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‘If We Could Grasp It with the Mind’: The Obscure Cinema of Victor Grauer

The filmmaker, composer, musicologist, theorist, poet, playwright, and self-described “neo-modernist” Victor Grauer (b. 1937) is one of Pittsburgh’s most accomplished and mutable artists and an oft-overlooked pioneer of structural, minimalist, camera-less, and trance film styles. Grauer’s early education in music composition and theory, culminating in a bachelor of music from Syracuse University, laid the groundwork for his breakthrough “imageless” film experiments, coinciding with the rise of perceptual abstraction in the mid-1960s.[1] After completing a master’s degree in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University in 1961, Grauer worked with famed historian and folklorist Alan Lomax to create a coding system for music, known as Cantometrics (i.e. “song measurements”). Grauer’s earliest cinegraphic efforts, which applied strategies of musical notation to solid color, frame-by-frame composition, were compared favorably to the contemporaneous, now-canonical work of Peter Kubelka, Paul Sharits, and Tony Conrad, and quickly won the admiration of avant-garde and underground film tastemakers. Grauer’s first film, Angel Eyes (1965), debuted at one of John Brockman’s open screenings at St. Mark’s Church in New York’s Lower East Side. The film, made with a borrowed 16mm Bolex camera, color filters, and a graph paper score, is one of the earliest examples of flicker-based stroboscopic cinema. Amos Vogel, co-founder of Cinema 16, programmed Grauer’s second film, the reverberating, psychedelic Archangel (1966), for the 1966 New York Film Festival, and the third of the “flicker” series, Seraph (1966), now lost, screened at Jonas Mekas’ roving Filmmakers’ Cinematheque.

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First page of the score for Archangel. (Courtesy of Victor Grauer)

Despite this early attention and periodic renewals of interest—four of Grauer’s films were included in the Whitney Museum’s 2000 retrospective This American Century, while Archangel screened at the 2008 International Film Festival Rotterdam—his cinematic work remains obscure, in Pittsburgh especially. “He’s probably more well known outside of Pittsburgh than in,” former Carnegie Museum of Art film curator Bill Judson pointed out in 1998. “Victor is the sort of artist who quietly goes about his work without concern for popularity or glory.”[2] The previous year, film historian Wheeler Winston Dixon noted that “Grauer’s work should be revived and shown so that it can be appreciated by a new group of responsive viewers; these gentle and evocative films form a unique legacy in the domain of 1960s American experimental cinema, and thus deserve a wider audience.”[3] Dixon’s call, however, has gone largely unheeded. Why have Grauer’s films received such little recognition, as his peers, most notably Sharits, continue to grow in stature? A combination of timing, location, and a lack of better distribution (and preservation) are among the contributing factors.

By the late 1960s, Grauer was a filmmaker of rising promise but without a camera or money. Setting aside the tightly structured, incremental photographic method of his first three films, he began to stretch his formal vocabulary, taking up more unpredictable and indeterminate direct animation techniques. The result was a group of simple but assured handmade films that succinctly realized single ideas with minimal resources: Two black-and-white films, Acid (1967) and Distant Star (1967), are contrasting studies of rhythm and texture. Made by bleaching black emulsion leader, Acid is a tumultuous, smoky, charcoal-in-motion, while the hand-scratched Distant Star begins with sparse, staccato runs of dots, lines, and squiggles that eventually give way to more visceral, throbbing swaths of horizontal scraping. Webs and Stems (1967) likewise attempts to achieve some of the haptic flicker effects of his earliest films, but using hand-painted crimson and deep purple forms that he modulates atop clear leader. Most impressive among these is Voices (1967), a hand-colored film that combines scratching and painting. In grooves left from the scratched out emulsion, Grauer applies vibrantly colored permanent inks—dancing vertical slivers and glyphs of green, magenta, yellow, red, and blue that seem to pierce through a pitch-black field before exploding in intensity. These films brandished Grauer as a keen artist of light and a skilled composer of visual rhythm but they were the last he would make for several years.

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Frame enlargement from the film Webs and Stems. (Courtesy of Victor Grauer)

Personal reasons forced Grauer to leave New York City, the epicenter of avant-garde film activity and criticism, for Buffalo in 1967. Still lacking the equipment and financial resources necessary to make films, Grauer instead shifted his energies to electronic music, embarking on a Ph.D. in Music Composition at a time when many of the defining studies of avant-garde cinema were being written.[4] Grauer moved again, in 1970, just as SUNY-Buffalo was building one of the greatest media arts faculties in the nation, led by Gerald O’Grady, Steina, Woody Vasulka, Hollis Frampton, Sharits, Conrad, James Blue, and Peter Weibel. That chapter has since been thoroughly documented and celebrated in large-scale publications and survey exhibitions.[5] Grauer, meanwhile, arrived in Pittsburgh to teach music history and composition just as the city’s nascent independent film scene was starting to take shape. That spring, the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Film Section was established under the direction of Sally Dixon. Numerous visiting filmmakers, including Mekas, Kubelka, Robert Breer, etc. came to Pittsburgh to screen their work and comingle with local artists. The New Cinema Workshop, a cooperative of independent filmmakers active since the late 1960s, served as a precursor and bridge to Pittsburgh Filmmakers, established in 1971 and formally incorporated in 1973 with the goal of providing equipment to residents (Grauer was an original member). The University of Pittsburgh’s Film Studies Program was founded a couple of years later, in 1975, further bolstering the city’s film resources.

Through the convergence of these activities and organizations, Pittsburgh would become, temporarily, a major center for experimental film and video exhibition and creation.[6] Nationally, though, Pittsburgh was still better known as a destination for experimental filmmakers, rather than a site of production (thanks in large part to Carnegie Museum of Art’s generous screening honoraria and publication of the monthly Film and Video Maker’s Travel Sheet as well as the Film and Video Makers Directory). Grauer was one of Pittsburgh’s most prolific film artists during this time but he was overshadowed locally by more famous out-of-towners such as Brakhage and Frampton, who not only screened but also photographed material for films here, as well as the city’s emergent cult movie hero, George Romero. Grauer completed nearly 20 films over the course of the 1970s, ranging from 30 seconds to 45 minutes in length. Most significant among these was Book of the Year 3000 (1974), a film version of his eponymously titled concrete poem and ritual soundpiece, first performed in 1972 at The Kitchen in New York. An in-progress version of Book of the Year 3000 was presented with live narration as part of Grauer’s April 1974 Carnegie Museum of Art screening of films and “dynamic light sculpture.” A married sound print of the film was acquired by the museum a few years later.

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Frame enlargement from the film Book of the Year 3000. (Courtesy of Victor Grauer)

Book of the Year 3000 is Grauer’s longest and most complex work on film. It fuses the reductive structural concepts and formal strategies of his early films, which eliminate representational elements and instead “transmute colored light into stroboscopic patterns to elevate the audience into a serenely pacific state of heightened consciousness,”[7] with greater subjectivity, indexical real world imagery, voice-over incantations and on-screen text. The result is an epic, multilayered form and primordial character. The influence of Brakhage, especially his lyrical films like Window Water Baby Moving (1959) as well as his mythopoeic Dog Star Man (1961–1964), is strongly felt.[8] Alternating Brakhage-like photographic images (of sparks, flames, a copper-toned sky, softly focused cityscapes, glistening waves, and so on) with passages of black leader and hypnotic color flicker segments, and, in one-section, reprinted war footage, Book of the Year 3000 achieves a synthesis of the avant-garde styles popular at the time. It is rich in poetic allusion and meditative power, while also distilling and extending his formal ideas and their effects.

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Poster for Book of the Year 3000. Click to enlarge. (Courtesy of CMOA Archives)

Retrospectively, Book of the Year 3000 can be seen as marking a key point of transition in Grauer’s career. After resigning from the University of Pittsburgh’s Music Department in 1973, he dramatically ramped up his film production endeavors and joined Pittsburgh Filmmakers as a part-time faculty member the following year. Then, in 1976, he authored the first part of his “Theory of Pure Film,” a rigorous, in-depth study of film’s irreducible, photo-mechanical properties and its relationship of time and space. The precisely argued and at times pedantic essay, which appeared in the first and third issues of the journal Field of Vision (a publication of Pittsburgh Filmmakers), reveals Grauer’s mathematical approach, background in musical theory, and interest in systematic reductionism, as well as a desire to move beyond the visual harmonics of flicker film (for which he was best known at the time). “Theory of Pure Film” attempts to isolate, analyze, and clarify the intrinsic elements of cinema through the formulation and expansion of a 24-frame, i.e. one second, conceptual prototype, which he then makes concrete in his coterminous analytic film projects (such as Composition 1 [1978], comprised entirely of black and clear frames). This practice-based approach to demonstrating theoretical concepts was a unifying hallmark of the international avant-garde cinema of the time, as seen in the otherwise diverse film work of Brakhage, Kubelka, Chantal Akerman, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, Yvonne Rainer, Peter Gidal, R. Bruce Elder, and so on. “Theory of Pure Film” also invokes some of the same traits promoted in Clement Greenberg’s Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition a decade prior,[9] in particular transparency of design and elimination of pictorial detail. In contrast to the excesses (heroic virtuosity, layered density) of action paining, the gambit was to boil down painting to its barest essentials. Not surprisingly, Grauer singles out Mondrian, whose hard-edged geo-abstraction, collapsing of foreground and background, and bright primary color palette prefigure post-painterly abstraction, as an inspiration for his “pure film” schema.

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Victor Grauer, undated photograph.

In 1978, Grauer began an even more ambitious, multiyear theoretical study of film aesthetics in the context of 20th century painting, music, and poetry. Unfortunately, the manuscript, titled Montage, Realism, and the Act of Vision (completed in 1982), never made it to print.[10] (An elaborated version of one of its chapters, renamed “Brakhage and the Theory of Montage,” appeared in Millennium Film Journal in 1998). Montage, Realism, and the Act of Vision conclusively demonstrates the impact of Brakhage on Grauer’s work technically and theoretically as it evolved through the 1970s. Echoing the advancements of Cubism (in the field of painting) and twelve-tone composition (in the field of music), Brakhage films such as Anticipation of the Night (1958) serve as the primary proof for Grauer’s theory of “‘negative montage,’ the montage of disjunction, disruption, dissociation.”[11] Anticipation of the Night illustrates the sophistication and complexity of Brakhage’s interlocking cinematographic and plastic editing techniques. Through rapid camera movement, unintelligible framing, superimposition, abridged shot lengths, and inverted imagery (shots placed upside down or backwards), the film diverges from an indexical relationship to the real world, emphasizing the tactile sensation of experience. The perspective is deliberately partial and fragmented.

In contrast to Brakhage’s expressive and gestural cinema of the late 1950s and 1960s, Grauer’s earliest films (from 1965–1966) are rigidly systematic, adopting a binary, predetermined mode; they almost seem to have been generated by a computer. Grauer’s films of the late 1970s, however, are increasingly idiosyncratic, disjunctive, and enigmatic. At times they feel overburdened by the artist’s theoretical concerns, but they are also playfully energetic and intriguing. Ball Game, made in 1976 with the assistance of students at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, is a fast-edited black-and-white deconstruction that variously documents and conceals a vague but simple game with frequent passages of darkness. We occasionally glimpse brief, strobe-lit illuminated faces or longer-held shots of individual figures but the overall effect is one of defamiliarization. A companion classroom film, String Game (1975), exhibits a similar approach, but is shot in color. Portrait (1976–1978), a series of three films and two installations that fragment and reassemble a close-up interview with the subject, Grauer’s friend and student David Lee (himself a minimalist filmmaker), is in some ways a summary work, bringing together many of the artist’s signature attributes (minimalism, flicker, obfuscation, silence, liberal use of imageless footage, repetition, theme-and-variation, expanded form) in a concise but at the same time disparate, serial expression.

* * *

Following a decade-long period of intense research-creation, Grauer’s filmmaking slowed during the late 1970s and eventually ceased. As early as 1977, as he was completing his “Theory of Pure Film,” Grauer began working with computer-video systems. Thanks to Steina and Woody Vasulka, he had access to the University of Buffalo’s Digital Arts Lab, one of the first of its kind. “This has given me the opportunity,” he writes, “to test certain structures with relative ease… More important, it has also convinced me that [the principles of] pure film [are] fully applicable to digitized video.”[12] In the 1980s and early-90s, Grauer turned his attention fully away from film and towards electronic media: computers, video, and installation. Fascinated with the process of programming, he taught himself BASIC, Machine, and C languages and began to write software and experiment with the new imaging and sound possibilities enabled by the Commodore 64 and early Amigas. His debut computer audio-video installation Veil 4, was presented at the Contemporary Media Study Center in Dayton, Ohio, in 1980. Grauer completed many more installations and new media pieces over the decade, including his computer-controlled light and sound installation, Ocean of Silence. Utilizing custom-designed software, it debuted at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory in 1989 to positive reviews. Writing about the work for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Donald Miller described Ocean of Silence as “a contemplative triumph” and the artist’s “finest effort.”[13]

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Frame enlargement from the film Combat. (Courtesy of Victor Grauer)

Since 2000, Grauer has continued to produce video pieces, multimedia installations, computer-based music and instrumental compositions while also publishing numerous works of aesthetic theory in art and music journals as well as poetry. He has written for the stage and self-published books on such wide-ranging subjects as human evolution and the history of the rhythm section. His films, however, have mainly fallen out of sight.[14] The circumstances of Grauer’s filmmaking demonstrate the role that timing and geography have played in its reception (and lack thereof). Further contributing to their disregard, Grauer’s films are not widely available or easily accessed. The New York-based Film-makers’ Cooperative has four of his films in their collection available for rent. Archangel, perhaps Grauer’s most successful film in terms of exhibition history, was preserved with the assistance of Anthology Film Archives in the late 1990s, screened as part of the Crossroads: Avant-Garde Film in Pittsburgh series curated by Robert Haller, and was included in the program “Sharits in Context: Flicker is Cinema” at the 2008 International Film Festival Rotterdam. Locally, the Carnegie Museum of Art has a print of Book of the Year 3000 in its permanent collection, and the University of Pittsburgh owns a print of Portrait 5. The only other extant copies belong to Grauer himself, and his original elements are stored in the filmmaker’s attic. Some homemade, fixed-duration video copies of his new media works, rephotographed off of a computer display exist, and in 2012, Grauer digitized a number of his films, which are now available to view on DVD in slightly revised versions. (In several cases, Grauer edited the digitized versions, resulting in slightly reduced running times and new aspect ratios.) At this writing there are no plans for a commercial release or further preservation work.[15] The experience of seeing his 16mm films on a video screen, however, is significantly diminished; divorced from the mechanical pulse of the film projector, the source of their unique and impactful rhythms. Ideally the films should be experienced in total darkness, on their original celluloid format, in full resolution. Anything less is simply documentation.

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Frame enlargement from the film Book of the Year 3000. (Courtesy of Victor Grauer)

Midway through Book of the Year 3000 the off-screen voice (Grauer’s) intones: “If we could grasp it with the mind…” This could also describe the current state of Grauer’s film work, which has lately faded from view. On the whole we’ve been left to imagine what these rigorous formalist artworks might look like. One hopes that with the rise of interest in Pittsburgh’s avant-garde film history, brought about in part by the launch of Carnegie Museum of Art’s Time-Based Media Project in 2011, a new generation of responsive viewers will be roused to discover and appreciate the all-too obscure cinema of Victor Grauer.

FILMOGRAPHY

Angel Eyes (1965, 16mm, color, silent, 6:52 minutes)

Archangel (1966/2012, 16mm, color, sound, 7:20 minutes) – AFA

Seraph (1966, 16mm, color, sound on separate tape, 9 minutes)

Certain Stars (1966, 16mm, black-and-white, silent, 2:15 minutes)

Distant Star (1967, 16mm, black-and-white, silent, 5:03 minutes)

Acid (1967, 16mm, black-and-white, silent, 3:23 minutes)

Webs and Stems (1967, 16mm, color, silent, 2:35 minutes)

Voices (1967, 16mm, color, silent, 3:21 minutes)

Summer Light (1967, 8mm, color, silent, 20 minutes)

Life in the Year 3000 (1971, Super 8, color, silent, 16 minutes)

Veil (1972, 16mm, black-and-white, silent, 20 minutes)

Light on Light (1974, 16mm, black-and-white, silent, 6 minutes)

Dark on Dark (1974, 16mm, black-and-white, silent, 6 minutes)

Passage (1974, 16mm, color, silent, 3 minutes)

Book of the Year 3000 (1974/2012, 16mm, color, sound, 45:45 minutes) – FMC, CMOA

Combat (1975/2012, 16mm, black-and-white, silent, 17:29 minutes)

String Game (1975, 16mm, color, silent, 4:45 minutes)

Prose 1 (1975, 16mm, black-and-white, silent, 1 minute)

Chords 1-15 (1975-76, 16mm, black-and-white, silent, varying from 1 second to three minutes in length)

Verse 1B (1975, 16mm, black-and-white, silent, 2 minutes)

Ball Game (1976, 16mm, black-and-white, silent, 9:35 minutes)

Cantilevers A-C (1976, 16mm, black-and-white, silent, 2 minutes each)

Portrait of Dave Lee (Portrait 1) (1976, 16mm, black-and-white, sound, 2 minutes)

Portrait 2 (David Lee) (1976, 16mm, black-and-white, sound, 38 seconds) – FMC

Composition 1 (1978, 16mm, black-and-white, sound, 1:21 minutes) – FMC

Portrait 5 (David Lee) (1978, 16mm, black-and-white, sound, 8 minutes) ­– FMC, University of Pittsburgh

Composition 2 (1980, 16mm, black-and-white, sound, 1 minute)

 

COMPUTER-VIDEO WORKS AND MEDIA-BASED INSTALLATIONS

Video Pieces 1–4 (1977–1978, ¾” video, color, silent, 30 minutes each)

Polyhyperchord (1977, multimedia performance involving live musicians, controlled house lights, and “light ambient synthesis,” 30 minutes)

Portrait 3, Exorcism of the Photographic Image (1977, photo and sound installation)

Veil 4 (1980, computer video-sound installation)

Veil 5 (1983, computer video installation)

Ocean of Silence (1989, computer-generated light and sound installation)

Alter (1991, light sculpture installation)

Presence of Mind/Ocean of Changes (1994, light sculpture installation with computer-controlled sound)

Celestial City (Homage to Fernand Leger) (1997, computer-video, black-and-white, silent)

Alegrias (1998, multimedia computer piece, color, sound)

Mirage (1999, computer-video, black-and-white, silent)

To Stone (tostone4) (2000, computer-video, color, sound)

Portrait 4, Ocean of Story (2000, multimedia installation)

To Stone (2001, multimedia, computer-based installation)

Shimmering Substance (Shmr3) (2002, computer-video, color, silent)

Screen (hrm 2-i) (ca. 2002, computer-video, color, silent)

Homage to Fernand Leger (2005, computer-based video display)

 

Footnotes

1. Grauer attempted, unsuccessfully, to get Angel Eyes included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1965 Op Art exhibition, The Responsive Eye. Correspondence with the author, January 6, 2016.

2. Bill Judson, Nomination Letter for Creative Achievement Award: Outstanding Established Artist, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, 1989, series 3 (Artist Files), box 8, folder 5, Department of Film and Video archive, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA.

3. Wheeler Winston Dixon, The Exploding Eye: A Re-Visionary History of 1960s American Experimental Cinema (New York: State University of New York Press, 1997), 69.

4. Grauer did, however, continue working with visual media during this time, including, in his words, “an installation based on a slide projection and an all night multimedia ‘extravaganza’ I called Threshold.” Correspondence with the author, January 6, 2016.

5. See, for instance Woody Vasulka and Peter Weibel (eds.), Buffalo Heads: Media Study, Media Practice, Media Pioneers, 1973–1990 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008); MindFrames: Media Study at Buffalo 1973-1990, curated by Woody Vasulka and Peter Weibel with Thomas Thiel, ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Germany, December 16, 2006–March 25, 2007; Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-garde in the 1970s, organized by Heather Pesanti, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, March 30–July 8, 2012.

6. For more on this era, see Robert A. Haller, Crossroads: Avant-garde Film in Pittsburgh in the 1970s (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 2005).

7. Wheeler Winston Dixon, The Exploding Eye, 69.

8. Brakhage was a frequent visitor to Pittsburgh during the early days of the Carnegie Museum’s Film Section. His films screened at the museum five times between September 1970 and September 1971. Over this period, and through the considerable efforts of Dixon, he also shot and completed a trilogy of films known as the Pittsburgh Documents.

9. Greenberg coined the term “post-painterly abstraction” in conjunction with his curated exhibition for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1964.

10. According to Grauer, Montage, Realism, and the Act of Vision was accepted for publication in Indiana University Press’s Advances in Semiotics series, but was later turned down by the publisher in anticipation of poor sales. You can read the full text online on Grauer’s personal website at: http://doktorgee.worldzonepro.com/MontageBook/MontageBook-Contents.htm

11. Victor Grauer, “Brakhage and the Theory of Montage,” Millennium Film Journal 32/33 (Fall 1998), accessed online at: http://mfj-online.org/journalPages/MFJ32,33/grauer.html

12. Victor Grauer, “A Theory of Pure Film – Part II,” Field of Vision 3 (Winter 1977–78): 4.

13. Donald Miller, “Grauer’s ‘Ocean of Silence’ a contemplative triumph of the senses,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 21, 1989.

14. According to Grauer, the last public screening of his films in Pittsburgh took place as part of a Film Kitchen event programmed by Bill O’Driscoll at Pittsburgh Filmmakers in 2000. Correspondence with the author, January 6, 2016.

15. In December 2013 Grauer began distributing digital work as limited editions, streamed through the online art delivery platform Sedition. See http://www.seditionart.com