In a well-known 1974 videotape, artist Hermine Freed neatly inserted herself into the grand European tradition of painting.
Costumed as everything from a Renaissance Madonna to an anonymous woman in Cubist brown, and calling upon various technical sleights of hand available in a television studio, she maneuvered pictures of herself into reproductions of famous paintings.
Sometimes artist Peter Campus or critic and curator Bruce Kurtz would show up too, in subsidiary roles such as an attending angel or a devoted saint.
But it was Freed who took center stage in the hitherto established historical drama, which she was gaily rewriting through the new medium of television. This was "Art Herstory," as Freed's electronic pageant of the masters was pointedly titled, and a woman was its guiding star.
"Art Herstory" is one among 39 videotapes by 21 artists currently featured in an important survey exhibition at the Long Beach Museum of Art, and it says something central about the art of the recent past. Twenty-five years ago, the coincidental rise of the women's movement and the sudden availability of home-video technology conspired to create a yeasty moment for art.
The show, "The First Generation: Women and Video, 1970-1975," is significant and timely. Like all exhibitions of single-channel video shown on a lone monitor, however, it does take a rather herculean effort to watch. The complete program runs 9 hours, 44 minutes. Critics are lucky enough to be able to look at review copies of the tapes via the privacy of a home VCR--even at that, it took this writer more than a week to see the whole show--but museum visitors don't have such a leisurely option. Repeat visits are the only way.
Generally it's worth it. Yes, there's a certain nostalgia factor inherent in a video exhibition in which almost nothing comes in the saturated color we've now casually come to expect from television fare. (Remember black-and-white video art? Who ever thought it would assume the rarefied patina of antiquity?) More important, "The First Generation" recalls to mind a number of individually first-rate works of art, while also suggesting larger cultural shifts.
Today, when it sometimes seems odd for any American not to own a camcorder, or at least a VCR, it is hard to remember the heady excitement when finally, after many decades, the first portable video equipment became available to a general public. Artists, both here and abroad, were among the first to recognize and seize upon the underutilized potential of a medium that had previously been available only to corporate and commercial interests.
The Long Beach show was organized by guest curator JoAnn Hanley for the nonprofit exhibition service Independent Curators Inc., and it is touring to 11 sites around the United States and Canada. Almost all the artists surveyed are American, but the show does make a point to acknowledge the international reach of the new technology.
In politically repressive Brazil, video afforded Anna Bella Geiger the privacy essential to the safe exploration of potentially volatile ideas. In socially conservative Japan, Mako Idemitsu and Kyoko Michishita used established techniques of abstraction and of documentary film, respectively, to deconstruct the rigidity of mainstream society. Lisa Steele in Canada and Valie Export in Germany approached the same medium from radically opposing angles: Steele as an intimate, diaristic tool for personal discovery; Export as a new kind of public visual space, waiting to be explored.
Quite logically, many of the first artists to pick up a video camera expended a good deal of effort examining the formal properties of television, for those properties differ sharply from the formal qualities of film, photography or any other visual medium.
Freed, for instance, had been trained as a painter; two years before she was to make the technically complex "Art Herstory" she made "Water Glasses," a technically simplistic but visually lovely, conceptually provocative videotape.
Two rows of three water glasses are lined up on a reflective surface. Repeatedly, over the course of four minutes, water is poured into them. Dramatically speaking, nothing else happens. Visually and conceptually, a lot does. The repetitive scene of pouring water was shot close-up and from a variety of angles. Space is layered, smashed and shattered, fragmenting the image into kaleidoscopic shards.
The image of water flowing into a glass corresponds to the physical machinery of a television set, in which the transient picture on the glass screen is created by the fluorescent glow of an electron stream flowing through a cathode-ray tube. Fluidity, light, transparency, refraction, reflection--the picture on the screen is a metaphor for the action inside the screen.
"Water Glasses" soon begins to seem like a familiar Cubist still life from the early 20th Century that has been miraculously translated into the terms of late-century TV. Through this discursive visual essay, Freed began a formal reconciliation between television pictures and painted ones. That equitable accommodation became the basis for the social inquiry of "Art Herstory."
Each segment of the exhibition is prefaced by brief, incisive, well-edited comments made by the artists. (Appropriately, they were interviewed by telephone. Their filtered voices prepare you for the imminent TV pictures.) More than one artist declares the fundamental importance of recognizing just how exciting video was in the early 1970s. The excitement came from encountering a brand new medium. Certainly its newness was embraced for its own sake, much the way photography had been more than a century before. But there was more to it than that.
Newness also meant that video art had no history--and history had pretty much kept women out of art's precincts. Video art was a tabula rasa. The slate was clean. Women could start from scratch, without having to haul away the restrictive baggage of a patriarchal history--and they did.
In fact, the only history television did have was outside art: the commercial fare broadcast by the networks. Some artists, such as Eleanor Antin, Ilene Segalove and Martha Rosler, composed their work against that grain.
Antin, in "The Ballerina and the Bum," used the new portable technology to become a one-woman Hollywood studio, using dramatic narrative to explore issues of art and life that a network would never dream of considering. Segalove made her suburban-housewife mom into a home-made sitcom star. Rosler's fearsomely funny "The Semiotics of the Kitchen," based on a cooking show, is like a Red Brigade terrorist-training film as hosted by Julia Child.
Commercial broadcast television had been around for about a quarter-century, but with rare exception (such as Ernie Kovacs), it hadn't really examined the vast range of its own eccentric properties in any but the most timid, lumbering ways. From the start, TV's format was based on that of radio, its immediate predecessor. Broadcast television was--and largely still is--radio with pictures. The supposed "revolution" of music video in the 1980s was just the final commercial apotheosis of this ancestrally determined state of affairs.
Artists, though, didn't worry about Nielsen ratings. Shirley Clarke and Shigeko Kubota each kept an electronic diary, in differing Pop art styles. Julie Gustafson made a documentary on women's sexuality, historically suppressed from mainstream television. Lynda Benglis tried to pinpoint the distinctions between film and TV. Barbara Buckner used a synthesizer to make Modernist abstractions. Steina hooked up her electric violin to her TV and turned the camera on herself, thus making the subject of the picture determine the picture's form.
The breadth of activity in such a condensed moment of time is truly remarkable, although today some of these tapes do resonate more deeply than others. My all-time favorite is Joan Jonas' "Vertical Roll," and its grandeur remains intact in the exhibition.
It starts out with Jonas interminably (and loudly) banging a spoon on her studio floor, as if in some percussive tantrum, while the synchronized picture flips by in that annoying, electronic malfunction known as vertical roll. Nineteen minutes and 38 seconds of brain-busting craziness, it ends up being sort of like a TV mandala--not visually, exactly, but in the way its relentless, grating patterns suddenly go from being utterly incomprehensible to radiantly, impossibly clear. When it's over you feel unexpectedly refreshed.
Made in 1972, "Vertical Roll" ranks as single-channel video art's first flat-out masterpiece. And you'll never see it on NBC--or on cable.
* Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., (310) 439-2119, through Aug. 21; closed Mondays and Tuesdays. On Thursday at 10 a.m., Santa Fe, N.M.-based artist Steina will speak about her work in the exhibition; next Sunday at 2 p.m., guest curator JoAnn Hanley and museum archivist Elayne Zalis will discuss the show. Reservations are required for each lecture.