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Robert Breer

Simon Preston Gallery, New York, USA

Leave Robert Breer’s ‘Kamikaze’ too quickly and you’ll likely miss all the glacially-paced fun: every freestanding sculpture is in almost-imperceptible motion, like little minimalist bumper cars running into each other and reversing course. Even the requisite white wall in the centre of the gallery – which provides a surface for a framed drawing on one side and a projected animation on the other – is moving, at about an inch every 30 seconds. Breer is best known for his stop-motion animations, so it’s no surprise that these ‘floats’, as the artist calls them (another endearing nickname: ‘creepies’) – bring animation into sculptural space; turn around, look back and the frame has changed. This is cinematic movement slowed down to a snail’s pace, in real time.

Robert Breer, 1953, Time Out, oil on canvas, 97 x 79 x 4 cm. Courtesy: Simon Preston Gallery, New York

Robert Breer, 1953, Time Out, oil on canvas, 97 x 79 x 4 cm. Courtesy: Simon Preston Gallery, New York and gb agency, Paris

Initially trained as a painter, Breer was particularly influenced by neoplasticism. That early avant-garde movement’s blocky primary colours and thick, black horizontal and vertical lines are readily apparent in the artist’s early canvases, which date from c.1948. In works like Composition aux troix lignes (Composition with Three Lines, c.1950), three slender, horizontal lines bisect thick, roughly vertical chunks of bright, peppy colours – a somewhat predictable mash-up of Theo von Doesburg, Piet Mondrian and Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart. Ditto for the sole painting on display in ‘Kamikaze’, Time Out (1953), which superimposes a sinewy black rectangle atop five colour blocks – though in this instance Breer’s rebellious colours curl and careen into each other as if trying to escape their frame.

Robert Breer, installation view of ’Kamikaze' at Simon Preston Gallery. Courtesy: Simon Preston Gallery, New York

Robert Breer, installation view of ’Kamikaze' at Simon Preston Gallery. Courtesy: Simon Preston Gallery, New York and gb agency, Paris

In the back of the gallery, Time Out’s palette seems to go rogue in 70 (1970), a stop-motion animation Breer composed using thousands of index cards hand-painted with spray paint and a knife. Throughout the duration of the stroboscopic film, blobs and curls of colour grow and shrink; rectangles and squares float in and out of the frame; and, in a particularly gripping sequence, large Vs drop down from above, dramatically bisecting a two-colour plane in quick succession. It’s an ‘assault and battery on the retina’, as Breer described his abstract films; geometric abstraction seems shot through with electricity, blending the form and rhythm of Hans Richter and Paul Sharits with the sumptuous colour of the experimental New American Cinema films of Stan Brakhage, an associate of Breer’s.

Robert Breer, exhibition view of ‘Kamikaze’ at Simon Preston Gallery. Courtesy: Simon Preston Gallery, New York

Robert Breer, exhibition view of ‘Kamikaze’ at Simon Preston Gallery. Courtesy: Simon Preston Gallery, New York and gb agency, Paris

Abstraction makes another radical leap in the four floats on display. The title of this show seems particularly appropriate for the objects, which sneakily go about their business. If you don’t pay attention, Float (1972) might suddenly nudge your ankles. The low, circular plinth-like form of wood and green resin makes a clunky, gear-shift sound when it registers that an object (or person) is rudely in its way. It then reverses course, its motor audibly humming. Float reminded me of the one-person army Tik-Tok in Return to Oz (1985), whose technology is so outmoded you’d think it might break down at any moment. Tucson #1 and Tucson #4 (both 2009) are painted Styrofoam and resemble chunks of concrete buildings, while Tucson Rug (2009) looks like a plastic bag with a rodent in it, squeaking away. (I thought it was rubbish.) Then there’s Floating Wall (2009), which will literally push you over if you’re sitting against it. (I tried and almost fell.) Remote-controlled and drifting back and forth, it would probably crash through the gallery’s facade if not watched carefully by an attendant.

Breer first made these sculptures in 1965, as abstract compositions that ‘would constantly rearrange’ themselves. Moving so slowly that they resemble still images, the floats seem chiselled from the surfaces of the artist’s paintings. ‘Kamikaze’ illustrates this playful feedback loop, in which colour and form jump on and off the wall and back again to humorous ends. Space here is animated, literally and figuratively, crawling to and fro in perpetual motion.

David Everitt Howe is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn. He is currently Curator/Editor at Pioneer Works and is BOMB magazine’s Online Art Editor. 

Issue 188

First published in Issue 188

June - August 2017
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