Step inside a digital storm: Andy Warhol's 'Rain Machine' brought back to life after 45 years

Everyone agreed: Andy Warhol would have approved.

Maurice Tuchman, 79, wound his way through a maze of darkened rooms inside Young Projects Gallery in West Hollywood as torrents of digital rain wooshed down around him. Embracing the virtual storm, Tuchman planted himself in the center of one room, arms outstretched as if to catch the falling “water” in his open palms. Classical piano music and the cacophony of rushing rain echoed throughout the gallery, as the sparkly droplets of light danced around him. They bounced off his silvery hair, his squared shoulders, the tips of his leather shoes, glinting as they cascaded from the ceiling.

Tuchman was founding curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where, in the 1960s, he was a pioneer of experimentation in art and technology. On this walk-through of the immersive rain installation, he was speechless. The only thoughts that came to mind as he surveyed the room, eyes wide like an amazed child, were of his former collaborator, Warhol.    

“Wow, Andy would have loved this,” Tuchman said in a New York accent reminiscent of Billy Crystal in its cadence. “He woulda gone nuts.”

In 1967 Tuchman created LACMA’s groundbreaking Art + Technology program, which during its four-year run paired contemporary artists with corporations innovating in technology to create boundary-pushing installations. As part of that initiative, Tuchman worked with Warhol and Cowles Communications on the artist’s then-cutting edge installation, “Rain Machine (Daisy Waterfall),” a wall of 3D lenticular panels with a daisy print in front of real water coursing from suspended spray nozzles.

The piece debuted in the United States Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. An updated version — one giant daisy per panel instead of four, accentuating the 3D effect  — had its U.S. premiere at LACMA in 1971. It’s been exhibited extensively over the decades, most recently at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in 2014, but “Rain Machine” hasn’t been shown in L.A. in 45 years.   

Tuchman and his wife, Adlin De Domingo, own “Rain Machine” and decided it was time to exhibit it in L.A. again — but with a twist. They collaborated with L.A.-based Turkish artist Refik Anadol, who re-imagined the piece with digital rain.

After working with Anadol remotely for months on the installation, which will be on view at Young Projects in the Pacific Design Center through February, Tuchman and De Domingo recently saw the finished piece for the first time during a late-night test run.  

“It’s beautiful. I’ve always had a fascination with immersiveness in art, with the feeling of being in it,” De Domingo said. “Refik’s work is amazing. The way he does the rain — he really achieves it.”  

Tuchman is more succinct: “Fan-tastic,” he said, surveying the room. “Andy woulda been blown away. Blown. Away.”

Warhol created four versions of “Rain Machine.” The first, from Expo ’70, and the updated incarnation, which showed at LACMA, were destroyed by the artwork’s falling water, which splashed on the 3D panels for the roughly six-month period each piece was exhibited. “No one, including me, was intelligent enough to put Plexiglas up,” Tuchman said. “There was no water protection at all. At the end of six months, it was scissored and trashed.”

In 1983, Tuchman purchased the remaining two “Rain Machines” — identical to what showed at LACMA — from Warhol. He donated one to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh for its 1994 opening, but the piece was damaged in storage in the mid-’90s and no longer exists. The version now showing at Young Projects is the only “Rain Machine” left.

Except for the digital augmentation, the piece has been reinstalled almost to a T, complete with a front-facing trough to catch falling “water.” Anadol’s immersive rainstorm, however, covers more than just the immediate space in front of the 3D panels, per the original. It fills the entire 3,000-square-foot exhibition space.  

The viewer must walk through multiple rooms of roaring rain, and down a long, mirrored hallway flanked by raging storms, to get to the Warhol piece, which sits at the far end of the last room, bathed in ethereal light behind a transparent wall of simulated cascading water.

“Warhol was looking for a ghostly effect, he was thinking a lot about light,” Anadol said. “We’re projecting onto pitch darkness, this nonspace. We’ve achieved ghostly.”

There’s also a small, self-contained Rain Room inside the installation. It’s 12 feet by 12 feet and mirrored on three sides. Much as it begs the nickname “the other Rain Room,” it’s not a nod to the British art collective Random International’s “Rain Room” at LACMA, which uses real, recycled water. If anything, it’s the counter version to it, Anadol said.

“I saw it in New York at MOMA, it was beautiful,” Anadol said. “They used real water. It’s more interesting, personally to me, using light as a material. It’s more magical and probably more the sense of what they were trying to do in the ’70s.”

Collaborating, posthumously, with Warhol, “is like a dream,” Anadol said. “It’s super meaningful. He’s one of those artists who [shapes] people’s minds and changes perceptions of contemporary art.”

De Domingo, a fan of virtual reality and digital augmentation in art, discovered Anadol’s work through a friend. She felt he was a natural fit for the project. With “Rain Machine,” Warhol was pairing photographic technology with organic matter. Anadol’s work, which has appeared in Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hammer Museum in L.A., among other places, often merges digital art and the natural or architectural environment in which it’s staged.

After De Domingo watched Anadol’s 2014 Disney Hall multimedia presentation “Visions of America: Amériques” online, she and Tuchman visited his L.A. studio. Anadol, whose work debuted in the U.S. at Young Projects in 2013, brought the gallery in, which specializes in staging elaborate digital installations.

Paul Young totally reconfigured his gallery for the exhibition, removing walls and building new ones so that Anadol could use the physical space as his canvas, painting with light and computer code. His rainstorms aren’t on a loop; instead, Anadol created algorithms, with turbulence embedded into them, resulting in an infinite variety of computer-generated weather patterns. The five synchronized projections in the piece play on multipaneled scrims, walls and mirrors around the gallery, creating visual depth and an infinity effect. A multi-channel soundscape of rain, wind and music plays on 14 speakers throughout the gallery.

“None of the drops fall in exactly the same way,” Anadol said.  

The installation’s especially precise laser projectors, donated by Epson America for the project, were key to realizing his vision, which is a history-meets-the-future gesture, Anadol said. Not only is the piece a digital update of Warhol’s 20th century work, it’s an ode to LACMA’s Art + Technology program itself, which the museum revived three years ago and which is considered a touchstone for new media artists today, Anadol said.

“So many artists who use technology in the media arts scene were inspired by that movement,” Anadol said.  

Replacing real water with light is meant to be a statement about water conservation and to further the environmental dialogue Warhol broached with the piece.    

“We really need the rain, the water is so precious,” Anadol said. “The beauty of this is it’s totally artificial, augmented reality. But it feels real.”

As the test run of “Rain Machine” wrapped up, Tuchman paused at the gallery’s exit, taking one last long look at the storm of light and shadows.

“Oh my goodness gracious. He woulda been happy,” Tuchman said of Warhol, shaking his head.  

“Really? That’s so meaningful to hear,” Anadol said.

“No question,’ Tuchman said. “Andy woulda looked at this and just said: ‘Wow.’”

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“Rain Machine”

Where: Young Projects Gallery, Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Ave. #B230, West Hollywood

When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Friday, by appointment​ Saturdays and Mondays, through February

Information: (323) 377-1102, www.youngprojectsgallery.com

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @debvankin

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