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Tech Art History, Part 1

Performance artist Marina Abramović just ended her epic solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, an exhibition that has broken barriers for MoMA and generated no small amount of dialogue about what art "is." We watched Barbara Walters tell about her own visit on 'The View' not long ago, and she was quite surprised at the MoMA performers' nudity. Joy Behar, aghast, chimed in: "Who needs to see this in a museum? You're there to see a painting!"

While we don't think that Ms. Behar represents the American majority opinion on modern art, we realize that some people might still be wondering why a stack of televisions by Nam June Paik is considered so culturally important that it could fetch $128,000 at auction, or how a single fluorescent tube, placed at an angle on a gallery wall by Dan Flavin, changed the concept of Minimalism. The fact is, as we move forward in time, visitors will be less and less likely to go to a museum just to see a painting. They'll be there to see technology.

For the next three days, we'll explore the origins of technology in art, give you the names of the artists and works you should know, and take a look at the current role that tech plays in shaping artistic endeavors. For those of our readers who are not art historians, let us just say that we're not art historians, either. But we do know a thing or two about the history of technology in modern art, and how tech got involved in the first place -- even if we skip a ton of the truly amazing in-between. We also know that the relationship between technology and art is now firmly cemented, and crucial to continuing conversations about modern art. Now, without further ado, let's get our culture on!

Painting Falls, Then Rises Again

Up until about the beginning of the last century, almost all visual art was either a drawing, a painting or a sculpture. And these works of the last several thousand years, from ancient Egypt to the Baroque period, were all more or less made from the same materials. (Forgive us as we collapse dozens of cultures, movements, mediums and modes of art into a couple of sentences -- but really, the form that high art took has existed in those basic archetypes for the majority of human civilization.)


"Fountain" (1917) by Marcel Duchamp
Enter a group of artists in the late 1800s -- Impressionists and Realists -- who challenged the very academic conventions of art-making with their eccentric uses of color, imperfect techniques, and quotidian scenes. Again, we're distilling a lot of really exciting art history here, but the Impressionists and post-Impressionists gave way to Symbolism, Surrealism and Dada. The supreme Dadaist Marcel Duchamp questioned the very idea of what was considered a work of art with his game-changing sculpture, "Fountain" (1917), which was nothing more than a found urinal placed on its side. From there on, non-artistic materials and found objects (or "readymades") began to replace some of the canvasses and marble busts that had previously ruled the art world.

Detail of "Machine Turn Quickly" (1916-18) by Francis Picabia
Dadaism is difficult to explain away in a mere paragraph (as much better manifestos were written during its heyday). On the one hand, Dadaists were just trying to give the artistic middle finger to bourgeois fat-cats; on the other, they generated a lot of dense theory and concern regarding the ever-expanding reach of industrialization and the depersonalization of the self. From there, we get artists like Francis Picabia, whose "mechanical portraits" saw something fascinating and revealing in cogs and complex machines.Why couldn't a technical drawing be beautiful? Or, was there something fundamentally horrific about the omnipresence of machines?

Detail of "Guernica" (1937) by Pablo Picasso
At the same time, Realism began to grow in popularity both in America and the Soviet Union. Artists like Edward Hopper, with his infamous 'Nighthawks,' supplanted the bizarre and quirky experiments of the Dadaists in the collective mind up until the end of World War II. And we can't forget the very painting-driven movements of Surrealism, Cubism and Fauvism that helped to shape the concept of modern art. Picasso's horrific 'Guernica' questions both the creative and destructive powers of technology, as a light bulb burns bright over bodies mangled by German and Italian bombs. But it wasn't until the middle of the 20th century that tech began to truly emerge as both a subject and medium for artistic expression.

Let There Be Light: Illuminated Art

Abstract Expressionism began to take hold in New York in the 1950s, where New York School artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko shocked the art world with their massive canvasses of paint splatters and color fields, respectively. Around the same time, Minimalism was growing in popularity. Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly, among others, began to create works that were pared down to nothing more than shape and color.

Enter Dan Flavin, who, as one of the first light artists, brought together the concept of the ready-made object (commercially available fluorescent lights) with the Minimalist credo. Flavin's "Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy (the Diagonal of May 25, 1963)" is composed of nothing more than a single long fluorescent tube, placed at a 45-degree angle on the gallery wall. (The first was displayed in bright white, but other colors followed.) While Flavin's works developed into much more complicated installations, his initial "diagonals" are representative of his artistic vision: that light, like paint, could be a medium of artistic expression. Flavin saw the light reflecting off the interior of the gallery as no different from drawing on the walls themselves.
"Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy (the Diagonal of May 25, 1963)" (1963) by Dan Flavin
Other artists began to play with lighting structures, but not significantly until some years later. Conceptual artist Bruce Nauman began exploring light installations and video art in the late '60s and early '70s, and produced some of his iconic neon works around the same time. "The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths" from 1967 is perhaps one of his most well-known neons, a spiral wall piece with a vague irony that art critics still debate. (Does the artist really "reveal mystic truths," or is the art world a giant, phony circle-jerk?) His use of neon spoke to a rapidly growing consumer culture where neon signs were omnipresent.
"The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign)"
(1967) by Bruce Nauman

James Turrell is also noteworthy for his explorations of light-as-canvas. Not all of Turrell's works are plugged in (e.g., 'Roden Crater,' a giant light observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona that he's been continuously creating since 1979), but many of them encapsulate the viewer in a closed space, surrounded by light. "The Light Inside" from 1999 is a massive installation of projections that create a three-dimensional space out of effervescent light.
"The Light Inside" (1997) by James Turrell


The Video Generation

Experiments with video began to occur around the same time that Dan Flavin was working with fluorescent tubes. The 20th century saw the birth of the consumer-electronics market. While motion-picture cameras had previously been the gadgets of professional photographers, filmmakers and the exquisitely rich, the home video camera slowly became more commonplace, and we eventually saw the emergence of video art.

As one of the pioneering video artists, Nam June Paik's contribution to both the artistic and technological canons cannot be understated. The Korean artist contributed to (or, according to some, authored) the phrase "information superhighway," referring to what we now know as digital culture.


"Something Pacific" (1986) by Nam June Paik
One of Paik's most iconic works, "Something Pacific" (1987), features a Buddha statue facing a closed-circuit television and video camera. The image of the Buddha feeds into the camera, which is then displayed by the TV that the Buddha "watches," creating an endless feedback loop that eventually becomes almost meditative. But, even prior to that, Paik had become an art-household name with his explorations into video manipulation and sculptures made of television sets. In a moment of performance history that makes Lady Gaga look like a complete rip-off artist, Paik performed 'TV Bra for Living Sculpture' with Charlotte Moorman in 1969; for the project, Moorman wore two small TV screens over her breasts.

"Opposing Mirrors and Video Monitors on Time Delay" (1974) by Dan Graham
Conceptual artist Dan Graham also employed video cameras and their abilities to feed images of the viewer back to himself (pictured). Although more of a conceptualist than a video artist per se, Graham used the video camera as a sort of high-tech mirror. (In fact, many of his other installations utilize actual mirrors and optical illusions to investigate the notion of feedback.)

Other artists like Bill Viola work solely with video images to create painterly expressions in time. Viola's works frequently feature ultra slow-motion to allow the viewer to take in each frame of the piece, transforming the projection surface into a veritable canvas.


Further Reading

Before you think that we're done here, we have two more days of tech art history in the works. And, in case you think that we've been too glib or too out-of-order in our chronology, or if you have any gripes at all, let us known in the comments section. But for those of you who would like to learn more, be sure to check out the following online resources to give yourself a more thorough introduction:

Tags: art, art history, ArtHistory, bill viola, BillViola, bruce nauman, BruceNauman, dada, dadaism, dan flavin, dan graham, DanFlavin, DanGraham, edward hopper, EdwardHopper, features, fluorescent, fluorescent bulbs, FluorescentBulbs, found objects, FoundObjects, Francis Picabia, FrancisPicabia, guernica, james turrell, JamesTurrell, light art, LightArt, Marcel Duchamp, MarcelDuchamp, nam june paik, NamJunePaik, neon, Pablo Picasso, PabloPicasso, readymade, top, video art, VideoArt

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