For many artists, those static images that hang on a wall, such as paintings or photographs, fail to capture the modern flux. Television, movies, and the Internet create a more contemporary sensation of visual meaning, one that’s more fluid—three-dimensional, changeable, jittery. Yet painting continues to beguile. Today, certain artists who work with film (as opposed to moviemakers who tell a story in a theater) are wandering in and out of the traditional world of the painters, using film’s flickering effects to reveal what painting can’t do but also, at times, making use of painting’s special qualities. Such films look different from what’s conventionally called video art. They transcend the television set. Their scale is often high-flown, enveloping: Sometimes, they establish lush room-size environments, like a darkened gallery filled with Rothkos.
Films of this kind, now an important part of the gallery scene, can be difficult to find and appreciate. Not only do gallery shows constantly change, but getting your bearings in this particular field of art isn’t easy. You can learn about Cubism in a museum or book, and if you want to explore the Hollywood of a particular period, you can rent DVDs. But how would you begin to master the history of brief art films? Only with difficulty. At the moment, two important such films are having extended runs in New York: Bill Viola’s Five Angels for the Millennium at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Eve Sussman’s 89 Seconds at Alcazar in the media gallery at the new Museum of Modern Art. Each work seems more like painting than video, let alone a conventional movie.
Sussman’s twelve-minute film—a standout at the last Whitney Biennial—is based upon Velázquez’s portrait of the Spanish royal family, Las Meninas. Sussman hired actors to play the characters in the picture, which include a dwarf and a magnificent burly dog. Under her direction, the camera pans slowly around the room, picking up a succession of small moments as the painter works and the family prepares to pose. The dog rolls over on its back. The little prince pats his belly. The dwarf stokes the fire. The adults whisper among themselves. The film seems to unlock the painting. Its characters spring free from art’s compositional vise and reenter the ordinary flow of time: Viewers can’t make out spoken words, but instead hear a kind of distant hum, like time’s muffled murmurings. Las Meninas is often presented as a miracle of realism, but the painting is actually a kind of puzzle box, a work that famously questions what we ultimately know about art, life, and reality itself. Sussman’s film makes the picture appear even more open-ended. In fact, as you delight in the awakened characters, you may also long for them to return to the settled uncertainty of Velázquez’s world—for the painting to recover its form. You will sense what composition, in art, finally entails.
Bill Viola is one of the few video artists who appeals to the mainstream—perhaps because, like Sussman, he’s showman enough to avoid boring his audience. He’s also a characteristic figure of our time, a spiritual seeker attracted to a wide variety of sources, ranging from Asian to Christian art. In Five Angels for the Millennium, he placed five large screens in a darkened room. On each we see flowing water: curls, bubbles, swells, and undulations. Shafts of light pass through. A distant oceanlike rumble is heard. Crickets, too. The atmosphere is one of meditation. But suddenly, unpredictably, on one screen or another, a figure will erupt through the water with a roar, creating an angelic form that soars across the endless space. The line that Viola’s “angels” make as they slice through space reminds me of the painter Barnett Newman’s famous “zips”—the bands that cross his mystical color fields.
At the Whitney, Viola’s work has its own large space. At the Modern, however, the Sussman is part of a dark roomful of several films, each of which echoes a different aspect of traditional art— portraiture, landscape, and history painting. Placing several such films together in one room is not ideal, especially if sound is important (as it is with the Sussman). At the same time, this new gallery at the Modern is centrally located just off the atrium. It will attract a lot of pass-through traffic. This is still an unsettled kind of art, in other words, without a comfortable home. But it’s no longer an afterthought.