The Whitney Recaps the Avant-Garde


You may have seen that ad for the Whitney Museum’s “American Century, Part II, 1950-2000” show, the one with the tag line “It’s only an afternoon’s commitment.” It’s a mistake to promote such an ambitious, sprawling exhibit as the equivalent of a sexual quickie. The ad in fact gives away the show’s weakness: Although there are thrills galore, there is also a certain superficiality in the way it comes together.

Applied to “The Cool World,” the film and video section of the show, the ad is obscene. Since film is a time-based art, an afternoon’s commitment is the equivalent of about 1.5 percent of the works in this series. If, however, you’ve been spending, since the end of October, two or three afternoons a week in the Whitney’s stuffy, often noisy second-floor screening room, you will by this time have a fair sense of the extraordinary range and power of American avant-garde film and of its subversive cultural position. Flagrantly anti-Hollywood, these films share the intellectual and aesthetic concerns of painting and sculpture, but not their market value. It’s surprising, therefore, that in this money-obsessed moment, “The Cool World” has been packing them in, as have other avant-garde venues from MOMA to Collective Unconscious. The audience for underground film appears as large as it did in the ’60s.

Arranged more or less chronologically, the series has already run through the pioneering films of the ’50s and the canonical works of the ’60s. In this last stretch (it closes February 13), its focus is the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, decades in which, for lack of a defining aesthetic, works spread all over the map. Video came into its own as an artists’ medium, but viewed today against the prospect of a digital future, the early works of video art have more in common with avant-garde film than was admitted in the past. Coming up, in addition to familiar works by Nam June Paik, Joan Jonas, and Bill Viola, is Vito Acconci’s rarely screened magnum opus, The Red Tapes (January 25), the video counterpart to Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans—and a work that requires of its audience similar powers of endurance.

The not-to-be-missed events are Ken Jacobs’s film performances The SubCinema (February 5) and Bitemporal Vision: The Sea (February 12). One of the old masters of avant-garde filmmaking, Jacobs remains a visionary. His rigged-projector pieces expose the substrata of films rescued from history’s dustbins and illuminate our perceptual processes. Wedged into various programs are also films by such celebrated avant-garde veterans as Robert Breer, Jack Smith, Ernie Gehr, and Bruce Conner. My favorite group show (January 23) opens with Ray L. Birdwhistell’s hilarious and seminal ethnographic film Microcultural Incidents in Ten Zoos followed by Ken Jacobs’s equally surreal The Doctor’s Dream and films by Saul Levine and Craig Baldwin.

Among the generation of filmmakers to emerge in recent years, the strongest are Sadie Benning, Peggy Ahwesh, Keith Sanborn, Mark LaPore, and Leslie Thornton, and each has several films coming up in the series. One genuine discovery is Tracy MacCullion, whose Gash is a sustained, primitive cry of rage. Word to the wise: On the program for Friday is “a film by Todd Haynes”—as tantalizing a nontitle as “the San Francisco film,” the code name in the ’60s for Vertigo, which then could only be seen on bootleg prints since it had been withdrawn from distribution.

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