Robert Breer, 1926-2011


A pioneering kinetic sculptor, a key member of the great generation of American avant-garde filmmakers, and one of the most influential animators in cinema history, Robert Breer died last Thursday at age 84.

Trained as an engineer before he became a painter, Breer spent much of the 1950s in Paris and originally employed 16mm film as way of making visual notes. Upon his return to New York City, he became active in the overlapped worlds of happenings, underground movies, and multi-media performances. (Among other things he documented Jean Tinguely’s self-destroying machine “Homage to New York.”) Where Breer’s early ’60s films were largely cut-and-paste collage animations, he turned towards more reductive, geometric abstractions by the decade’s close; his late films tended towards an anecdotal, stream-of-consciousness flow of imagery.

A canny tinkerer, Breer took many tricks of the cartoon trade–cycling, rotoscoping, limited animation–and turned them to his own pictorial ends. In a sense, he was an anti-animator, initially less concerned with smoothly continuous motion than with the rapid-fire succession of images that made such an illusion possible. For all their graphic economy, his works set up and demolished a dozen spacial readings per film. (As a kindred form of kinetic art, Breer designed motorized, free-standing objects he called “floats” that shifted their contours or locations in super-slow motion.)

Sophisticated as it was, Breer’s work was universal–his animations were shown as art-house shorts and included in Anthology Film Archives’s canon of “essential cinema.” He was memorialized by Hollywood (the external mural he created for the old Film Forum is visible in the opening shots of Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild) and spent three decades teaching at Cooper Union (which, more than anyone, he helped establish and maintain as a center for avant-garde film). Two of his five daughters, Emily Breer and Sally Breer, are themselves independent animators.

Writing on Breer in the January 28, 1965 issue of the Village Voice, Jonas Mekas praised the filmmaker’s “cinema of happiness,” noting “we look at Breer’s work and we begin to smile.” The same might be said of Breer the man. He was not just a terrific artist but a notably affable one; his good spirits and unpretentious dry humor belied the myth of artistic angst, even as he created an oeuvre that will endure as long as there are motion pictures.