The use of "patterns" has a long history in moving image art, predating Minimalism and other expressions of repetition, including performance. Duchamp's first foray into film, Anemic Cinema, 1926, is a dizzying series of rotating discs, crosscut with nine nonsensical phrases reflecting the artist's propensity for puns. The optical repetitions and manipulations are hypnotic. In the mid-twentieth century, Japanese avant-garde painter and performer, Shimamoto Shozo, used found film footage in his film Work, 1958, to make what he called a "direct animation." He poured vinegar on the original stock, then mixed and remixed images in such a way as to question the very nature of the moving image. Film, after all, is a pastiche of second-by-second movements edited together to look as if the movements are continuous. The mainstay of American avant-garde cinema, Structuralism, is itself an ongoing examination of patterning: image after image (most often abstract) repeated and reworked endlessly (as in the work of Stan Brakhage) to create a demystified cinema that really is nothing more than its constituent parts, thus eliminating any of the “emotionalism” of narrative cinema.

In Variations on a Line (Moving), a title borrowed from an early film by John Whitney, four artists from different historical periods demonstrate the mesmerizing as well as beautiful aspects of abstract patterning in moving image art.

New York artist Sharon Louden considers her animations “drawings in space.” Infused with her keen sense of color and choreography, Louden's abstractions reach toward representation. As viewers we enter her singular world and live in it as if it were our own. In Carrier she moves back and forth between the natural and the abstract, vanishing, as she says, into infinity at the end. The Dance is clearly that: an artful work of choreography that explores with great economy both drama and spontaneous whimsy.

James (1922–1982) and John (1917–1995) Whitney, West Coast brothers, were pioneers in both abstract film and music. Using a variety of novel instruments and materials such as optical printing, computer-generated graphics, and even airbrush stencils, the brothers, singly and together, created a large body of films that predated by decades the sophisticated computer imaging we now see everywhere. In the late 1950s, John created an analog computer with which the brothers could form their mesmerizing geometric shapes and infinitely varying patterns.

Stan Van Der Beeck (1927-1984), also a pioneering practitioner of “expanded cinema,” utilized computer graphics and self invented image processing systems. His animations and multi-media projects were highly influential, extending even to the animated antics of Monty Python, who credited him as an inspiration. In Micro Cosmos, 1983, he started with the basic form of an orb, transforming it into an animated wonderland of swift moving life forms.

Sharon Louden, The Dance, 2004. Courtesy the artist and Morgan Lehman Gallery, NY. © Sharon Louden
Sharon Louden, Carrier, 2011. Courtesy the artist and Morgan Lehman Gallery, NY. © Sharon Louden
James Whitney, LAPIS, 1966. © Estate of John and James Whitney
John Whitney, Matrix III, 1972. © Estate of John and James Whitney
James and John Whitney, Film Exercise #4, 1944. © Estate of John and James Whitney
James and John Whitney, Film Exercise #5, 1944. © Estate of John and James Whitney
Stan VanDerBeek, Micro Cosmos 1–4, 1983. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), NY.

Michael Rush
Exhibition Curator and Founding Director
Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

Variations on a Line (Moving) is organized by the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at MSU. Generous support is provided by MSU Federal Credit Union. Additional funding is provided by the Broad MSU’s general exhibitions fund.