Robert Breer: Animator

by Jackie Leger

Robert BreerRobert Breer
Courtesy of Anthology Film Archives

Robert Breer's career as artist and animator spans 50 years and his creative explorations have made him an international figure. He began his artistic pursuits as a painter while living in Paris from 1949-59. Using an old Bolex 16mm camera, his first films, such as Form Phases, were simple stop motion studies based on his abstract paintings.

Breer has always been fascinated by the mechanics of film. Perhaps his father's fascination with 3-D inspired Breer to tinker with early mechanical cinematic devices. His father was an engineer and designer of the legendary Chrysler Airflow automobile in 1934 and built a 3-D camera to film all the family vacations. After studying engineering at Stanford, Breer changed his focus toward hand crafted arts and began experimenting with flip books. These animations, done on ordinary 4" by 6" file cards have become the standard for all of Breer's work, even to this day.

Swiss Army Knife with Rats and Pigeons, Robert Breer, 1981
Courtesy of Robert Breer

Like many of his generation, Breer's early work was influenced by the various European modern art movements of the early 20th century, ranging from the abstract forms of the Russian Constructivists and the structuralist formulas of the Bauhaus, to the nonsensible universe of the Dadaists. Through his association with the Denise René Gallery, which specialized in geometric art, he saw the abstract films of such pioneers as Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, Walter Ruttman and Fernand Léger. Breer acknowledges his respect for this purist, "cubist" cinema, which uses geometric shapes moving in time and space. In 1955, he helped organize and exhibited in a show in Paris entitled "Le Mouvement" (The Movement), which paved the way for new cinema aesthetics. During this period, Breer also met the poet Alan Ginsberg and introduced him to his film Recreation (1956), which made use of frame-by-frame experiments in a non-narrative structure. Although Breer disdains being labeled a beatnik, the film does capture some aspects of beat poetry and music.

When Breer returned to the United States in the late 1950s, the American avant-garde was thriving and films by Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Peter Kubelka and Maria Menken were creating a new visionary movement. Breer found kindred spirits within the New York experimental scene. As Pop Art emerged as a phenomenon in the 1960s, Breer befriended Claes Oldenburg and others. He worked on the TV show, David Brinkley's Journal, filming pieces on art shows in Europe; at the same time, he made his debut documentary on the sculptor Jean Tinguely in 1961, Homage to Tinguely. Screened at the Museum of Modern Art, it reflects Breer's interest in mechanical forms and the fine art of moving sculpture; techniques he used in his work, as his own kinetic sculpture was sparked by Tinguely's keen interest in mechanical gadgets, kinetic movement and abstract forms.

Swiss Army Knife with Rats and PigeonsSwiss Army Knife with Rats and Pigeons, Robert Breer, 1981
Courtesy of Robert Breer

Breer was influenced by the new performance art and "happenings" making waves in the avant-garde of Europe and New York. He worked briefly with Claes Oldenburg and his performance pieces resulting in a 13 minute film, Pat's Birthday (1962). Breer also befriended artists like Nam June Paik, Charlotte Mormon and others exposed to the new trends in multimedia events.

While he was working on the film Fist Fight, he met Stockhausen, then working in Cologne on Originale, a performance piece. The composer's work soon came into vogue in American circles and he was asked to perform his piece in New York's Judson Hall in 1964. Breer presented Fist Fight as part of this performance, making the film a visual event in its own right.

Always whimsical, Breer soon developed a line technique related to the free form work of Swiss painter Paul Klee. Such short narrative pieces as A Man with his Dog Out for Air (1958) and Inner and Outer Space (1960) use the dynamics of drawing and line to capture the essence of humor and motion. Time and time again, he relies on the roots of simple techniques of pencils or 4 x 6 cards for inspiration. While Breer rarely uses conventional storytelling techniques, these films have a sense of the quick movements of a Tex Avery cartoon and the wit of an electric comic strip.

Historical Perspectives
Breer continued to search for historical perspectives in his work and discovered the color theories of Chevreul and Rood. He also began a series of minimalist pieces based on number series, which were nonfigurative and based on geometry and formal issues. 66, 69 and 70 rely on formalist images from his early research into color paintings.

A Frog on the Swing
A Frog on the Swing, Robert Breer, 1988
Courtesy of Robert Breer

The 1970s brought Breer into a more commercial world of animation and he worked for the Children's Television Workshop in 1971 doing animation for The Electric Company. His popular Gulls and Buoys relates back both to the poetry of William Carlos Williams and the early rotoscoping techniques devised by Max Fleischer back in 1916. Breer explored the latter method in order to give a live-action sense to the animated form. Disney and other commercial studios still use this method to animate reality-based scenes. With his new interest in technology, Breer was invited to Japan with other artists to work on the Pepsi Pavilion, making a set of mobile sculptures. While in Japan, he made Fuji, again using rotoscoping combined with Japanese textural imagery.

Returning to the United States, for his next work, LMNO (1978), he once again sought out historical references. A homage to one of the fathers of animation, Émile Cohl, it uses a simple French policeman as a main character. Cohl became famous for his Fantoche stick figure, which predated Mickey by 20 years. Using the simple technique of 4 x 6 index cards, this film used every imaginable technique from spray paint to pencils. His next film, TZ, continues this line of energetic experiments and is a portrait of his new living space then near the Tappan Zee bridge, in New York's Hudson River Valley. Breer often uses domestic imagery in his work, incorporating objects surrounding the artist to fantasy sequences using Polaroid photographs reworked with erasable marker pens. The compositions, as always on 4 x 6 index cards, are enhanced by kitchen clatter in a free stream of consciousness approach.

A Man and His Dog Out For AirAuthor's sketches of frames from Robert Breer's A Man and His Dog Out For Air
Courtesy of Robert Breer

Breer's work continued his experiments with various techniques and materials with Swiss Army Knife with Rats and Pigeons (1980), which again includes live-action and line techniques.

Raising a family throughout the 1980s, Breer began to work with what he considers "children's animation," resulting in A Frog on a Swing (1988), which is dedicated to his daughter. He also experimented with associative spontaneity in Trial Balloons, a metaphor for anything experimental.

In recent years, Breer continued to make one film per year. His Sparkill Ave! (1993) is a homey study on his new neighborhood using hundreds of still photographs, combined with index card drawings. As always, he prefers animation "close to home."

Today, Breer continues exploring animated forms while teaching animation at Cooper Union in New York City. When asked about his current work, he says that he still relies on the history of cinema and early "gadgets" as the source of his inspiration. His most recent work Now You See It (1996), now on exhibit at the American Museum of the Moving Image, in New York, uses a two sided panel which spins into an animated film much like a Thaumatrope, the first cinematic device that used persistence of vision back in 1826. Like two slides flipping back and forth, it is a continuous animation based on his explorations into the devices of cinema's early history (and prehistory), which dazzled audiences by creating visual kinesis.

At the heart of his work is the imagination of the artist mixed with the inquisitive mind of the mad scientist, delving into lost archives of cinema to revive forgotten art forms and giving them new life for generations to come. This is the secret to Breer's unique world.

Jackie Leger is a Santa Monica-based documentary filmmaker interested in the roots of American experimental film. Bob Breer can be reached at 80 Sparkill Ave., Tappan, N.Y. 10983. Fax (914) 365-3117.

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