Oskar Fischinger: True West
September 2012

Oskar Fischinger, Raumlichtkunst (1926/2012), three screen projection: three 35mm films transferred to HD video, b/w and color, sound, 10 min looped, installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art (2012), © Center for Visual Music, Los Angeles

True West

Over the years, the work of German artist Oskar Fischinger, born in 1900 in Gelnhausen, has been lauded by an idiosyncratic list of radical formalists and vanguard visionaries. Opening up an unparalleled immersive style within the charged milieu of Weimar culture, Fischinger’s “visual music” stepped away from the canvas and pushed abstraction and analog film technology into an entirely new terrain. Interrupted by World War II, Fischinger’s development of an expanded field of painting was left partial. Arguably, it was the seductive pulse and flash of his abstract animations that saved him from the Third Reich, allowing Fischinger an escape route to Los Angeles via Paramount Studios and later Walt Disney’s animation studios. At the latter, he was met with the infamous Disney quip – “We allow no geniuses around our studio” – after Fischinger refused to alter his designs and make them less abstract and more accessible. An integral part of an under-recognized chapter of émigré cultural contributions occurring in Hollywood’s initial boom era, Fischinger’s later work offers a direct bridge between the interdisciplinary spirit of Bauhaus aesthetics and its dispersed effects on the postwar American avant-garde, a link that continues to resonate today. The milieux of German Expressionist abstraction and experimentation in graphic three-dimensionality to which his early work belongs remained largely underexplored. Moreover, audiences’ limited exposure to his more performative works, paintings, and other genre-defying prototypes made in Los Angeles make the newly restored version of Fischinger’s immersive film environment Raumlichtkunst (1926/2012) – recently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art and on view through May 2013 at Tate Modern – an unusual opportunity to reveal the scope of his innovation and occasion renewed interest in his work among younger artists.

Transferred to HD video and translated as “Space Light Art,” Raumlichtkunst has been restored from original 35mm nitrate film by the Center for Visual Music and presented in a three-screen, looped version with digitally restored color. The new version errs cleanly on the side of a multi-channel video work without fully pursuing the more immersive possibilities of a “Room for Light Art” –implied by Fischinger’s title and experimentation with live performances. The vividness of the installation nevertheless captures the hallucinatory drive of an allover hybrid space of painting and film. Demanding that viewers pay attention to a simultaneity that swings from macro to micro effects across three screens, Raumlichtkunst relies on the noise and jitter of superimposition to destabilize the viewer, emphasizing the time of registration over any narrative or reference in order to create a symphony of arrest and release, reversal and constant movement that presages much of structuralist film dynamics.

Emerging from the German abstract film scene of the 20s, Fischinger was inspired to work with film by the so-called “absolute film” animations of Viking Eggeling and Walter Ruttman, among others. Pursuing graphic cinema as a form of “painting in motion,” as it was often called at the time, Fischinger went on tour with composer Alexander László to present a series of Farblichtmusik (“Color-Light-Music”) concerts featuring his film projections, colored lights, and slide projections. Deploying as many as five 35mm projectors in some instances, Fischinger soon developed his own concert spectacles that included animation sequences similar to the current presentation of Raumlichtkunst. Attention to the film apparatus itself as part of an expanded space of painting was complemented by the overall liveliness and performative bravado of Fischinger’s experimentation, of which Raumlichtkunst is a crowning effort.

Whereas a number of Fischinger’s performative concerts were accompanied by a live percussion ensemble, the restored work uses versions of Double Music (1941) by John Cage and Lou Harrison as well as Edgar Varèse’s Ionisation (1931) to make a composite soundscape that points to the influence that both Cage and Varèse acknowledge Fischinger having had on them. Though the restored work effortlessly mixes the gamelan-like openness of Double Music with the industrial angularity of Varèse, a prominent air raid siren in Ionisation lends a slightly misleading wartime reading. Overall, though, the music enhances the fervor of Fischinger’s vision.

A spinning globe appears at the center of the three-channel projection; it gyrates closer and closer until it appears to fly off its axis and explode, vertiginously multiplying into an onslaught of pulsating spheres. Overseen by the figure of a hooded woman who appears only glancingly, Raumlichtkunst esoterically sways between intimating cellular biology and interstellar communication. Offset by swirling molten patterns that spiral and unfurl like weather graphics seen from a distant satellite or giddy molecular spasms, circular forms convey a cosmic effect. Giving way to a welter of moiré patterns and staff-like forms, the ensuing geometric vocabulary recalls, by turn, punctuation; sound waves; x-rays; textile weaving; rotary reliefs; test patterns; pistons; keyboards; organ pipes; streetlights; and, throughout, the dilating glow of afterimage effects.

To call it a cacophony misses the musicality of Fischinger’s compositional layout, replete with recurrent motifs, counter rhythms, marked substitution patterns, rousing glissando effects, and a tripartite turbulence that buzzes with controlled chaos. Its excessiveness is keyed by bold color contrasts, echoing Bauhaus experiments as well as Fischinger’s avowed interest in spiritualist ideas of transmutation, molecular awareness, and mood enhancing sound-image effects. Reaching for orchestral heights, an emblematic left-to-right sequence places the hypnotic waver of a spiraling green background behind the melodic rise and fall of black staff wave patterns; accompanied by cool blue-on-black rectangular forms unfolding diagonally like Constructivist typography across the middle screen, the far right channel throbs with a signature Fischinger punch of geometric rings receding into a fading background. Creating a spatio-temporal loop that hovers between natural and engineered associations, Raumlichtkunst is mesmeric in its still-fresh simultaneity and excess.

Rifling through enough seductive color fluctuations to exhaust any sense of painterly balance or etiquette, it should come as no surprise that László Moholy-Nagy regularly screened Fischinger’s work during lectures in the late 20s and early 30s. Inspired in part by a Bauhaus ethos of leveling distinctions between the fine arts and applied arts, Fischinger’s approach argues for an expanded notion of the graphic impulse of painting as constructed and organic, architectonic and reverberant, technologically advanced yet directly expressive and even-handed.

That there exists a renewed interest in Fischinger, in California and elsewhere, attests to Fischinger’s ingenuity and restive interdisciplinarity as well as to his interest in provoking a heightened spatiality based in controlled agitation and optical rupture. The Los Angeles-based artist Steve Roden’s work in painting, animation, sound composition, and installation comes immediately to mind as bearing a distinct affinity – take, for example, his films Striations (2010–11) and Coast Lines (2010), but also his nervy paintings and their undaunted coloring and concentric approach to roughhewn optical stagger. Similarly, Fischinger’s designs for multi-planar apparatuses by means of which the viewer would experience a receding depth on a bodily scale resonates with the architectural frames central to the choreographed performance Untitled (Presence 2005), which premiered this past March, by the artist Elad Lassry, who is also based in Los Angeles. The aperture-like wall sculptures in Lassry’s accompanying installation also bore a distinct resemblance to the sets of one of the last animations that Fischinger made in Germany, Composition in Blue (1935), with its compression-like effects on three-dimensional geometric forms.

Such timely and associative correspondences are a testament not only to the breadth and advanced nature of Fischinger’s optical understanding and stylistic appeal, but also to the need for more extended institutional presentations as well as the rich potential for further artistic and critical engagements with his legacy and archive.

--Fionn Meade

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