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Robert Whitman: Dia:Chelsea, New York.

Flash back to the early '60s, when Lower Manhattan was a brand-new breeding ground for experimental art's myriad crossovers with performance, theater, dance, sound, film, and new technology and Robert Whitman was all over the map of what would come to be known as "downtown art." Fresh out of Rutgers, where he studied with Allan Kaprow alongside George Segal, Lucas Samaras, George Brecht, and Robert Watts, Whitman found his way to the forefronts of vanguard art with "theater works," his preferred term for scripted and unscripted events staged with performers, audience participation, light and image projections, film footage, found objects, constructed props, and, occasionally, elaborate sets. He regularly produced works in artist-run spaces and participated in collaborative events, including Claes Oldenburg's "Ray Gun Theater"; he rented a space for several months on Great Jones Street with Waiter De Maria for ad hoc performances; and be was an early advocate of public-access television. And if his credentials as a godfather of contemporary art need any ratification, he was one of four founding members of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology). As time went on, he showed with prestigious commercial galleries, found favor with major museums, including the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and the Museum of Modern Art, and won the support of the newly formed Dia Art Foundation, which gave him his first retrospective exhibition, "Robert Whitman: Theater Works 1960-1976."

All this, and yet by the '80s, Whitman had disappeared into obscurity, acquiring the dubious distinction of being an "artist's artist," greatly respected by those in the "know but otherwise largely overlooked. It's always sobering to witness the fragility of alternative art cultures and to speculate on how much of value is lost in the inevitable disposability of history. These thoughts haunt Whitman's comeback exhibition, which he has aptly titled "Playback." Without Dia's concerted effort (led by curator Lynne Cooke) not only to exhibit works that haven't been seen in more than three decades and to produce the first ever monograph on the artist but to actively recover and restore works on the verge of physical ruin, a chunk of the historical DNA of contemporary art--particularly video- and performance based practices--might have gone missing forever.

"Playback" revisits the beady first half of Whitman's career, his most prolific period. It opens with the beguiling "Cinema Pieces" of the early '60s, presents the never-before-exhibited suite of twenty seven double-sided Dante Drawings, 1974-75, and includes his fully, finally realized, multifilm projection--and--mirror installation, Spyglass (Film Images, 1990-1976), 1976/2003.

Four of eight "Cinema Pieces" produced in the early '60s were brought together here. A paper shopping bag, an old shower stall (plumbed with running water), a bathroom sink and mirror, and a casement window are each animated with grainy film loops that complete their sculptural containers in some logical or fanciful way. In Garage Bag (formerly Shopping Bag), 1964/2003, the progressive contents--from groceries, to cooked food, to garbage--are projected onto a "screen" that fits the bag's opening. Bathroom Sink, 1964/2003, is loaded with a loop of film clips projected onto the mirror showing tree of Whitman's cinematic muses as she washes, applies makeup, and dresses. Looking through a plastic curtain and streaming water in Shower, ca, 1964, we see the life-size image of a young bather as she gets wet, lathers, and rinses. In Window, 1963/2003, we look through panes of glass to view a young woman undressing in a woodland setting.

The dominant mood of the "Cinema Pieces" is playful, but there's more here than meets the eye. In Bathroom Sink, Whitman projects the film loop onto the mirror over the sink; the mirror, in turn, reflects the image onto the opposite wall, so that the viewer is able to literally enter the special cinematic environment that exists in quasi spaces between the mirror, the film, the wall, and the woman. While fully exposed in this work, the mirrors in the other "Cinema Pieces" are completely concealed, intercepting and reflecting the images as they play on the margins of perception. Bounce, double, reverse, reflect, repeat--it's as though Whitman were staging the viewer's unwitting entry "through the looking glass" into an imagined dimension where the real and the not quite real are indistinguishable.

Mirrors are much more prominent in the octagon-shaped installation ,Spyglass, in which four projection screens alternate with four wall-size mirrors to create hallucinatory circuits of nonsynchronous imagery--streaming pictures of everyday life, cinematic effects, and a personal inventory of objects, subjects, and actions culled from footage assembled over fifteen years of looking at life through the lens of a Bolex. Sandwiched into this continuously running chronicle of Whitman's world are the mirrors, which twist reflections of the viewer's body and vagrant snatches of film into reveries of distortion and pulsating visual infinities.

Another take on reverie and infinity finds expression in the Dante Drawings, which trade the hedonistic pleasures of moving pictures and theatrical installation environments for singular distillations of emblematic imagery drawn on both sides of large sheets of paper. Inspired by Dante's meditations on Paradise, the result is an elemental sampler of robustly drawn lightning bolts, dividing lines, flower heads, bird heads, stairs, stars, circles, humps, explosions, keys, and crosses.

Underscoring Whitman's relevance for art today is both the hybridized nature of his practice--he was part Conceptual artist, part Pop practitioner, part poet and visionary, part hedonist and nature boy, too--and the license he gave himself to be alternately romantic, moody, wacky, low-key, emotional, and philosophical. Now that he's back we're absolutely keen to know more and to discover the missing half of his retrospective--the art he produced in the '80s and '90s.

"Robert Whitman: Playback" is on view at Dia:Chelsea through January 11, 2004; travels to the Museu de Arte Comtemporaine de Serralves, Porto, Portugal, summer 2004; and Museu d'Art Comtemporani de Barcelona, fall 2004.

Jan Avgikos is a contributing editor of Artforum.
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Author:Avgikos, Jan
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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