Nam June Paik, 74; Free-Spirited Video Artist Broke Radical New Ground

Times Staff Writer

Nam June Paik, a pioneering video artist who used television sets and electronic moving images as raw material and turned the notion of media overload into an aesthetic tour de force, has died. He was 74.

The Korean-born artist had used a wheelchair since 1996, when he suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side. He died Sunday night of natural causes at his home in Miami.

A mischievous free spirit who loved spectacles, Paik blazed a trail from avant-garde music to electronic art. Exerting a profound influence on video art, he created a body of work that encompassed musical performances, reconfigured pianos, videotapes, robots, sculptures made of TV monitors, and installations that filled entire rooms with flickering sights and cacophonous sounds.

One landmark piece, “Video Fish,” consists of 52 live monitors, each covered by a glass aquarium filled with water and fish that swim in front of the electronic images. In another well-known work, “TV Buddha,” a sculpture of a seated Buddha watches himself on a closed circuit television set -- and offers a sly comment on media worship.

“His career embodies the creation of a new art form,” John Hanhardt, senior curator of film and media arts at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, told The Times on Monday. “He was a major figure who transformed the electronic moving image into an artist’s medium and made it an important part of late-20th century art.”


“He played an international role as an artist, advocate and genuine genius in terms of his profound understanding of a medium,” said Hanhardt, who organized large retrospective exhibitions of Paik’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1982 and at the Guggenheim in 2000. “He could imagine it being transformed and made it do something that was unimagined.”

Paul Schimmel, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, said Paik was “the first artist to realize the potential of television, the idea that it was going to be all around us and change the culture.” Despite Paik’s fascination with that phenomenon, Schimmel said, “one of the beautiful things he did was to disrupt the sophistication of electronic technology.”

Often called “the godfather,” “the grandfather” or even “the George Washington” of video art, Paik was born in Seoul in 1932. He moved to Japan with his family when he was 17 and started his college education at Tokyo University. Passionately interested in music, he wrote his thesis on Modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg and earned an undergraduate degree in aesthetics. Continuing his studies in Germany in the mid-1950s, he acquired considerable knowledge of music history, theory and piano technique, but soon pushed into avant-garde territory. An encounter with American composer John Cage in Darmstadt persuaded him to pursue more radical experimental work.

By the late 1950s, Paik’s performances were more likely to involve whistles or egg-beaters than conventional instruments. In a 1960 piano performance in Cologne, he played Chopin, threw himself on the piano and rushed into the audience, attacking Cage and pianist David Tudor by cutting their clothes with scissors and dumping shampoo on their heads. As he became involved with such “happenings,” a German critic dubbed him “the world’s most famous bad pianist.”

Paik transformed himself into a visual artist in the early ‘60s, experimenting with television sets with the help of an engineer who showed him how to manipulate control systems and alter images with sound waves and magnets. His first exhibition of these “prepared television sets” was staged in Wuppertal in 1963. The show didn’t attract much attention, but Paik had found his metier.

He moved to New York in the mid-1960s, established himself as an international figure and became a U.S. citizen in 1976. His English was often incomprehensible, but he had little difficulty communicating through his art or persuading museums and galleries to show it. His work is represented in the collections of major museums throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. In 1988, he built “The More the Better,” a tower of 1,003 monitors, for the Olympic Games in Seoul. In 1999, ARTnews magazine named him among the century’s most influential artists.

Paik has had a presence in Southern California, teaching at CalArts and exhibiting his work at galleries and museums. Schimmel’s 1998 exhibition at MOCA, “Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979" featured his three “altered pianos,” created in 1962-63.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art acquired a major work by Paik in 1986 for the opening of the Anderson Building. Called “Video Flag Z,” the rectangular wall of 84 television monitors is accompanied by sound and programmed to show red, white and blue tapes of TV shows, films and abstract patterns that form a giant American flag.

But, like much new-media art that falls victim to the technology it champions, “Video Flag Z” is currently in storage, awaiting replacement parts that are no longer produced. Paik seems to have foretold that problem in an installation at UC San Diego, where a batch of dead TV sets forms a graveyard outside the university’s media center.

“One of the great achievements we look to from artists is to significantly contribute to making us see ourselves and the world around us in new ways,” Hanhardt said. “That’s certainly what he has done through video. He remained active creatively after his stroke. His condition had worsened over the past year, but it was a shock and a great sadness to learn of his passing.”

Paik is survived by his wife, video artist Shigeko Kubota.