Counting the Seconds

John Haber
in New York City

Eve Sussman at Alcázar

Bill Viola's The Greeting and Pontormo Portraits

Single-channel video can unfold as simply and seductively as the movies, with a cast and maybe even a plot. At museums, however, it often lives alongside painting and its subversions. What happens, then, when video imagines the story behind the Old Masters? Two very different lessons in art history have something to teach about the boundaries of video art now.

Art history already suggests a point of view, an embeddedness in time. Yet Bill Viola has been aspiring to the transcendent his whole career, from early attempts to hold his breath on camera through positively Wagnerian passages through fire and water. For the last few years, however, he has been restaging the Renaissance in living color. In slow-motion tableaus after Dirk Bouts and others, he has sought to combine the heightened emotions of human actors with the stillness of painting. Now he gets to display his version of Jacopo da Pontormo in tandem with an exhibition of the Mannerist's portraits. from Eve Sussman's 89 Seconds at Alcazar (Roebling Hall, 2004)

Eve Sussman slows things down, too, with her own slow-motion version of Las Meninas. Whereas Viola aims at the stability of painting, however, Sussman perceives the instability of its making. Where he hopes to make human tears stand still, she makes one wonder what that still moment can ever capture.

Layers and scales

In revisiting the Museum of Modern Art since its reopening, I keep making rediscoveries—and not necessarily of old friends. Nor have all been lost to view during the renovation. One had been staring me right in the face for months now, and I simply refused to see it. I mean 89 Seconds at Alcázar, Sussman's meditative recreation and dismemberment of the Velázquez group portrait of himself, the royal family, and their retainers. For weeks, it stood out from the artificial cluster of MoMA's video room even more than Andy Warhol in his Screen Tests, which at last look still cover a longer wall.

I first became aware, dimly, of Eve Sussman more than a year ago on Hudson Street, where she stood out from a sprawling group show. She turned a film strip of a city block and the rickety tower of projectors through which it wound into not just multiple views, but an accretion of time and place. She does so on a richer scale here. I saw the larger work at the Biennial, where such video artists as Emily Jacir and Sue de Beer stood out as well, as de Beer does so often. I saw fragments of its making soon after in photographs at Sussman's dealer, again without making the connections. Perhaps I required a wholly personal time scale myself.

With Alcázar the layering of time includes the 89 seconds of the title, the twelve minutes of the film, the moments roughly five years ago when Sussman claims to have invaded the Prado to snag the outrageously large canvas on camera, the 350 years since its making, the time Sussman's actors took to restage it (as has Yasumasa Morimura more recently), and the long hours that the painter must have put into it. The camera's invisible passage across the painting's central mirror, which insists on reflecting the king and queen regardless of who happens to be viewing it now, adds to both the grandeur and the instability.

The painting has its own multiple scales, from the fictive moment of the artist at work to the grand, uncertain architecture on which the scene depends. Like Michel Foucault or Picasso in black and white, many have found paradoxes in its central mirror. The room encapsulates a hierarchy governed by the all-seeing eye, perspective's mathematical rigor, and the king himself. Yet these, no matter how powerful, cannot maintain their identity with one another, not when other eyes, like Sussman's, enter the museum. The painting, in such interpretations, therefore registers the discordances within that come to life with Edouard Manet's mirrored bar—and even today.

In reality, as Foucault would cheerfully acknowledge, Velázquez resorted to a less postmodern form of deception. His perspective converges to the right of the mirror, through a door, where a servant turns in the harsh light of a stairwell at the rear. The servant raises one hand—at the exact vanishing point, in fact—to lift a curtain, almost a mirror image of the one that helps give the royal subjects their majesty. Logically, or at least geometrically, the king and queen stand to one's left, with the line of their reflection coming quite naturally to the viewer.

Then again, that multiplicity of angles, exits, curtains, gazes, and sources of light disturbs the scene's unity quite well enough by themselves. The door leading to the stairs has its own grid as well, in its surface of incised squares. It helps insist that the room itself, barren of curtains, has nothing softer than wood but shadows—and that unnervingly tall, reticent canvas. The viewer, originally, perhaps, beside the king as yet one more retainer, has assumed a shaky priority.

Happy endings

Amid the ever-shifting grandeur of a painting that appears to be making itself, such words as naturally and in reality seems foolish. They seem more foolish still after a video changes the focus from geometry and royalty to seductions in time.

No wonder Sussman's video unfolds on the scale of a dream or of a life, and the camera has a motion as fluid as both. After a ghostly glimpse of, just perhaps, the actual painting, it moves slowly around the back of the imagined easel. Players slip on and off stage, uncomfortably close and out of reach, as they never could during a portrait sitting—or in Foucault's retelling.

The painting and its recreation alike become furtive and illicit rendezvous, like one that Sussman creates for two of her characters—one of them a nun and, presumably, overseer of the royal children's morals. This has a way of subtly inverting the relationships within the painting. One feels the white of the nun's head scarf and the dark colors of her companion as intensely as a painter's hopeful stance. One remembers the warm fur of a dog more vividly than the costume and smile of a princess.

As on her city street, Sussman has a way of finding multiplicity and gender conflict in a traditionally male arena. For her next project, she is even filming a battle scene, based on one of the most ludicrous narratives in the Louvre, Intervention of the Sabine Women. In that painting by Jacques-Louis David, women, after their rape by Roman soldiers, mediate a peace between their abductors and their outraged rescuers. Now a woman is restaging a perversely happy outcome of male dominance—a reconciliation almost lost amid the flurry of limbs, swords, and shields.

How will it end, and who will "win the peace"? For now, I have only those long seconds at Alcázar. There people come together, for the familiar painted scene, and come apart again. Ever since Max Ophuls, tracking shots have promised elegance and romance, and at least since Touch of Evil they have shattered hopes of either one. At Alcázar, the camera leaves one suspended between those possibilities.

The video ends with a view of the painter, as if he has yet to pull the scene back together in some other future, perhaps in an altogether different way. But the work has many conceptions of past and future. It leaves one more convinced of its reality than a biopic like Girl with a Pearl Earring, as opposed to the real painting. It also leaves one far more aware of the game of dress-up that went into its making, into the making of the painting, and into the making of the lives within them both.

Slow-motion tragedy

Pontormo must seem an even less likely candidate for video's still moment. Approaching a dozen portraits on view in Philadelphia, I expected the disturbing chill of Mannerism's birth. His religious scenes still have the power to disturb me, with their electric blues, their slow-motion tragedy, and their faces, caught between bewilderment and terror. Their painted architecture often collides head-on with the reality of the frame and the painting's setting. Diagonals and gazes so often focus attention offstage, as if something terrifying were about to come into view.

One can see why they appeal to Bill Viola as well. Downstairs from the portraits, he offers a larger-than-life recreation of Pontormo's Visitation. On video, the dark magic of a god's birth in human form has given way only to terror and grief.

Pontormo, of course, anticipates it all, even more than his teacher, Andrea del Sarto. As with his fellow pupil, Rosso Fiorentino, his massive grouping of figures and the unnatural closeness of the street behind may convey intimacy, but they do everything possible to bar one from the characters' shared understanding. Faces show just a trace of distant smiles, enough to underplay the human story while conveying an eerie chill. The two rearmost women stare straight out, past the profiles of Mary and Elizabeth, while the light divides their faces vertically in two. Think of the challenge of black and white, profile and frontal features, in Picasso's women. Yet Pontormo feels the chill as just one part of a god's entrance into humanity.

Viola sees only one side of the equation. His video helps me better appreciate Sussman's insight into past art and present feelings. Both use actors to recreate paintings at a snail's pace, as if the scene could be taking place both today and nowhere at all. Both find the original enigmatic. The similarities end there, however. Not even Viola's operatic past prepared me for how mawkishly the new work beats one over the head.

Everything proclaims an existential crisis in capital letters. Where Sussman slips in and out of the lives of her actors and the illusion of the work of art, Viola plants the camera fixedly in front of the scene. Where Sussman hints at a world continuous with the image, Viola strips the Visitation down, as if even a fourth character would detract from its majesty. Where she gives plausibly ordinary motives to figures that have slipped into memory as iconic or grotesque, Viola fills the expectant mother and her cousin with sheer terror.

He slows things down nearly twice as much as she does. He also doubles her image's scale, pumps up even Pontormo's edgy colors, puffs up the clothing and motion with a heavy wind, and adds a disembodied voice repeating the obvious for good measure.

Angels and assassins

Ironically, Viola's latest five-screen epic, Five Angels for the Millennium, allows his pretensions a more naturalistic foundation. At the Whitney, he shoots five shadowy, barely intelligible acts from unpredictable angles, and his stern light turns drops of water into crystals worthy of Christmas tree ornaments. Yet, thankfully, there is no getting around their substance. Each actor is diving into water, not walking on it or drowning in it. If a five-screen video plays to the bleachers, at least it is not playing quite so hard for eternity.

Ironically, too, Pontormo's portraits show not a tormented genius but an heir to the High Renaissance and the Renaissance portrait. The artist's most dreamy portrait, once on long-term loan to the Frick and now at the Getty, does not in fact appear. Without it, his motifs and sobriety serve solely the interest of his sitters. He remains mainstream—or mercenary—enough to flatter first one Medici and then the assassin who replaced him.

One sees Pontormo's influence, too, as a stable connection with the past. About half the portraits in Philadelphia come from the hand of Bronzino, his pupil and later the leading Tuscan portraitist. At times, the younger artist's typically rounded, smooth chests and hands resemble porcelain. The selection, however, shows him at his closest to his master, with the palpable flesh that Pontormo, in turn, learned from Raphael and, especially, Michelangelo and Michelangelo drawings. In another Bronzino, from the National Gallery in Washington and once attributed to Pontormo, side windows echo the sitter's piercing eyes and high forehead. His evident intellect seems to belong to another world while condemning the viewer to a rough judgment in this one, and the older artist would definitely approve.

Also in the exhibition, portrait drawings by Pontormo show him as a craftsman, and, as drawings should, they give insight into his craft. They do not begin with the concern of many early Renaissance artists for anatomy or iconography, with Leonardo's obsessive cataloguing of experience, or with the impulsive line of artists from Parmigianino through the Baroque. Rather, they start with a gesture or two, enough to lead the artist toward a pose. Perhaps Pontormo makes a second, larger, more confident attempt on the same sheet. Once he has it, he overlays the light traces more heavily in chalk. In other words, he has small insights, and he builds on them slowly.

He also sends me back to his Visitation, in Florence, to discover with amazement how many changes he could ring on a familiar theme without obvious exaggeration. Painted around 1530, past the midpoint of his career, it draws on a rendering of four witches by Albrecht Dürer. It has the undertones of black magic, but also the gentle, pragmatic idealism of his northern model. Dürer groups his nude sorcerers so that the foreground figure has her butt to the viewer. Pontormo likewise emphasizes the sensual curve of Mary's rear end, the sole break in the heavy folds of her dark robe. Viola may ask one to reach out and touch, but he slaps one's fingers for trying.

Small insights definitely will not do for Viola. He feels the need to elevate everything above time and space. Sussman makes one feel that more is happening than even multiple perspectives in time and space can appreciate.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

I have no idea if and when Eve Sussman will regain pride of place at The Museum of Modern Art, but her photographs based on the video ran at Roebling Hall in Brooklyn through May 17, 2004. Bill Viola's "Five Angels for the Millenium" ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through March 6, 2005, and "The Greeting" ran at the Philadelphia Museum of Art along with "Pontormo, Bronzino, and the Medici: The Transformation of the Renaissance Portrait in Florence," through February 13.

 

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