Art of the Day

5 Mar

Arabesque. by John Whitney, Sr. (1917-1996). 16 mm film, 1975. Currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Notes from

From his earliest experiments with the medium of computer graphic systems, John Whitney Sr. has balanced a cutting edge use of technology with a strong sense of artistic control and integerity. Considered by many to be the “father of Computer Graphics”, John Whitney, and the entire Whitney family, have successfully linked musical composition with experimental film and computer imaging. Since his recognized works in the first International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium, 1949, to his masterpiece Arabesque in 1975, John Whitney remained a true pioneer until his passing in 1996 at age 78.

Before studying in Paris, John Whitney Sr. made 8mm movies of a solar eclipse with his home-made telescope. “He was a builder all his life” as quoted by his son, Michael.

John Whitney Sr. also studied at Pomona College in California and then continued in England where he studied music and photography informally. In the 1940’s he began studying images in motion with his brother James which eventually brought them to an experimental film festival in Belgium in which they won first prize. Further experimenting with this new medium, Whitney began producing 16mm. films for television in the 1950’s. One of the works produced at this time was the title sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Following that Whitney directed several short musical films for CBS television and in 1957 worked with Charles Eames to create a seven-screen presentation for the Fuller Dome in Moscow, in which the screens were the same size as those used at a drive-in theater.

But it would be the 70’s that truly defined successful digital synthesis of sounds and visuals in John Whitney’s work. He had long abandoned the analog machine in favor of digital, and by 1975 would no longer be coloring his films in post production with the optical printer. The final film to see the use of this process is what is considered by many to be his best. Arabesque, completed in 1975, was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and IBM sponsorship (1965 – 69) starting at the UCLA Health Sciences Computing Center. It was the climax to a creative period where such films as the Matrix series were completed. For some Arabesque is considered “the seminal computer film” Set to the music of Manoochelher Sadeghi, the film ran 7 minutes. It is an example of the artist perfecting his art. The whirling, exotic flow of the music is in perfect synthesis with the quasi- psychedelic blooming of colored forms. John Whitney had balanced science with aesthetics, and defined the computer as a legitimate medium for art.

Films like Catalog and Arabesque used sequences that were like “words” which were later combined together in the optical printer into compositions. The technique is somewhat similar to the composer (Schoenberg) working with a musical “tone row.”

My comments:

I’ve never been a huge fan of video art, but when I saw this piece at the MoMA last Saturday, I was taken away with it. As you watch it, it’s so easy to lose track of time, and it feels as if you could watch it for hours and remain mesmerized the entire way through. The music, which was composed specifically for the video, fits it absolutely perfectly. It was the perfect choice of instrument, in my opinion, for the lines and colors in the video mirror the different sound textures and flavors that sitar music can uniquely achieve in a way that many other instruments cannot. It’s amazing to me that this video was made in 1975 with the computer, because the impression I get from people who were alive at that time is that computers barely existed before the late 20th and early 21st, with the only computers available being insanely large objects. In more ways than one, this artwork is very ahead of its time, technologically and artistically. Many people, myself included, have a bias towards painting in terms of what they consider art. This is partly because we’re very used to paintings since they were the main artwork in addition to sculpture for most of history for the last 2000 years, but also because conceptual art can get kind of repetitive, even ridiculous, turning many people off by its brand of intellectual elitism that some would argue is a mask for its ludicrosy. I understand this and am somewhat in this camp, although I try to encounter all contemporary art with an open mind before I dismiss it. This video, however, is contemporary but not conceptual art, and it reveals to us another product of computers that isn’t focused on information dissemination but rather on the beauty that computers are capable of producing.

One Response to “Art of the Day”

  1. tara March 6, 2013 at 2:17 am #

    i understand that most art historians are intellectual snobs who only like art that breaks the mold and broaches new territory, which is why video art should be right upyour alley. i actually laughed out loud when iread the line “It’s amazing to me that this video was made in 1975 with the computer, because the impression I get from people who were alive at that time is that computers barely existed before the late 20th and early 21st, with the only computers available being insanely large objects”. I feel like a dinosaur… i also smiled at this line ” although I try to encounter all contemporary art with an open mind before I dismiss it”. that’s big of you, I must say…..

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