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A trailblazer with a utopian streak

Avant-gardist found influences in South America

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / June 19, 2011

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In the mid- to late-19th century, being an avant-garde artist meant being rejected by the official salons, going hungry, and espousing anarchist or socialist views.

What, if anything, did it mean a century later in, say, the 1970s?

One possible answer is offered up by close examination of a group of artists who were affiliated with the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT.

CAVS was set up in 1967 by György Kepes, a Hungarian painter, designer, and educator. Since CAVS was part of MIT, Kepes’s focus on new technologies in art was hardly surprising. Nor was his determination to get CAVS fellows working with artists, scientists, and industry.

But there was also a quantity of social idealism in what the artists at CAVS pursued, and it’s this that links their ambitions with the social and political ambitions of earlier avant-gardes.

Kepes wanted CAVS to be involved in large-scale urban projects. He liked art that was geared to society and to “all sensory modalities.’’ Painted images framed on walls, in other words, no longer cut it. This was the era of TV, film, and light projections; computers were in their infancy; man had just walked on the moon, wars were being fought far from home; nuclear terror reigned.

New technologies were transforming medicine, the military, and mass communications: The people at CAVS believed they should transform art too. Art, in turn, should be involved in transforming consciousness, and society at large.

How did all that work out, then?

As part of its 150th anniversary celebrations, the List Visual Arts Center at MIT has been looking back at several artists associated with CAVS, and the results have been illuminating. The recent Stan VanDerBeek retrospective gave an overview of that artist’s bold and prescient experiments with TV, film-sampling, animation, multimedia happenings, interactive art, and computer art.

I knew next to nothing about VanDerBeek before I saw the show. Now, I’d find it hard to account for such superstars of contemporary art as Matthew Barney and Christian Marclay without first mentioning VanDerBeek.

Later this year, the List will take a look at a better known — and still living — CAVS fellow, Otto Piene, whose enormous light display, “SKY Event,’’ was the culminating event of MIT’s Festival of Arts, Science and Technology in May.

But right now, the List is hosting “Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect,’’ the second in a trilogy of historical exhibitions looking back at CAVS artists and researchers. (The show is a collaboration with the Bronx Museum of the Arts and was organized by Valerie Smith, a Berlin-based curator.)

Not unlike the VanDerBeek extravaganza, it’s hectic with video and audio spillover. Much of the film footage is shaky and interminable. And almost every audio component is spoiled by competing sounds from nearby. You walk in and immediately sense you are involved, against your will, in a psych experiment designed to stretch your tolerance for noise and visual confusion to the limit.

Downey was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1940, and died in New York, in 1993. He studied architecture in Chile and then, in the early ’60s, spent five years in Paris.

Like any trained architect, he was devoted to drawing as a tool of thought. But he also developed an interest in electronics and robots. Enthusiasm for hybrid forms of art, incorporating technology and emphasizing ideas over objects, was growing.

During his time in New York, from 1969 on, Downey was recognized as a trailblazer, and in 1973, he was invited to be a visiting researcher at CAVS. (His main academic affiliation, from 1970-1992, was with the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y.) That same year he kicked off a series of trips, by car, from New York to different locations in South America.

Downey, like all the best avant-gardists going right back to the 19th century, had a utopian streak. He was interested in invisible forms of energy and communication. He spent seven years traveling back and forth between the United States and South America, where he visited isolated communities in Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, recording aspects of daily life with a video camera, then playing his recordings back to other communities.

Why? Because, we are told by the List, he “saw himself as a ‘cultural communicant,’ and an ‘activating anthropologist.’ ’’

One doesn’t need the extreme example of the disease-spreading erotomaniac Paul Gauguin to make you skeptical about the idea of artists as “activating anthropologists.’’ But for Downey — and this is characteristic of the avant-garde in all periods — idealism had a tendency to triumph over self-examination.

In 1976 and ’77, Downey took his wife, Marilys, and his stepdaughter, Elizabeth (Titi), deep into the Amazon. From the Guahibos in Central Orinoco, they canoed upriver to Mavaca and Tayari ,where for half a year they lived among the Yanomami people.

Downey documented their lives. He became fascinated in particular by a structure, the “shabono,’’ made from thatched palm leaves or wood and with a hole in the middle, that could shelter several hundred people.

When you read about the ideas and insights that animated Downey, they can seem rather far-fetched and heady. So it’s fun, in a grim sort of way, to come across a display of pages from his diary: “Since then very many bad things happened,’’ he writes: “the car got stuck three times, we discovered the battery charger had broken, and everybody got poisoned.’’

I’m not sure what Downey actually achieved during this period (I certainly feel for the locals who had to sit through his Portapak videos), and I didn’t feel the show made it particularly clear. But his drawings and paintings, many of them based on maps of South America and influenced both by his daily meditation practice and by the theories of Buckminster Fuller, are compelling works of art.

It was only when I got to the last room, devoted to Downey’s video works from the 1980s, that I started to warm to him. One video in particular, a meditation on Diego Velazquez’s “Las Meninas’’ for a video series called “The Thinking Eye,’’ is riveting.

If, superficially, it resembles a standard made-for-television art documentary, it does so in ways that only bring home how safe, how condescending, how unchallenging such documentaries have since become.

Downey’s 1981 film on “Las Meninas,’’ “The Looking Glass,’’ involves unusual visual layering, diagrams, insightful commentary from the likes of the late art historian Leo Steinberg, and a captivating use of sound and editing. It’s quite superb.

What, after seeing this show, can we conclude about avant-gardism by the end of the 1970s?

In its wider context, this massive question has been addressed by scores of great thinkers trying to account for the hobbling effect of mass culture and industrialization on avant-garde ideals.

But the MIT context makes us aware that the line separating self-consciously avant-garde art and advanced technological research had become strangely blurred. How, one wonders, did Downey square his political ideals, his earnest attempts to understand “the life principle,’’ with MIT’s ongoing involvement in industry and the military during these heady years? Was his infatuation with new technology an aid in his attempt to “enlighten’’ isolated communities in South America, or were the two interests at odds?

Was there, in short, enough skepticism in his work and thinking, or was it all a little goofily optimistic?

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

JUAN DOWNEY: The Invisible Architect At: MIT List Visual Arts Center. Through July 10. 617-253-4680, listart.mit.edu