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ART REVIEW

VanDerBeek's surreal influence

Stan VanDerBeek in front of his Movie-Drome in Stony Point, N.Y., in 1965. Stan VanDerBeek in front of his Movie-Drome in Stony Point, N.Y., in 1965. (Lenny Lipton)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / March 6, 2011

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In 1963, Stan VanDerBeek, the subject of a revelatory new exhibition at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, moved from Manhattan to an artists cooperative north of the city in Stony Point.

Two years later, he began work converting the rounded top of a grain silo into an experimental movie theater. The resulting 31-foot-high metal dome was a prototype for a communications system that he called the Movie-Drome.

Inside were dozens of film, slide, and overhead projectors. There was a mixing board and various kinds of sound and editing equipment.

On the interior walls of his Movie-Drome VanDerBeek planned to project unending streams of imagery — not just extracts from his own films but random imagery from all over in what he called “movie murals’’ — moving mosaics of slides, acetate projections, and random excerpts from the history of film.

VanDerBeek had attended Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, with artists and teachers such as Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage. By now — the late ’60s — he had already established a reputation as an avant-garde filmmaker.

While working for CBS on the 1950s children’s television show “Winky Dink and You,’’ he had made brilliantly inventive films based on collage and surrealistic imagery. It was the era of avant-garde “happenings’’ and performances. Forward-thinking artists were experimenting with burgeoning new media such as projectors, TV, and light shows. Collaborating was in.

But VanDerBeek’s experimental work — especially his animation techniques and multiscreen projections — had already gained attention far beyond the art world. Corporations such as IBM and TEAC, as well as the US military, NASA, and the BBC were all interested in what he was doing. His writings were published in mainstream publications such as Time, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, and American Scholar, as well as more specialist venues such as Radical Software.

Around the time he was building his Movie-Drome, VanDerBeek was publishing a series of improvised manifestos. In these essays, he called for large numbers of “dromes’’ to be built around the world. Each would be connected to an orbiting satellite, which would store and transmit images to the other sites.

VanDerBeek, we can safely say, did not invent the Internet. But in this age of Google, giant servers, and satellite communications, the prescience of his vision is unnerving (even if it sounds only marginally less kooky now than it must have at the time).

The fun of the List’s VanDerBeek show is not unrelated to the thrill of reading out-of-date science fiction, with its peculiar hybrids of old and new, of risible fantasy and keen-eyed prophecy.

The exhibition was organized by Bill Arning, the List’s former curator and now director of the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, and João Ribas, his successor at the List. It is, as Arning writes, a “project of reclamation’’: VanDerBeek, who died in 1984 at 57, came perilously close to falling through the cracks of art history. There’s no question that he deserves much better.

The show itself is a wild ride, both a joy and, in places, tough going.

VanDerBeek was, writes Arning, “unable to stay within institutional or media boundaries.’’ For three decades, he was “an inspiring one-man research-and-development department for using untried forms and forcing them to reveal their interior poetics.’’

That rings true. VanDerBeek was at the forefront of one new phenomenon after another: animation art, video collage, multiscreen projections, multimedia happenings, art-and-dance collaborations, interactive art, and computer art.

All these forms of art making and presentation have become standard fare today.

But being conscious of — and impressed by — VanDerBeek’s prescience doesn’t make fathoming his own “interior poetics’’ especially easy.

Entering the show, you feel slightly under bombardment. A room early on screens VanDerBeek’s early groundbreaking films, which are beacons in the history of experimental cinema. They’re wonderful, poignant, funny. Spend as long as you can with them.

Further in, the curators have reconfigured one of his so-called “movie murals.’’ Boy oh boy — what an onslaught!

A table supports an array of slide and film projectors pointing in various directions. To the accompaniment of arbitrary fragments of music, still images from the history of art are projected alongside (or overlapping) excerpts from the history of film, as well as news and documentary footage. One sees mushroom clouds, ancient sculptures, circus performers, Buster Keaton, synchronized swimmers, war footage, a bear riding a bicycle, racing cars, and so on.

It’s hectic, and it’s made more so by noise and imagery coming from other works nearby. But it’s also worth spending time with, because you need to get a feel for VanDerBeek’s interest in creating visual environments. It’s crucial to grasp that there was a logic behind his unceasing flows of imagery — the logic of collage. He was trying, among other things, to communicate subliminally — to the unconscious as well as the conscious mind.

One of the biggest influences on VanDerBeek was an event called “Theater Piece No. 1,’’ which took place in 1952 during his time in Black Mountain. Later described as the first art “happening,’’ it was a combination of poems read aloud from the tops of ladders by the likes of Cage and Charles Olson, improvised dancing by Merce Cunningham, scratched phonograph recordings and rearranged paintings by Rauschenberg, and performances on a prepared piano by David Tudor.

VanDerBeek remembered it as a seminal experience: “The fact that everything sort of happened at once was very inspirational,’’ he said. It “triggered off a lot of ideas about how you can make things grow and collage together.’’

In 1967, VanDerBeek moved to Cambridge. He was one of the first artists-in-residence at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies. CAVS was a trailblazing institution established two years earlier by former Bauhaus member György Kepes.

At MIT, VanDerBeek focused on feedback and two-way communication. He made, for instance, a massive collaged mural, composed in real time but from a distance by transmitting facsimiles. Such experiments predicted today’s interactive digital art forms — not to mention more popular phenomena such as viewer voting on reality TV.

He also made a film for public television called “Violence Sonata.’’ It was designed to be screened simultaneously on two television sets, and invited viewers to participate in a telephone discussion with studio panelists during an interval.

In essence, VanDerBeek was concerned, just as we increasingly are today, about the ways in which technological changes threaten to outpace our ability to cope, emotionally and spiritually, with their consequences.

Undoubtedly, he was prone to giddiness and cant. “I have been imaginizing about the future,’’ he would gleefully announce; or: “Sometimes I wake up and say it’s going to be a 60 mile-an-hour day’’ — just the sort of thing we’re used to hearing from self-help gurus or “corporate visionaries.’’

But he was refreshingly modest about his own work — unsure, at times, whether it tapped into what he called “extremely important ideas’’ or amounted merely to “wallpaper.’’ And he was no mindless cheerleader: He wavered, thoughtfully, between optimism and fear about the impact of new visual technologies.

He was interested in what new technologies, from film and TV to the burgeoning world of computers, did to what he called “the reordering of our visual semantics.’’ His premise was that embracing the creative potential of new technologies, rather than fearing their tendency to facilitate control and domination, was the best way forward. Human sensibilities, he believed, needed to be jolted out of the 19th century and into the present day.

Was he right?

Perhaps. Probably.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot in his work to inspire confidence in his emotional or spiritual grip on life. But the optimism and derring-do behind it is strangely uplifting.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

STAN VANDERBEEK: The Culture Intercom

At: MIT List Visual Arts Center. Through April 3. 617-253-4680, listart.mit.edu