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Stan VanDerBeek: Poemfield

Andrea Rosen Gallery
New York, New York
1 May–20 June 2015
Exhibit website: http://www.andrearosengallery.com/exhibitions/stan–vanderbeek_2015–05–01.

Reviewed by Maureen Nappi
Long Island University


The exhibition Stan VanDerBeek Poemfield installed at the Andrea Rosen Gallery this summer showcased Stan VanDerBeek's pioneering computer artwork in print as well as in the moving image. In the first of the two–room gallery hung a small selection of related computer graphic prints on paper tastefully matted and framed. The second room, curtained off from the first, revealed an airy and immersive environment of radiant luminescence emanating from VanDerBeek's Poemfield (1966–1971), a series of eight computer animations. This installation screened six of the eight films from the series, which were once again, digitized and projected on each of the room's four walls including: Poemfield No. 3, Poemfield No. 5, and Poemfield No. 7 along with newly restored high definition versions of Poemfield No. 1, Poemfield No. 1 (blue version) and Poemfield No. 2. Thus, posthumously fulfilling VanDerBeek's original design for the Poemfield series as a multiple screen installation.

During his lifetime, VanDerBeek incorporated the Poemfield series into two of his sound and image environments. The first, Movie–Drome, was a former grain silo dome in Stony Point, New York that VanDerBeek turned into a spherical theater that he referred to as his "infinite projection screen." Once the viewers entered the dome through a trap door in the floor, they were encouraged to spread out in a circular formation by lying on the ground with their feet pointing to the center of the space so as maximize their experience of the moving image and sound surrounding them. The second, Cine–Dreams, was described by VanDerBeek as an eight–hour "myth/process/magic/theatre event" sectioned into 90 minute segments to emulate REM sleep patterns.

VanDerBeek first began working on Poemfield, among other animated films and holographic experiments, in the mid 1960s with the computer scientist and physicist Kenneth Knowlton at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Throughout Poemfield's creation, VanDerBeek and Knowlton collaborated utilizing Knowlton's computer program BEFLIX (short for Bell Flicks). The title Poemfield described the mosaic visual of the images produced by the program. Each film in the series was determined by the particular subroutine system utilized as a new set of punch cards were feed into the IBM 7094 and output to a Smith Carlson microfilm plotter. The microfilm was then transferred to 16mm film, delivered to a film lab to be colorized on an optical printer, and finally edited either with or without sound.

A visionary wordsmith, VanDerBeek made images out of words and words out of images–both of which were constructed out of mosaic patterns–as words appeared in multiple sizes over either a solid colored or animated mosaic background. So as to provide a sampling of the films in the Poemfield series shown in this exhibition, a descriptive analysis of two films, one silent and one with sound is provided below. The first, the silent Poemfield No. 3 (1967) reveals its title in a stammering staccato style, which is followed by word segments of its poetic structure:


NO 3

Likewise, the sound film Poemfield No.5 (1968) presents a colorized red sky filling the screen as the sound soars on high. Two white spheres float into the frame as one is revealed to be the helmet of skydiver. The spheres also suggest the movement of planets moving through the stratosphere. The soundtrack continues to be eerily high–pitched and extraterrestrial–as the full body of one of the skydiver floats center frame. A second skydiver is revealed holding hands with the first skydiver as they float in mid–air on a red and blue–sky background with an off–center grid overlaid. An on–screen text is displayed "FREE FALL" as a voice recites the same. More skydivers float in close proximity to the previous pair as they all become smaller is the frame–moving further from the camera and closer to the ground. The visual poem continues as the following text is seen on screen, illustrated by the image and heard on the sound track:


Poemfield No.5 most effectively coheres and frightens as it brings us closer to one of our most instinctively felt human fears–that of falling. In this case, over a mostly blood red colorized background the sense of fear is extenuated as the words, graphics and image surprisingly inversely coalesce into a liberatory sense of freedom.

The Poemfield installation at the Andrea Rosen Gallery was well curated and meticulously simulated VanDerBeek's original screening designs by providing numerous beanbag chairs on which the viewers could lie down in order to engage in VanDerBeek's immersive image and sound environment. As this reviewer had lain on the floor in the center of the room while pivoting circularly around the room to maximize an experience previously only read about, a realization occurred that this was a once in a lifetime experience and an experience like none other.

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