Oskar Fischinger

New York

at Whitney Museum


Oskar Fischinger’s pulsating, explosive and mesmerizing projection Raumlicht-kunst (Space Light Art), 1926, was a precursor to Nam June Paik’s video art and the psychedelic light shows of the ’60s, yet it feels utterly contemporary. Unlike the overly familiar paintings in the survey of midcentury abstraction from the museum’s collection that was also on view at the Whitney, Raumlicht-kunst retains its youth and vitality, and establishes the German artist (1900-1967) as a key figure in both early avant-garde filmmaking and the development of 20th-century abstraction.

Three screens, each with quickly changing imagery, spanned an entire wall from floor to ceiling. The 10-minute loop produces a syncopated barrage of light, color and movement: sudden eruptions, languidly swirling liquid, solar systems of spinning dots, disks that materialize and dissipate, pickets that march stolidly across backdrops of whirling circular patterns, an expanding and contracting globe, and bars that stack and unstack are interspersed with the occasional appearance of a mysterious hooded figure. The unpredictability of organic shapes and patterns plays against the comfort of geometry; fast contrasts with slow, and all is enhanced by the cacophony of percussive audio accompaniment.

This complex visual choreography is a masterpiece of editing that draws the eye spontaneously and insistently from one screen to the next. As when watching a firework display, you take in one thing just as another happens. This sensitive timing transports the viewer into a state that is simultaneously satisfying and anticipatory, an effect also achieved by Christian Marclay in his multiscreen Video Quartet (2002). At the Whitney, a large gallery encouraged viewing Raumlichtkunst from a distance. However, at the Tate Modern (where the piece is on view through May 2013), the installation is in a narrow exhibition space-and much more effective. Situated so close to the screens, viewers feel less like observers and more like part of the action; with lights and animated objects aiming directly at them, or sucking them in, it is a truly immersive experience.

Fischinger was motivated by German film director Walter Ruttmann, whose 1921 presentations of abstract film were accompanied by live music. While no record exists of the specific music Fischinger used, he wrote that it should be “a tapestry of sound . . . that delivers rhythmic and dynamic intensifications and can induce dance ecstasy.” The choice of compositions by Edgard Varèse and John Cage-made by the Center for
Visual Music in Los Angeles, which re-created and digitized Raumlichtkunst-is apt. Fischinger met Varèse and Cage in America, where he emigrated during the Nazi regime, and it was he who in part inspired them to incorporate a wider range of noise and silence into their compositions.

That Fischinger was also a successful painter accounts for the high level of compositional awareness that imbues his animated work with surprising poetry. Had he only painted, he might have introduced indications of movement into his canvases; instead his animations of spirals and moirés made with wax anticipate the movement that Pollock and de Kooning put in their paintings a generation later. Fischinger believed in “a music of the visual world,” and discovered a way to make it graphically evident.

Photo: Oskar Fischinger: Raumlichtkunst, 1926/2012, three-screen projection, 35mm film transferred to HD video, 10-minute loop; at the Whitney Museum.