Robert Breer is perhaps best known in film circles. In his experimental films, lines and shapes take on an evanescent life of their own, flickering in and out of being, amidst all kinds of technical and hand-drawn effects. His small sculptures from the 1960s and 70s, 'Floats', were exhibited here for the first time since 1970, and they move rather more slowly than the films. Whether they look like a space blanket, as in Rug (1968/1999), the small plastic domes of 93 Variations (1970), or the polystyrene slab of Underground Cinema II (1965), all of the sculptures have battery-powered motors and little wheels, and although they move, it is often so slowly that it takes you a while to notice. (Breer has also made large, public-scale works using the same principles). The shiny metallic plastic of Rug bunches and seems to breathe, as if there might be a small body underneath. The 16 elements of 93 Variations bump into each other and cluster into indeterminate factions on a wooden table top. Similarly, the seven plastic domes trailing wire constructions of Floor Drawing (1970-73), continually and ever so gradually rearrange themselves on the floor. Meanwhile, the square white slab of Underground Cinema II is a mobile, horizontal, Lissitzky-like composition, which implacably pushes the smaller, red Beam (1966) across the room.
It's hard to avoid seeing these funny little machines anthropomorphically - they seem to be carrying on some interminable business of their own without any regard for the viewer. Perhaps, however, it's not entirely surprising, given Breer's involvement in the 1960s with E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology, which was essentially Billy Klver providing access to new technology in a series of collaborative projects with artists). E.A.T.'s techno-curiosity may have helped make it possible to envisage, among other things, an independent or nearly independent robot art. Breer's version is a kind of glacially slapstick, mechanical Minimalism. Instead of the phenomenological awareness supposed to have been generated on the viewer's part by Minimalist objects' inertia, in a room of Breer's work there is the dawning suspicion that something, somehow, looks different; you realise with a start that a sculpture has crept up on you. This is usually followed by laughter; it's nice to hear people laughing out loud in a gallery.
More generally, Breer's motor-ised sculptures can be seen in relation to the now mostly ignored kinetic art of the 1960s, although he replaces the spectacular, auto-destructive aspects of its best known representatives with the domestic entropy of broken-down toys. Like the Minimalists, his sculptures are geometric, and made of simple, industrial materials. But the modest scale of the works on view here, together with the introduction of movement, pokes fun at the portent of Minimalist slabs and cubes, and marks a refusal to take quite seriously the interpretation of Minimalism which sees it as Modernism at its most self-referential end. (Breer, it seems, has an aversion to all models of aesthetic purity.)
Breer's 'Floats' demonstrate, however, an interest in some earlier avant-garde ideas, even some that Minimalism shared. Minimalism banished fractured composition in favour of unitary objects, in part because this might activate viewers. Breer, alternately, depersonalised composition by activating the art works themselves (though this also, of course, animates the space). Composition became a mechanical contingency (as in Floor Drawing, especially), or an accident, as when Underground Cinema II crashes slowly into Beam. The dream-like tempo helps to suggest a motorised, three dimensional version of automatic drawing; robot Surrealism, perhaps.
First published in Issue 55