Best in Show: ‘Ghosts in the Machine’ at the New Museum


In this age of virtual-reality saturation—digital special effects, immersive video games, simulated 3-D—watching the motion of a mechanical thing can be positively enlivening. Celebrating a span in the 1960s and ’70s when artists embraced the visual drama of machines, the New Museum’s collection of kinetic art (as well as films, sculpture, painting, and drawing) is so technologically retro it’s entirely fresh.

Reflecting the show’s title, a number of the motorized works create the sense of independent life. Quiet, subtle in their movement, they appear to have no interest in impressing the viewer—it’s only their existence that seems to matter. Pol Bury’s Mélangeur (Mixer, 1968) simply tumbles colored wooden disks inside an eyelike socket, evoking a watchful sentience. In Robert Breer’s Floats (1970), a pair of large bullet-shaped objects look like static minimalist sculptures until you realize they’re actually moving, almost imperceptibly, across the floor. In 1964, graphic designer Karl Gerstner gave that sort of self-possession to the television set with Auto Vision I; Plexiglas lenses, placed over the screen, blur the images into unrecognizable forms, eliminating communication with humans.

But other pieces solicit an audience. Inside Gianni Colombo’s darkened cube, Spazio Elastico (Elastic Space, 1967), glowing cords stretched horizontally and vertically divide the space into the familiar sectors of an architectural diagram, but then slowly alter their angles to disorient perspective, like something out of Alice in Wonderland. Upon request, the monstrous but fragile figure of Günther Uecker’s New York Dancer IV (1965)—beige cloth draped, dress-like, over a post and studded with nails—whirls around and around, spreading its hem and clanking, like a cantankerous old lady still determined to show her stuff. Then there’s experimental filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome—a marvelous re-creation of a 1963 installation (a kind of proto OMNIMAX) that uses slide and film projectors to fill the interior of a dome with a kaleidoscopic array of cultural (now vintage) images.

The show wouldn’t be complete, of course, without the depiction of machines as instruments of harm. Here’s fair warning for Epileptic Seizure Comparison, a visually violent, two-projector film from 1976 by Paul Sharits that the filmmaker intended as simulation of a seizure. Accompanied by nightmarish electronic sounds (including altered recordings of groaning), the paired frames display a rapid flickering of alternating colors (a Sharits trademark), interspersed with old stock footage (staged or authentic, it’s hard to say) of a hospitalized man connected to wires and writhing in agony. The experience suggests nothing less than torture. Elsewhere, Harley Cokeliss’s quasi-documentary Crash!—based on parts of J.G. Ballard’s fragmentary 1970 novel The Atrocity Exhibition—is only slightly less unsettling; narrated with a BBC-like voiceover, starring Ballard himself, and discussing links between cars, sex, and wrecks, the film actually preceded (and maybe inspired) the author’s much-admired novel on the same subjects, Crash. But the most magnificently terrifying piece here—constructed for a 1975 exhibit and unattributed—is an exacting, life-size model of the execution apparatus in Kafka’s allegory “In the Penal Colony.” Complete with bed, gearbox, and those deadly needles, the contraption appears stunningly real—a testament to the power of a machine to take hold of the imagination.

‘Wooster Enterprises, 1976–1978’ and Stan VanDerBeek

Noteworthy in particular for their historical interest, two small shows resurrect some forgotten art. At Churner and Churner, there’s commercial but quirky graphic design from the short-lived Wooster Enterprises, a group founded in 1976 by Jaime Davidovich and Judith Henry, with help from Fluxus guru George Maciunas. Their stationery novelties—produced in do-it-yourself style, sold to stores across the country, and heralding the gift-shop tchotchkes of art museums—featured simple but unorthodox imagery: postcards of belly buttons, paper masks with grotesque faces, and an apron displaying the anatomy of the stomach.

Over at American Contemporary, you’ll find some of the original source material for Stan VanDerBeek’s animated films. Clippings from magazines, cleverly put in motion for satirical works such as Science Friction (1959) and Breathdeath (1963), are here assembled into collages of a similar surrealist bent, alternating with some of the filmmaker’s early Beat-like poems of apocalyptic fears.