Total lucidity, exquisite enigma. Resplendent figures moving in warm light and murky shadow. Pools of hue, smooth plaster, sun on a sleeping mastiff’s coat, intrigue, a rustling of silk and satin. Murmurs and more motion. A second of stillness, then a miracle of vision: Euclidean perfection. Pure happenstance that couldn’t have happened any other way.
The whole truth, awe, and absolute balance.
This is Diego Velázquez’s breathtaking masterpiece Las Meninas, a work described in some texts as “the greatest painting in the Western world.” Eve Sussman’s 10-minute video, 89 Seconds at Alcázar, a dreamy re-creation of the events preceding and following Velázquez’s perfect moment, is currently amping up an otherwise only OK Whitney Biennial. 89 Seconds is Sussman’s attempt to get inside the rapture of Las Meninas to show us the life that the art came out of.
Now Sussman’s Inside 89 Seconds at Alcázar, a 21-minute behind-the-scenes Super-8 film and video journal documenting this project, is on view at Roebling Hall along with 16 photographs. Though slick, Inside reveals the Matthew Barney–like ambition and effort that went into the finished product.
Inside begins with choppy black-and-white footage of the real Las Meninas. Words scroll by: “Madrid, February 24, 2000. Artist with Super-8 camera attempts to infiltrate Museo del Prado, circumvent the guards and abduct the soul of The Royal Family.” We’re then taken to a Williamsburg garage where Sussman, 43, and her dedicated crew are re-creating the room the painting takes place in, then blocking and staging the characters’ movements. Sussman’s camera glides about the room in parabolic motions, stopping here, eavesdropping there. In the finished work, a Jonathan Bepler soundtrack of whispers and footsteps fills out this apparition.
Re-creations and elaborations of famous artworks often come off as gimmicky, canned, or cheesy. Witness Bill Viola’s The Greeting, in which female figures impersonate Pontormo’s The Visitation in super-slow motion. Or his video portraits in which someone appears to cry or pine in slo-mo. Even though it’s a bit affected and something of a highbrow version of Girl With a Pearl Earring, 89 Seconds works for all the reasons Viola’s art doesn’t. Viola’s work is mostly high-tech mime, melodrama, and spectacle. Everything is obvious; emotions, ready-made. 89 Seconds has some of Viola’s portentousness and certainly his institutional dazzle, but Sussman’s sense of quietude, motion, internal scale, texture, and time offset the tendency toward spectacle.
Sussman’s work is projected large, but it echoes the extraordinary rhythms and scale of the Velázquez. Capturing the enticing mystery of Las Meninas, she lets us glimpse the intricate dance of chance that might have led up to this moment. In place of Velázquez’s horizontal quarters and vertical sevenths, Sussman parses human relationships. A chamberlain whispers to the king; a dwarf tends the fire; a lady-in-waiting bows to the queen. Instead of Velázquez’s triangles within triangles, we get groupings that form, dissolve, and re-form as if by accident, design, or some implacable royal protocol. In the absence of Velázquez’s luscious brushwork, we get the velvety atmosphere of high-definition video. Finally, in addition to mimicking the multiple yet equal focal points of Velázquez, Sussman takes you into the room in the Alcázar, the Spanish summer royal palace, where these 11 people and one dog converged that day in 1656.
The room is longer than it is wide. And dim. Light comes through windows on the near right, as well as from an open door in the rear wall. Paintings after Rubens by Velázquez’s son-in-law hang in almost total shadow. In the painting, Velázquez peers out at us from behind a huge canvas. Before him is the Infanta Margarita, eldest daughter of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana, who are visible in the foggy mirror on the far wall. To the left of the infanta, and passing her a glass of water, is the kneeling attendant Doña María Agustina. On the other side, among others, are the dwarf Maribarbola and the midget Nicolesito Perusato, who has his foot on the sleeping mastiff. Behind them, in shadow, are a lady of honor and a guard. In the far doorway the queen’s chamberlain, José Nieto, pauses on the stairs.
The painting, originally titled La Familia de Felipe IV, was dubbed Las Meninas, Portuguese for The Ladies-in-Waiting, in 1843. For more than 150 years it hung in the private chambers of the king. The royals loved the work, but few people other than visiting dignitaries saw it. In 1819, Las Meninas was installed in the Prado, where it hangs today. A couple of quibbles: Sussman has included the insignia of the Order of Santiago on Velázquez’s chest. In actuality, this distinguished emblem wasn’t added until years after the painting was completed. She also neglected to have her Velázquez wear a key on his belt, a conspicuous sign of his access to the royal chambers. But this is nit-picking.
Sussman’s video Velázquez extends a ploy that’s been around since Duchamp drew a mustache on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and Sherrie Levine made watercolors of modernist icons. With 89 Seconds at Alcázar, a work which flirts with hokeyness, Sussman is lured by but doesn’t succumb to spectacle. Instead, she breathes life into what looked like the dead horse of appropriation.