Hans Ulrich Obrist 
Interview with Robert Breer

Robert Breer, Courtesy of Anthology Film Archives

Robert Breer 'Floor drawing', 1970-2001. Courtesy: &: gb agency Paris

Robert Breer 'berkeley 2 et 3', 1965 collection: MNAM, Paris. Courtesy: &: gb agency

Robert Breer 'Dot dash', 1964. Courtesy: &: gb agency Paris

Robert Breer 'Float (Hammarskjold plaza)', 1972-2001 collection privée. Courtesy: &: gb agency Paris

Robert Breer 'Homage to John Cage', 1963. Courtesy: &: gb agency, Paris

Robert Breer 'variations', 1970. Courtesy: &: gb agency, Paris

Swiss Army Knife with Rats and Pigeons, Robert Breer, 1981 Courtesy of Robert Breer

A Frog on the Swing, Robert Breer, 1988 Courtesy of Robert Breer

Author's sketches of frames from Robert Breer's A Man and His Dog Out For Air

On Visible Strings Films by Robert Breer

HUO: Can you tell me about the beginnings? To begin with the beginnings...

RB: I must have started very young. When I was ten years old my father sent me to an art school on Saturdays. He was an engineer and he realised that he couldn't draw a straight line like I could. He was very impressed by that. He knew nothing about art and I didn't either, but he encouraged me and I made cartoons that were supposed to be funny: I didn't know anything else. So that's when I started and I had a facility, so all the way through school I did the publications, either cartoons or covers. Very early on, when I went to college, I did it indiscriminately I guess. When I was fifteen a friend of mine's mother, who was kind of an intellectual, took charge of me and introduced me to a major collector who I remember had a 1920s Picasso in his bathroom and Klee in his bedroom. He had a very important collection. And by that time I had seen Matisse and I was excited. Then I got drafted into the army just when the war was ending in 1945 and there I typically became an artist doing military things, you know rifles and people shooting and drawing posters preventing from syphilis. I learnt the process of silk-screening but I also had a very negative experience with the other artists in that group. They were commercial artists and they didn't seem to have any integrity - they would do anything and that disturbed me. I realised that there was a difference between commercial art and fine art. Then I went back to college and started painting very seriously after the army. The art department was Marxist and that was fine, they were social realist painters. But they took the whole class to San Francisco, in 1949 maybe. We saw a large show of Mondrian's paintings. Now I had never heard of Mondrian and I was fascinated by the idea of abstraction. Total abstraction could still be very moving and so I came back to school and started painting that way. And all the social realist teachers said they couldn't teach me anything anymore so they made me quit their classes. But a guy who was in charge of the art department in the humanities gave me a studio, so my last year at school I just painted. They sent over a teacher from the art department to check I was working. So there was no problem I was very excited. There was one other artist on the staff at the University - it was a small school, not the rich man's fantasy that it is now. The art department ironically was not politically reactionary at all, but as far as I was concerned they were aesthetically reactionary, so there was a little conflict there. Finally at the end of the year they gave me the award for the year for painting. I came to Paris, a friend found that for $150 you could get on a boat and ten days later you would be in France. I'd never even left the country before, even though I'd been in the army for two years. I had two more years on the GI Bill, which supported you after the army, so I enrolled at Rue de la Grande Chaumière Academy. I never went there, only to get the money they paid me! Most of the GIs didn't paint there because it was such an old depressing place and once a week the teacher would come in, have a look at things and then leave. So I painted in a hotel room across the street, like many other GIs. There were Hayter, Léger also teaching at that time.

HUO: Did you meet Léger? Can you tell me about other meetings with artists whom you met upon your arrival in Paris.

RB: No, but I did meet Zadkine. He was always around and I spent two days in his atelier. And this is a well-known story about him, I don't know if you know it. Well he was a sculptor of course, so I joined his class. There was a whole bunch of us Americans, all GIs like myself and there were some women. The women got a lot more attention then the men did. Anyhow, when he looked at my work he said 'you need to study anatomy more'. He had these plaster casts from Rome, you know, conventional sculpture. I said 'No, I can't do that, I'm busy in the afternoon, when do you want me to do that?' and he said 'What do you do?' and I said 'I paint', he said, 'You have to decide' because in those days you couldn't do both. So anyway I quit his class and that was the end of that. Otherwise, I had been here for about a year when a friend of mine who was studying with Léger made a connection with Edgar Pillet who had made a sort of abstract film. He couldn't do it very well because his camera could not do single frames. So technically he had some problems. I haven't seen that movie for a long time. His paintings were interesting though.

HUO: What about Picabia's openness and nonlinearity and his idea that the head is round so that the thoughts can change their direction and what about Dada's influence on you?

RB: Oh Picabia? Yes of course. But the first major artist that got me excited and gave me a spiritual need for art was Matisse. The Dadaists later and very strongly; and Kurt Schwitters was a much more important artist to me than Picabia. I have a feeling he was more of a dilettante and conceptually playing a lot more than I was ready for then. I wanted more plastic richness. I'm aware of Picabia and I admire him, you know, and all the Dadaists, really, but my heartfelt sympathy was for Schwitters. Then I got to know Hans Richter eventually and when I saw his first film that was very important for me because that was like seeing Mondrian, realising that you can take painting and put it into film. So I owe a debt to him for getting me excited again. It was a very strange trajectory. I knew about Duchamp and then I got to know him in Paris. My wife then was taking photographs for his publisher. And one time I went along just to meet him and so I held the tripod for her. And then I got him to come to my atelier. I was very nervous, I put my films in upside down and I thought he wouldn't like them but he did. 'We used to play around like that' - him and Man Ray I guess - he said and then, to me 'but don't you think your film is a little too fast?' I met Man Ray too in those days and realised that he had done a lot of the things that I was doing which came as a shock in some ways. Young artists are eclectic but they don't know anything. That was my problem there.

HUO: I wanted to ask you about your time-based ready-mades such as the flipbooks.

RB: My ready-mades? I first made a flipbook from my paintings. I didn't know anything about movement and I hadn't seen Richter at this point I think. I wasn't acquainted with experimental filmmakers so I didn't know how to make a film. I didn't think about continuity, or duration - a flipbook is as long as you make it. And I was mainly interested in the possibility of demonstrating the denoting of plastic ideas with a book. And then of course, like Hans Richter, I realised 'well this is insufficient, I have to make a film'. And that opened up a can of worms that was incredible. My ignorance was incredible.

HUO: But you had already started to make your first films.

RB: By this time I had already made several films, that was 1955 and I had made four or five films. The first ones were very experimental and looked like my paintings. Anyhow, then I realised that I liked the silence, that it didn't bother me, but eventually it did. You have such a long list I don't want to take too long on each one.

HUO: A few years ago I interviewed Pontus Hulten and he told me about your meetings in the mid-50s. Can you tell me about it from your perspective?

RB: Well, Pontus was invited by Denise René to come to Paris. I think he made his own visits voluntarily and then she hired him to organise something around the movement. But I met him probably two years before that and we became friends. We drank not just a little amount of beer together. We hung out, we drank beer together, we exchanged ideas and so on and we really became close friends. And with Denise René too, of course. I don't know if you know the story of Pontus and myself about the goldfish and the church. The film I'm showing tonight with some anxiety - you saw it five years ago - was my own argument with the Pope and the Catholic Church. But one day he helped me lay out a narrative cutting from this scene to that. Otherwise I was going to make a film about Kafka's Metamorphosis and I thought it wouldn't suit the kind of techniques that I used, going from photographs to drawings. Instead I found this Paris Match of the Bidous and the Pope Pious and I thought that was exactly what I wanted to do because when I was much younger I quit the Catholic Church. Anyway you asked me about Pontus...

HUO: Yes, the film you and Pontus realised together is one thing but there are rumors about other more secret projects...

RB: Goldfish had to do with drinking too much beer in Montparnasse, going to a fête foraine where we shot a target and the prize was a bag of goldfish in water. We went back to Montparnasse and it was a jour de fête at the church, so I had the idea of going into the church, and there were people coming and going all the time where they have the bowl of water. People were dipping their hands in this sacred water, so I thought I would put the fish in there, I thought that would be very good. So I got Pontus to watch out that nobody was coming. I took the bag from under my coat and emptied it into the font. People were coming up the aisle and would see this. Fish are sacred too I suppose, but they went in and they went out and fell on the floor so I scooped them up, put them back in the bag and went home. But that night there was a miracle because they all jumped out of the bowl I had them in and they were down on the floor in the morning. So divine retribution maybe.

HUO: And then you and Pontus started to work together?

RB: No, he was using my camera equipment that I had from my father. In order to make animation I had a table and then the camera. It wasn't an object in itself, it was to be used to make films and Pontus made little films using that camera. Otherwise we never collaborated. He invited me to Sweden and I showed my films there at about that time. I went to Stockholm two or three times.

HUO: Can you tell me a little bit more about the role of Denise Rene for your generation.

RB: Denise René wanted to bring us in but Vasarely was always trying to be in charge. Power, you know... So when somebody mentioned film, he said 'Oh I'm going to make films'. He never made one, but he always said he was making one. So that showed all the artists who felt threatened by movement, who came together to make this shot. I'd been making films already for a couple of years but they didn't recognise film as a serious medium.

HUO: Can you tell me about the mutascopes, which happened on the end of your Parisian years and when you returned to New York.

RB: I think before I went back to America, I started making mutascopes. My idea was that I wanted to simplify, I wanted to go back before the apparatus of cinema and get to the earliest exploitation of persistency. This is the idea behind the flipbook or the mutascope, which is a continuous flipbook. I thought that the image could be changed into an object that would make a unity of the whole thing and not just the dancing girls or wrestlers or whatever, which is how it started. It was a popular toy and I wanted to transform it into a functioning kinetic object I guess (I hate that word). And the readymade is part of it. When I went back to America later they were selling the old original mutascopes for $50 or something cheap. You put money in and turn and they had cards inside them, they were beautiful. Then Disney came and bought all of them and then the next time I went to buy one of those they were very expensive and so I decided I would make my own. Tinguely helped me make one. I had one perfect one. The later one that's here is plastic so that's quite durable.

HUO: What was Marcel Duchamp's influence?

RB: I liked Duchamp's idea of declaring something art as an act of provocation but I couldn't do that again, so it wasn't really my interest. And also as far as the technology goes, I think times were different in the '20s, with Man Ray and his fast cars and all of that. I had a fast car. I grew up surrounded by cars in Detroit, Michigan. I like speed but the futurists had already exploited that and times were different. That's my car. It's been over there and come back. I like the exploitation of the futurists of this unexplored plastic possibility of movement. I didn't think it has been explored very much, not seriously, then presented as an idea.

HUO: Boccioni sculptures!

RB: And Severini's time lapse thing, yeah. Of course the cubists were playing with time changes and I felt that maybe I could build on that. And then I tried other things that were like the lines in my films. I was making film all this time, but I was looking for objects that could be looked at in daylight and not be so theatrical, where you turn the lights out and then you have a theatre.

HUO: And that's the point where the floats come in?

RB: Yeah, well this is the big change. Starting to make floats was a big epiphany for me.

HUO: When did you start, was it in 66?

RB: I probably made the first one in1964. I was very excited by that, because it seemed to coincide with, well let's say I took on cinema frontally and challenged all of the technology. My sense of technology, with a father in engineering and growing up in engineering, is that it seemed to be an end in itself and I considered that adequate. I can admire technology, and the cinema technology is incredible. The lens, the technology you're using now is amazing, but for the engineers I knew, that was it, even though my father was a kind of philosopher and he would design a radical automobile, but he never made philosophical connection with aesthetics.

HUO: Urbanist and architect Cedric Price asked 'technology is the answer, but what is the question?'

RB: People say that design is solving problems. Now my objection is that with design you're solving other people's problems, but I think an artist has to solve his or her own problems. Anyhow, that's my conceit I guess. I wanted to use this stuff but not get lost in it.

HUO: To bring this back to the Floats. Are they sculptures on the move?

RB: They call these things sculpture but that's probably because that phrase will fit anything that's three-dimensional. They can't call a film sculpture because you can't walk around it. But apart from that it wasn't really sculpture as such. Well, there are two principles, one is that the art has autonomy, the other is that it is also subject to aleatoric influences, it's free and it's not autocratic in a way. They're designed not to make the same trajectory all the time.

HUO: So it's random?

RB: Yes. I took encouragement from John Cage on that, of course the irony with Cage is that he wanted to incorporate chance in his work but it's also a matter in his case of wanting to control the work more, and I don't know if there's a certain hypocrisy there. I'm not accusing Cage of hypocrisy but we can all do it and because his works were defined by their indefinition sometimes. He wanted to allow for chance. I think that was very good and maybe it reinforced my ideas about this. On a simple level I thought it would be a challenge to the orthodoxy that art comes down off a pedestal, is free to not be on the wall. Of course I make concessions, but that was the argument for myself. Now I've made a step. And again at one point John Cage said, though it doesn't sound like him, 'you must do the next thing'. And that's the old avant-garde tradition.

HUO: Manuel de Landa talks about a thousand years of non-linear history.

RB: Yeah, against the assumption that art is some kind of linear business - anyhow, that was part of my argument to myself. You know, when I came to Paris in 1949, avant-gardism was very established, almost painfully established, you could not show art without having some kind of manifesto. So everybody had the feeling that they were doing something at least a little bit different.

HUO: You unexpectedly mentioned the influence of Jean Vigo.

RB: Yes, I've mentioned Vigo and no one can see any relation with Vigo probably. But it doesn't matter. I just felt a very kindred soul with Vigo and I felt the same way with Schwitters. For me they had a kind of temperament that really appealed to me.

HUO: The Schwitters' Merzbau.

RB: Yeah, and also arte povera. I bought a Schwitters in 1952, I think. It was with Pontus. He took me there. We drank some beer to lubricate my purchase. It was very little money. I had it for $60. It was a metro ticket in a beautiful frame. Also, before that, I admired Herbin even though he had a very focussed mind.

HUO: When did you meet Kenneth Anger and Jonas Mekas?

RB: I think I met them first in 1958 at Brussels Experimental Film Festival. This is where I met Mekas, Anger, Stan Brakhage and Peter Kubelka. I didn't know any of these people before.

HUO: So the festival in Brussels in 58 was an important meeting point?

RB: I don't know if Brakhage saw my work at that time or not. I didn't show Recreation which later Jonas... I think I may have made a bad choice, because that would have situated me plastically earlier then .I don't know why I did that, but anyway it was certainly important for me. They knew each other from America. Willard Maas and Marie Menken and Brakhage, they were all aware of each other's work. I didn't know about that movement at that point because when I went back to New York it was 1959. By that time Henri Langlois saw my films at the Cinemathèque. He said he liked them very much. He said they were the best experimental films he' d seen since 1928. I don't know who made films in 1928, who he was referring to, but he sent my films to MoMA in New York with a letter to Griffiths who ran the film department there. And so I went back to New York and had lunch with Griffiths. And then I heard nothing for a couple of days, so I went to MoMA to his office to ask if he'd seen them and his assistant handed them to me and said 'well Mr Griffiths really prefers westerns'. So that was kind of.... [Laughs]. So I was sent to various people. One woman said that she didn't know if they were wonderful films or terrible films and she finally said she couldn't distribute them. They sent me to Amos Vogel and he was very interested and had a lot of showings. I think it's about then that Jonas saw my films and began to write on them. Jonas became a saint, he was the only person who intensely supported this kind of film making.

HUO: Ever since the 50s and 60s you were both in the film and art context.

RB: It is because of the underground, the so-called underground - we never called it like that until Stan Van Der Bleek gave it that name. But also because my tradition came out of Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, and these kinds of plasticians, painters who made films. It was Jonas who put us together and so I got to meet all these artists and sympathise with them because we were isolated. So we had that in common.

HUO: Another important meeting was Billy Kluver. He told me that you've met through Pontus Hulten.

RB: And in turn, Billy Kluver introduced me to all the pop artists.

HUO He's an engineer as your father was an engineer....

RB: Yes, he was a nuclear physicist! He ran a film society in Sweden when he was a student, so he'd always been interested in film. It was mainly with Pontus and Billy that I met Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Warhol eventually, and all those people. And I felt connected to them in a way I didn't feel with others. But they were practising a kind of poetic, sometimes fatally narcissistic kind of filmmaking that I didn't associate myself with. I met Harry Smith but I didn't know what he was doing and vice-versa. Harry and I were later connected very warmly.

HUO: In the 60s you were both in the film context and in the art context in NY. I wanted to come back to this issue of the exhibition, because you made this exhibition in 67 of all these floats and I wanted to ask you about the floats and the exhibition.

RB: I found a gallery. All the artists I knew, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg they were all being very successful and me, I had nothing but films. So I wanted to be in the gallery situation. I wanted to have attention, serious art attention. And also I was being very practical because the gallery had a lot of money. In those days they paid you a salary to have shows. So I had several there, and the gallery owner died in 1970 and then I started to teach. My pieces didn't sell very well.

HUO: Can you tell me more about this exhibition of '67, of the floats?

RB: The first floats I made were in 1965, I think, so more floats followed. I guess I'd made the rug by this time. 68 there was a MoMA show and I had a rug in that. This was the first big exposure of one of these pieces, and I had major shows after that, but not in that gallery - in Pittsburgh, on the Hammarskjold Plaza and so forth, and I made things for them. I never quit making films in this time though. I always made one, two or maybe three films a year.

HUO: Then in 1970, there was your large scale project for the legendary Universal Exhibition of Osaka?

RB: The preparations for this project started around '68. A writer wrote a book, Jack Burnham, I don't know if you know him. He wrote a book called Beyond Modern Sculpture and it's quite a heavy book. In it, he described my floats, which he said reminded him of the Ryoan-ji gardens in Kyoto, Japan. When you look at these rocks for a long time they seem to begin to move. That was an interesting thought, I hadn't thought of that. Through this connection I met this guy who worked for Pepsi cola and he was looking for something to do with the pavilion for the world fair of 1970 in Osaka. He seemed to be more and more receptive so I brought Billy in: it was getting really big - there were $2 million in it - I'd never seen so much money. Billy Kluver had by this time already established with Rauschenberg this EAT thing.

HUO: The Experiment in Art and Technology?

RB: Exactly. And knowing Billy for many years already I knew that this would be a very good project for him. I introduced him to this guy, and Rauschenberg took him to MoMA. We took the president or the chief executive and his people from Pepsi cola for lunch at MoMA. Rauschenberg showed up, and he was quite famous by then, and the commercial brand/fine art link would be good for them, because in Japan after the Canadian World Fair in 1967 they wanted to do it differently and be less commercial. So Japan had the strong intention of keeping crass commerce away.

HUO: It aimed at the most experimental work.

RB: I don't know if they wanted to be experimental, but we talked them into it, Pepsi cola. I can't tell you how we got chosen because there were other people there considering. Anyhow, so I got Billy into this thing. We happened to get approval for our project, which was very nebulous. We had conferences with artists who were interested in the project and we thought would be good choice. Billy had the idea that every artist would have this pavilion described to them - just the space and the project in general, and then each artist would go away and come back in two weeks with an overall plan for the pavilion. We would then present them to each other and all of that would come as planned. There was a principle of how to do these things - it came out of the business world or technology world or whatever. Well artists don't fit this formula, so we had this conference with a blackboard and one by one the artists got up and presented their ideas. The others would smoke, yawn, not listen, talk to each other. Nobody was paying attention. And then Rauschenberg - he didn't take part in the final stages but he was there at the beginning - had a proposal for having two inches of water in the bottom of this pavilion and somehow he changed the emphasis away from visual stuff to sound. And since all the artists who were gathered there were visual artists, sound was free and open, and that broke the ice and got things going somehow. Then he stepped away because he knew he would polarise everything. If he was part of the group then they would only have talked to him and that was also very small, and he was busy on other things. So I got it started. I don't know how well, it was just the circumstances, but then I knew nothing about organising and administration. I had some suggestions but what finally happened was unfortunately that it was like a group show, there was no coherent unity in this.

HUO: Did you put those big floats in?

RB: I had my floats going from way back. It was actually a coffee cup. You know, when I come to think of it, the first float I made was probably in 61 or 62, or maybe 60. It was a coffee cup for a show in Philadelphia called A New Vocabulary - Billy organised this show. Now this was before 'Pop Art' had a name. It wasn't before Hamilton, he was probably doing that stuff, but it was before he came to America. And in the show were all the names you know now, Oldenburg, Lichtenstein, Alan Kaprow, it's a long list. I have the original invitation somewhere and I'm in that show. Then the show went to Washington and that was the basis for Pop Art. I think George Brecht was in the show, later a Fluxus guy.

HUO: And you put in the coffee cup?

RB: I had a coffee cup. But I'm not a very good historian, and that doesn't sound right to me. I did have a coffee cup that moved and I think it was in a later show in Philadelphia that was called the Museum of Merchandise and they were trying to have artists (and this is a precursor to pop) that make objects that can be sold in the store. Jimmy Dine made a necktie as his work. Everybody had something and mine was this coffee cup. So that shape was what I used in Japan. I went from that small one to translate that into very big ones.

HUO: I wanted to ask you towards the end of this interview in more general terms about interdisciplinarity. I was talking to Billy Kluver and he was telling me a lot about the necessity of connections to science and other disciplines?

RB: I've never heard Billy make any judgements good or bad about art. Actually that's not quite true, but he's never written any analysis of art or taken any particular position, but he started by working with Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg. He was very good at helping young artists. I just had a conversation with him a month ago about technology, because we're both haunted sometimes by techno people. There is a group at MIT that want to make art out of technology, and the results so far in those cases are more successful intellectually then they are in reality and so he has the same attitude. We're both bugged by one guy who, through an MIT mentality, wants to make technological art. Billy understands the shortcomings of this, which is healthy, that's good. His original meetings at EAT had three hundred artists who needed help with technology and three engineers that he persuaded to come to a meeting, and then that changed to thirty engineers and three artists or something like that. It was engineers getting interested. But when we went to Japan with engineers the artists were really using the engineers. The synthesis of engineering and art never happened, and I don't know if it's not just a fantasy, I think it's maybe so. I think it's unrealistic and no artists really care about technology. They want to see it have an effect. And the engineers couldn't understand, they thought 'oh this stuff is stupid' because the engineering work was often very unchallenging. We got along on a friendship basis and one engineer became a hippie. He broke through and understood something about art, but I still feel there's an enormous gulf. I don't know whether it's genetic or what it is.

HUO: I wondered if you could tell me about some of your unrealised projects, about the yet unbuilt roads of Robert Breer.

RB: There was a project that Billy Kluver came up with from Sweden that didn't ever get done, but solicited some suggestions. Somebody here reminded me of the project that I'd suggested and which was for a room that would be made for meetings, political, artistic and that room would be on wheels but very quietly. People would come in and spend all day talking and deciding things, but when they go out of the same door it would be in a different place.

HUO: It would move slowly?

RB: Yes it would move slowly and the idea was again to undermine certitude so that even these big decisions would have to be... It's kind of obvious I guess. But that was one of the projects that never got realised and that will probably never get realised because it's anti-organisation, it's anti-orthodoxy, so that maybe is a little problematic too.

HUO: You wanted to put Tatlin's tower on the move?

RB: I'd never thought of that. I appreciate Tatlin and I wouldn't do that. But in a sense yes that could well be the case, because that's a little bit of the contradiction in John Cage's idea of incorporating chance so that you can control chance, which is a contradiction. And I suppose politically it's very bad to take this position because it could suggest some kind of uncertainty, but I'm not uncertain about what I do, I'm uncertain about certainty, that's all.

HUO: Do you have any other unrealised projects?

RB: No, I don't have any huge wishes that I haven't carried out. I work very spontaneously and as soon as I have an idea I start working on it, so I don' t have drawings for unrealised projects. I guess I'm very practical.

HUO: Perhaps you could tell me a little about th



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