Landmark advances in video-projection technology led to 'the new painting'

By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, September 5, 2010


Around 1425, in Flanders, oil paint came on the scene. Within 50 years, there was Leonardo da Vinci and his amazing effects of light and space.

On Sept. 11, 1841, in Washington, John Goffe Rand patented squeezable tubes that made oil paints portable. By the 1870s, we had Claude Monet and his outdoor "impressions."

On Sept. 27, 1988, Kodak introduced its LC500, the first compact video projector. Two decades later, we're seeing the apotheosis of video art. Some of today's most adventurous artists -- Douglas Gordon, Gillian Wearing, Stan Douglas -- could not be who they are if they could not project their art.

It's not a huge stretch to say that projected video is the one great art form that is truly of our time.

Right now, in an art center called Site Santa Fe, one of the country's few biennials of international contemporary art is completely devoted to video, almost all of it projected.

In Washington, the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum is trumpeting the fifth anniversary of its basement Black Box space, which is dedicated to video projections. Celebrations include the announcement of an upcoming move to bigger, posher quarters that will have room for multi-screen works. Pending that move, Black Box just launched a riveting projection of a McDonald's as it floods, by the Danish collective known as Superflex; upstairs, one of the Hirshhorn's permanent-collection galleries is featuring a projection of a day at the North Pole, by Dutchman Guido van der Werve. Down the Mall at the Sackler Gallery, part of the national museum of Asian art, curators are about to launch a major show of Fiona Tan, a Dutch Indonesian who works in projection. And up in Bethesda on Wednesday night, the city's Trawick Prize was, for the first time, awarded for projected art.

At the back of my daybook, I keep an ever-changing list of the contemporary artists I'm most interested in. Right now, two-thirds of them use projectors.

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The standard Genesis myth for video art centers on the arrival of Sony's lightweight "Portapak" recorder, in 1967, and the monitors it filled with art. Bill Viola, a 59-year-old Californian who counts as the Godfather of Video, describes first getting his hands on a Portapak in 1970, on an icy pavement in Syracuse, N.Y., where he was in college: "I dropped it, actually."

But I believe that 20 years later, when video made the switch from monitors to projection, the form was reborn. Its rebirth brought new life to all contemporary art.

With the older, more static mediastill used by today's artists , I always have a nagging feeling that a lot of what I like today recycles older work I also like. I admire the clothes-hanger sculpture of Dan Steinhilber, one of Washington's best artists. But I can't help notice that Man Ray conceived something pretty close back in 1920. When it comes to my favorite video art, however, the precedents are barely there.

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