 min.), and Yolanda (1981, 22 min.).
George Kuchar was among the many artists who visited the museum to screen and discuss films during the 1970s and 1980s. He was well-known for his campy, sardonic style, and today his name is synonymous with the development of US experimental film, especially the camp genre. Kuchar began making films as a child with his twin brother Mike and continued creating throughout his life, producing a body of nearly 350 films and videos. His art is often comical but ingenuous in its criticism of culture and daily life. Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966), which is perhaps his best-known work, depicts the dilemmas of an independent filmmaker as he attempts to film his lead actress naked while she resists his demands. Like his other films, it is self-reflective and critiques the artificiality of the filmmaking process. Kuchar was also well-known for his ability to produce art on little or no budget, and he helped generate a whole new genre of independent, low-budget movie-making—think YouTube and amateur film on the Internet. In preparation for Lampert’s program next week, we dug into the Department of Film and Video archive at CMOA to find artifacts from George Kuchar’s time in Pittsburgh and found some wonderful pieces of his legacy tucked away in our records.
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.