Non-Objective Film: The Second Generation

by William Moritz

CVM NOTE: This early text by Moritz contains some assumptions and statements which, after further research, he regarded as incorrect and thus later published a different account.

Wholly non-objective film work has received little sensitive appreciation or detailed critical attention, probably because of the difficulty in establishing a viable verbal language to describe the multitude of colour, forms and textures, juxtapositions, movements and gestures which make up the very essence of these films. Even the names commonly used for the genre each have their drawbacks ('abstract' implies incorrectly that the imagery is imitated and refined from some 'representational' source, 'non-objective' seems to embroil one in the tautology of defining 'subjective' and 'objective', etc). We badly need an extensive critical history of non-objective film, including a verbal-visual glossary linking hundreds of stills from the films with precise descriptive terms. But until such a work has been produced, I will of necessity fill my following discussion of non-objective film (occasionally using 'abstract' for stylistic variation) with critical and descriptive vocabulary derived from painting, dance, poetry and music, without meaning to imply that the film-maker under discussion was imitating those sister arts, or would even approve of having such terms borrowed and applied to the work.

One is always tempted, when trying to impose some order or shape on the sizeable literature of non-objective films, to establish the surviving works of pioneer film-makers of the 20s as role-models for the directions in later film-making. Among the dangers of this approach are: (1) that it supports the questionable custom of honouring primacy, (2) that it tends to gloss over the essential primitiveness of much of the pioneer work, (3) that it suggests and maintains connections or influences where none may have existed historically, and (4) that it tends to confuse rather than clarify some essential aesthetic issues by supplying similar rationale or structure to what may be only superficially similar visual effects.

Hans Richter, that Pope of Prolepsis, is responsible for stressing the value of primacy, seeking, I suspect, to give his own films some importance beyond their intrinsic merits by continually citing (and by adding titles to the films themselves) early dates (not clearly certified by contemporary documents) for his own films, while mentioning later dates (which can be proved by contemporary documents to be considerably too late) for the films of his 'rivals', notably Ruttmann and Fischinger. His claims are in vain for several reasons. In no case did Richter make the first abstract film, as the idea had been in the air for at least a decade before it reached Richter. Not counting the pure abstract 'reels' for zoetropes, praxinoscopes and other 'philosophical toys' from the previous century, or the 'colour organ' tradition (discussed elsewhere in this catalogue), we know that the Futurist Italians Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra produced half-a-dozen colour non-objective films between 1910 and 1912, apparently by painting directly on the film material, and separately Hans Stoltenberg in Germany also made a hand-painted abstraction in 1911 and wrote a complex theoretical text (published in 1920) about the aesthetics of his experiments. We know that painters like Kandinsky and Malevich, and painter-musician Sch๖nberg made considerable plans for experimental/abstract films but were unable to realize them technologically, and Russian painter Leopold Survage, a darling of the Cubist painter set in Paris, actually prepared, between 1912 and 1914, more than 100 beautiful sequential color drawings, but despite publicity by Cendrars and Apollinaire, was unable to get the backing to have them photographed.

All of this serves to focus on yet another related problem: preservation and distribution of films. That we have only fragmentary black-and-white silent prints of Ruttmann's originally hand-coloured films which had musical accompaniment must not hinder our appraisal of Ruttmann's achievement — and screenings and prints of his films should be prefaced by a notice admitting that the currently known prints may not even contain excerpts from three different films at all since the various sources for the fragments are equivocal, and what we see now are certainly not like the original, substantially longer films Ruttmann showed in the 20s. That there are no prints in general distribution of the lovely abstract films of Henri Chomette and Germaine Dulac, nor any surviving prints of Eggeling's Horizontal-Vertical Orchestra or Ruttmann's Opus I or the early stereo experiments of Marcel Duchamp or Henri Stork's first hand-painted abstract films must not let us forget their pioneer achievements.

On the other hand, the primitiveness of many of the early abstract films, while understandable, is too often ignored. Ruttmann's Opus fragments, even in their depleted condition, are brilliantly executed and essentially cinematic in conception, but were it not for Eggeling's visual intelligence, Diagonal Symphony would be hopelessly boring. The primitiveness of Richter's Rhythm film(s) is too often mistaken for minimalism (something not found elsewhere in Richter's painting or theories) and the roughness of execution, which must be excused beforehand in order to watch the film(s) at all, seems to de-sensitize us and mask the fact that this film dedicated to rhythm is actually erratic, un-rhythmic, and badly organized. (1)

In any case, Richter's achievement in his Rhythm experiments must be evaluated dispassionately, treating the film as a pure art object in its own right, free from propaganda about primacy and free from the soundtracks added later. On these grounds Richter's films seem far less satisfactory than those of Eggeling and Ruttmann.

I am now able to pursue an analogy between the pioneers and the abstract film-makers of later generations with an awareness of the inherent problems, and hopefully arrive at an enriched understanding of the unique and varied achievements of each artist.


Ruttmann's Opus films, to judge by surviving fragments, express a dynamic, romantic unfolding of pictorial non-objective drama. The fragments labelled as Opus II and Opus III (but perhaps from the same film) are painted on glass (with the exception of one brief shot of a three-dimensional model mentioned later) which allows them great organic fluidity, while Opus IV seems made primarily with cut-outs and drawn hard-edged images that produce sharp, Op-art effects.

Ruttmann is continually aware of the screen both as a shallow pictorial surface like a canvas, and as the illusory space of representational conflict. He causes the frame edge to contract and pulsate, and often outlines his image with a rectangular dark border reminiscent of a picture frame, so that the viewer is kept conscious of the projection as a vehicle. He further plays with the viewer's reflexive sensitivity in such scenes as the sequence in Opus II in which a cluster of circles, without changing through animation, seem to pulsate slightly backwards and forwards, implying a change of the projection mechanism or the viewer's perspective on a static object; but then suddenly the circles yield to a vivid animated transformation which reinforces the first questioning, as does a later 'musical' repetition of the whole sequence. In another reflexive scene (from Opus III) the multi-layered image shows vertical dark bars surrounded by obviously drawn semicircular forms that seem to slide up and down the sides of the bars while 'behind' this action the density of the luminosity changes as if some distant doors were being opened and closed; then suddenly we see a similar image (three vertical bars with protruding circular shapes) but derived from photographed three-dimensional forms (a stick with a kaolin coil twisted around it) in clear contrast to the 'flat' forms surrounding it.

Ruttmann plays with a full range of optical ambiguities — from planning the painted animation steps of a shrinking phallic shape so that it implies a tunnel behind the figure, to using in-set sub-screens, to the brilliant Op-art effects of Opus IV in which expanding horizontals imply twisting Venetian blinds, and the flickering shapes produce colour after-images on their edges, and positive/negative matting presses the role of the film-maker as manipulator into the fore.

Ruttmann formulates his graphic artistry into a continuum based on analogies with music and drama. The gestures of his figures — gliding, pulsing, dripping, swelling, flickering, etc. — occur in sequences and rhythms that rival the organic complexity and disciplined textural variety of symphonic orchestral music, with themes and 'melodies' repeating and changing in variations of speed and density; with harmony and counterpoint of shape (and perhaps even colour in the original). The figures, though non-objective (except for the inset wave image which is of questionable position in relationship to the Opus films), seem to enact conflicts and crises, amorous rapports and adventurous transformations — for example, the glowing, rounded sensuous shapes erotically cradling and penetrating and erecting themselves are clearly attacked by the opaque black squared and pointed shapes that jut in from the top of the frame and drive them out the bottom. But Ruttmann's drama seems never literary or referential, but rather exploratory in a 'science fiction' realm where waves can flow up-hill.

Of all the early non-objective films, Ruttmann's have the clearest lineage of direct influence, although his films, even in their currently-known fragmentary and inauthentic (as to colour and music) state, were generally unavailable. The 'medium' for the transmission of Ruttmann's achievement was his younger compatriot, Oskar Fischinger, who was so impressed by Ruttmann's Opus I that he immediately set about making his own abstract films. Of all the early pioneers, Fischinger alone pursued non-objective film-making until the post-World-War-II period, and since he emigrated to America in 1936, he brought the living force of abstraction to a younger generation that included the Whitney brothers, Jordan Belson and Harry Smith.

Though certainly never a pupil or co-worker of Ruttmann's (as Richter claims), Fischinger chose to develop many of the themes and styles implied by Ruttmann's Opus films. Fischinger loved to work with rich, intricate images, and used his fascination with technical innovation to produce, in dozens of different animation media, some forty films in which the articulation of imagery and dynamics is remarkably fluid and complex. Like Ruttmann, Fischinger treated the screen alternately as a flat, canvas-like surface and as an arena for magical illusion. Like Ruttmann, Fischinger chose painting, music and drama as his triple aesthetic role models, mixing the three together to form very enjoyable and abidingly successful theatrical entertainments.

One of the new elements we find in Fischinger's films (though since Ruttmann animated sequences for Wegener's feature Lebende Buddhas, perhaps not entirely new) is a continuing interest in eastern mysticism and western hermetic thought — something Fischinger shared with Kupka, Kandinsky, Mondrian and other non-objective painters. From at least the late 20s, Fischinger focused the romantic drama in his compositions on mystical, contemplative, and speculative-scientific icons, transforming Ruttmann's erotic interchanges into Tantric encounters, and filling his best films (e.g. Study No. 6, Liebesspiel, Komposition in Blau, Radio Dynamics, and Motion Painting) with non-objective suggestions of galaxies, comets and rockets, cells and atom splitting, and mandalas, yin-yang swirls and third-eye images.

Fischinger began to use tight synchronization between his visuals and musical soundtracks as a helpful analogy for audiences who, in the 20s and 30s, were still somewhat astonished by and antagonistic towards abstract art. Fischinger never intended to illustrate music, but rather hoped that the viewer, reminded that music is really abstract 'noise' with a 1000-year artistic tradition behind it, would more easily be able to relate to his graphics. Unfortunately the plan backfired, and his films became widely misinterpreted as illustrations of music. While his silent films (including Liebesspiel and Radio Dynamics) were never screened publicly in later years, his pop-classical shorts played frequently and became identified with the sort of kitsch culture of Disney's Fantasia and Mary Ellen Bute's Radio City Music Hall novelties. The younger generation of West Coast American film-makers, while deeply impressed by Fischinger's visual and technical mastery, was offended by his soundtracks and hence overlooked the mystical wisdom discussed in his films. Ironically, the best three film-makers of this group, James Whitney, Jordan Belson and Harry Smith, are all deeply mystical themselves, and each privately re-discovered much of the spiritual territory Fischinger had already explored.

The closest to Fischinger of these younger artists is Jordan Belson, who turned from non-objective painting to film-making after seeing Fischinger's films at the Art in Cinema festival at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1946. In those years, Belson, living in North Beach near City Lights Bookshop, was part of the exciting movement publicized as the Beat Generation — full of Dizzy Gillespie's jazz, marijuana and Zen Buddhism. Belson's early films exhibited an extraordinary joie de vivre as well as considerable technical ingenuity and the exquisite sense of colour, form and movement that also distinguishes his later films.

To take two examples from these early films, Bop Scotch consists of single-frame images of objects on ordinary sidewalks, but photographed so carefully in such a well-planned sequence that the objects seem to assume living form, moving and flowing into one another (which foreshadows Hirsh's Defense d'Afflicher and Conner's Looking for Mushrooms), something that strongly suggests the Buddhist respect for the spiritual identity of all matter, but which could easily be accepted as a McLaren-like romp. Raga consists of beautiful, complex patterns which were painted on scrolls and planned in such a way that while the scroll was unrolled and drawn past a kaleidoscope in real time, the circular multiplication of the image by the mirrors created an ever-metamorphosing mandala. Again, even though this film exhibits a wide range of astonishing and spiritually moving images (including quick disappearances of images to produce lingering after-images, and bi-directional movement of circles both imploding and exploding at the same time), Belson felt that the basic kaleidoscope technique was too obvious, and tended to make the film appreciable as a technical rather than spiritual phenomenon. It took considerable courage and artistic integrity for Belson to withdraw these films from circulation.

In the late 50s, he collaborated with the electronic composer Henry Jacobs to produce the Vortex Concerts at Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco — a prototype for later light-show work. Jacobs arranged electronic scores by various composers, and Belson prepared multi-projector non-objective visuals using filmed materials by James Whitney, Hy Hirsh and himself. The experience of these light-shows, coupled with his growing spiritual devotion and mastery, caused Belson to withdraw his early films from circulation (because they imperfectly expressed his spiritual ideas, he felt), and to go into seclusion while he perfected a new non-animation, real-time system for image production (including grids, reflections, re-photography and other light-show devices), and a new expertise with recording equipment that allowed him to compose his own electronic scores for his films. Starting with Allures (1961), Belson began producing his Great Work, a series of films, continuing to the present, which establishes a personal audio-visual language — a goal that Eggeling and Fischinger had already longed for; but though Fischinger laid his personal stamp upon certain visual elements like the comet-crescent and the concentric circle alignment, no other non-objective film-maker has successfully developed an articulate non-verbal language to the extent or complexity of Belson.

The first ten films of his series function as definitions and expositions of certain phenomena, experiences and concepts — largely focused on mystical-spiritual and speculative-scientific issues (like Fischinger, but entirely independent of him).(2) In his most recent two films, Cycles and Music of the Spheres, Belson has begun to discuss and interbreed his ideas — using, for example, a brief clip from Light to signify perceptual phenomena or light-energy transmission, a bit of Chakra to signify some point in raising consciousness through kundalini yoga, a glimpse of Samadhi for ecstasy, etc. — but blending them together in new combinations, mixing them with new imagery (sometimes live-action shots modulated through video mix or optical printing) to produce completely fresh insights. Cycles is dominated by a recurrent 'new' image of liquid matter swirling very slowly with one 'drop' or particle breaking away and rising from the main body (concomitantly suggesting a yin-yang icon). Every time it recurs, this cycle is given a different visual quality and is matted with other information (including signifier 'quotes' from the preceding members of the series). Gradually it yields an invocation of the four elements of classical alchemy — earth, air, water and fire — each with a characteristic texture (e.g. square grid for earth, etc.) and each evolving into a mixture or blend with the next through integrative imagery (e.g., a circle of sky-divers = earth through air, and later, by juxtaposition with the circle/sun icon, = earth through air and water making fire, etc). Having attempted to describe Belson's films, it should be admitted that one characteristic of a non-verbal language, of course, is that it can express and discuss things which cannot easily, or at all, be expressed in words, and indeed one of Belson's professed motivations for making non-objective films is to transcribe and communicate mystic visions and states of consciousness he has experienced in his spiritual exercises and cannot communicate otherwise.

Belson uses every cinematic device — sound and visual — to portray his concepts, and he manages to charge each device with undeniable and special meaning. Allures, for example, is structured in three parts, an opening optical invocation (in which a series of visual ambiguities and illusions 'exercise' the eyes and visual processing center of the brain, cf. the bodily exercises of yoga), a sequence of hard-edged Fischinger-like animations (accompanied by echoes of nostalgic music from the European cultural heritage) which serves as an 'earthly' preface to the dynamic energies and electronic sounds of the main body of futuristic, nuclear-cosmic imagery. Within this structure, Belson weaves a network of visual phenomena which refer back and forth to each other. The after-images from streaking figures or colour flickers — including the black circle described by the rolling, shrinking bar (which itself flickers appealingly in movement through a 'hitch' in our persistence of vision, the very foundation of cinematic illusion) become part of a network of positive/negative space/time phenomena — for which the meaning, like the 'unreal' fluorescent colours in the off-on flickering disc, are spontaneously generated in the mind of the viewer. Belson manages to integrate even the black/'silent' (in Cage's sense) spaces between his visual phrases, with dwindling after-images that lead to reflexive contemplation of the viewer/self as instrument vs. performer; and he interrupts some of Allures' most sentient moments with raw reminders of the nature of the film's material process — like the scratch into the film emulsion which appears (wittily accompanied by a giggle from the pop surfing song Wipe Out) during the black section that divorces the exercise-preface from the second, 'earthly' sequence, which in turn is echoed by a rough break in the film's negative during the most intense activity near the film's end, thus, like the cracks in raku pottery, keeping us from surrendering to the ease of formulated surface beauty.

Harry Smith, who shared the San Francisco Beat Generation and Art in Cinema background with Belson, also developed, separately from Fischinger and Belson, a mystical bent which manifested itself in a series of seven non-objective films; however, Smith's are quite distinct from Fischinger's, Belson's and James Whitney's in a number of basic ways. Smith is intensely involved with magic, alchemy and kabbala, and in the spirit of the Great Work, made his first films by painting and dyeing directly on the film surface (cf. Len Lye, discussed elsewhere in this catalogue) with remarkable intricacy and multi-layered conglomerations of shapes and colours that indeed seem like alchemical meldings. In his first film (3) Smith uses some quasi-representational icons that recall the erotic and Tantric images of Ruttmann and Fischinger. The other six films are purely geometrical. Film No. 2 and Film No. 3 are vivid batiks (colour applied directly to the film strip, but with tape, oil and wax used to layer and direct the pattern of the colours) with circular mandalas, intersecting grids and bars, and triangle-wedges piercing through the frame. The richness and unique textured variety of colour, and the complexity of animation design (truly frame by frame) is dazzling — more dramatic than anything Len Lye or Norman McLaren have done in similar paint-on-film technique — and rivals Fischinger's intricate animation in films like Composition in Blue, Allegretto, Optical Poem and Radio Dynamics for which Fischinger used layers of cel paintings and complicated 3-D objects. Smith's Film No. 4, in black-and-white, was made by moving the hand-held camera (this was the era of gestural abstraction) around static light sources (lamps and windows) to produce a sensation of their flying about in a void — very much like Fischinger's black-and-white Studies in result if not in mode of composition, and foreshadowing Marie Menken's and Stan Brakhage's experiments with handheld camera in later decades. Film No. 5 (titled specifically 'Homage to Oskar Fischinger', and the only one of Smith's abstractions still titled) combines colour footage similar to Film No. 4 with animated circles like those in Fischinger's Kreise. Film No. 6 was shot in anaglyphic stereo, the red and green colours signifying ending and beginning in alchemical lore (cf. Duchamp's Moustiques Domestique Demistock), and is similar to Film No. 7, which contains very intricate, multi-layered images re-photographed by repeated rear-screen projection to build up elaborate constructs reminiscent of Kandinsky's later geometric paintings, moving in a vibrant, organic, truly symphonic interlacing.

Smith exploits few of the optical-kinetic devices used by Fischinger and Belson (and the Whitney brothers), but rather relies on the overt painterly qualities of his imagery, much like Ruttmann in his Opus 2 and Opus 3 or, more directly, like Fischinger in his Motion Painting. However, Smith gains a reflexive perspective in the hand-drawn films by their very raw, non-photographed look (cf. Man Ray), and in Film No. 7, one of the masterpieces of non-objective cinema, the soft luminescence of the re-photographed images reminds us continually that we are watching a movie of a movie, like reflections in parallel mirrors, opening the aggressively flat screen into a conceptual infinity.

Apparently Smith composed his non-objective films with no specific music in mind (although he was frequently inspired by Dizzy Gillespie's jazz), as pure visual 'music' with certain rhythms and phrasings inherent in the flow of imagery. He encourages people to play any compatible music along with the films, a freedom Hy Hirsh also planned for some of his abstract movies. This casual, aleatory approach to soundtrack seems entirely appropriate to Smith's rough, vigorous hand-made imagery, as well as his gestural camera work; however, one must demand silence if not some music as intricate and bewitching as the glowing veil of illusion Smith makes out of the re-photographed material in his last non-objective films.

After Film No. 7, Smith launched a second series of seven films, this time largely representational, surrealistic collages (cf. Max Ernst and Larry Jordan) dealing overtly with Buddhist and alchemical imagery. Looking at these delicate, precious, precisely symbolic cut-out films, clearly made with thousands of hours of purposefully directed, ritualistidy controlled work, we are not only impressed with their wonderful, bizarre ceremony, but also reminded of the incredible looseness and visionary spontaneity of his earlier abstractions which surely required the same amount of labour to produce, but which seem by comparison like the impulsive and joyous sketches of an ecstatic revelation — very different from Belson's majestic (though no less joyous) vision.


The romantic(4) expansiveness of the Ruttmann tradition finds its parallel in the rigorous, classical films of Viking Eggeling and his successors. Though Eggeling's first film, Horizontal-Vertical Orchestra seems lost, we can judge from the surviving scroll drawings that it must have been substantially similar in concept to Diagonal Symphony, which, as I mentioned earlier, seems basically remarkably un-cinematic. While oriental scrolls with their flowing landscapes and sprawling adventure stories perhaps approximate a long pan shot in film, implying a travelling viewer who wanders through an unfolding episode, the sequential images Eggeling [and Richter] drew on his scrolls usually imply only minor changes in essentially static objects — more like the viewer touring a one-man show of serial graphics.

In Eggeling's work, the 'drama' — the conflict of radically different elements and dynamic change — dear to Ruttmann and his tradition, seems almost entirely absent. Eggeling chooses only painting and music for his aesthetic role-models, and instead of the passionate Romantic symphonic music of Ruttmann, Fischinger and Belson, or the catchy organic jazz of Fischinger and Smith, or even the measured Baroque music of some of Fischinger, Eggeling obviously favored the restrained (albeit adventurous) and logical modern neo-classicism of Busoni and Stravinsky, or perhaps the rigorous atonal music and nascent 12-tone works of Sch๖nberg and his Viennese school which were creating riots at Berlin performances during Eggeling's time.

In Diagonal Symphony we see on the screen a few given shapes, each of which performs basically only one gesture — either an expansion/contraction or an incremental revelation, sometimes with substitution or alternation of similar parts, almost like Deco neon light displays. Within this spare given, Eggeling fashions a fascinating and prodigious event. The forms consist of compound, repetitive elements which function like chords in music — a comb-like object has three, then five, then seven 'teeth'; an aggregate of graduated curvilinear shapes appear and disappear (or rather are disclosed and concealed) one by one. Choral pairs of 'combs' and 'harps' grow and shrink in size, perfectly coordinated so that they imply an exchange of energy or a recession/approach in intensity, not just as in iliusionislic visual perspective (for the static, centered image-field tends to remain firmly a pictorial surface) but as a sforzando or diminuendo in sound. Parallel forms and repetitive gestures suggest harmonies and rhythms, while the reversals and inversions of shapes recall musical variations, and the relative size and complexity of shapes implies alteration in musical volume, tone colour, and orchestral texture. But this musical analogy remains merely an analogy. Eggeling's image is absolutely and uncompromisingly a flat, framed, non-representational drawing which rejects and defies any musical accompaniment. It exists and performs austerely (but gloriously) in its own right, not referring to anything else, not even the cinematic process which seems almost incidentally its vehicle.

One wonders what kind of further films Eggeling might have made had he lived longer. Perhaps we can speculate by reference to some of the film-makers who seem to have taken parallel paths to Eggeling's.

It seems likely that Oskar Fischinger's earliest films, the Wax Experiments and Orgelstไbe, were conceived as series since half-a-dozen different versions of each survives, and certainly the 16 films in his later black-and-white Studies group constitute a formal series, each one tackling a slightly different visual issue (e.g., Studie No. 7 illusion of deep pictorial space, Studie No. 9 streaking afterimages, Liebesspiel the eye movement of the viewer in relationship to the frame-edge, etc.) while the basic imagery and format remains largely the same. Fischinger also planned to make a full series of colour Lichtonzert films (of which Komposition in Blau was the first, and perhaps An Optical Poem can be seen as a second), and a full series of Motion Painting films. Fischinger may have derived this idea from Eggeling (whom he idolized as much as Ruttmann) since it seems basically antithetical to his own effusive and droll personality. Perhaps, then, Eggeling might (like Mondrian in painting or Belson and James Whitney in film) have simply continued his Horizontal-Vertical Orchestra and Diagonal Symphony series with other films (Lateral Trio, Imploding Rondo, or whatever) in a similarly rigorous and austere musico-pictorial vein.

The Whitney brothers, growing up in Pasadena, a suburb of Los Angeles, were attracted to Fischinger's visual inventiveness but rejected on theoretical grounds (like Harry Smith) his use of specific known music (which automatically suggests subservient illustration) and his reliance on traditional animation which requires an enormous gap of time between conception and realization of work and finally seems too dependent on traditional painting as opposed to cinematic potential.

Their series of Five Film Exercises (1943-4) successfully overcame all these problems while producing, perhaps because of this aesthetic caution, one of the most radically original audio-visual manifestations ever devised. John's interest in music, especially the influence of Sch๖nberg (who was then resident in Los Angeles) and James' interest in graphics combined to formulate a serial composition, in the tradition of Eggeling's and Fischinger's series, with each Exercise offering a subtle new variation on the same basic materials. The sounds were composed with an elaborate pendulum mechanism invented especially to 'write' out in a controlled fashion synthetic sounds, which we now have come to recognize as electronic music, but which at that time, before the perfection of recording tape, seemed revolutionary and shocking. The visual images were equally astounding, for they recorded, for the first time, pure direct light (regulated, formed and transformed by mattes and masks) rather than the reflected light usually photographed from drawings or other objects. The visual imagery is as rigorous and refined as Eggeling's, but considerably more dynamic and cinematically conceived, with large, hard-edged simple geometric shapes gliding in and out of focus, flickering, modulating one into another, clustering in layers and overlapping to add their glowing, neon-like colours together. Every inch of the screen is planned as part of a field of action, and each gesture or motion choreographed for a specific optical effect and a specific structural trope. The visual composition, like serial music, is constructed of themes and variations, inversions and clusters, but the nature of the optical phenomena — flickers, alternating figures and reversing colour balances etc. allows unexpected (for the viewer!) subtleties and dynamics, so that a shrinking object may once evoke a deep-space perspective and a few moments later aggressively refuse to be perceived as anything but a shape decreasing in size on a flat pictorial surface. The soundtrack is equally and similarly complex and subtle, while the rapport between music and visual image is marvelously involved and continually intriguing — sometimes pulling into precise synchronization and other times interacting in dramatic counterpoint.

After this monumental masterpiece (recognized by a major prize in the first Brussels Experimental Film Competition, 1949), the two brothers began working separately. John pursued his interest in music and technology through, among other things, a series of films made in real-time photography of calligraphic gestures through layers of coloured oil (the same oil-wipe technique employed by Hy Hirsh in his Chasse des Touches) to precise synchronization with jazz and classical music. Then he took up important pioneer experimentation with computer graphics. John finds in the computer an instrument through which he can relatively quickly compose more complicated imagery than he could easily execute by hand, and in his later films — Osaka, the Matrix series, and Arabesque — he has explored theoretical musical and mathematic issues like harmonics and the relationship between certain architectonic, ornamental motifs and the gestures or transformations implied by their variations (cf. Fischinger's Studie No. 11 and Ornament Sound).

One of John's best films, Matrix III, is a pure loop, beginning and ending with the same image — a black-and-white scene of tiny 'circles' (later seen to be the tops of hexagonal cylinders) circulating around a Lissajous-curve loop-circuit (the matrix). John makes this matrix-circuit play a major role in the film by the after-image streaks of the moving figures. The first scene after the titles shows white hexagons of graduated sizes circulating around the matrix, but now the diversity in dimensions and over-lapping of the hexagons creates an M. C. Escher-like illusion of constantly changing structures full of improbable corners and perspective liaisons. In later sequences, triangles and ribbon-like alignments of parallel vertical lines perform around the same matrix, each creating an entirely different sensation of movement and an individual type of harmonic configuration — e.g., the triangles appear to change size or recede as they move and overlap to form illusionistic harmonic pyramids, while the 'ribbons' of lines seem to 'drip' and surge like water as they move. Each primary geometric shape —circle/point, line, square, and triangle — functions like a variation on the given matrix theme, and at some points John uses long dissolves to emphasize the arbitrariness of the variation. Each sequence is seen first in black-and-white, and then in one or more primary colours which act as non-decorative elements in a variation and thus serve to heighten our contemplation of the theoretical issues involved. The soundtrack music by Terry Riley, though somewhat lusher in orchestral texture than the corresponding purist visual imagery might imply, is based on a comparable principle of looped constituent units and quasi-aleatory harmonics so it provides a suitable meditative background.

James has spent the 34 years since the Film Exercises working on only five films: Yantra, Lapis, and a recent trilogy, Dwija (an introductory invocation-logo, related to the Ouroboros in the earlier films), Wu Ming, a film which is nearly complete at the time of this writing (Spring 1979), and a third film which is completely designed but not yet in active production. Throughout these films, James has maintained the exacting discipline visible in Eggeling and promised by the Film Exercises, while at the same time managing to incorporate some of the ravishing sensuousness associated with Fischinger, Belson and Smith, which makes his oeuvre perhaps the supreme achievement of this genre of film-making.

Like Fischinger, Belson and Smith, James is deeply involved with mystical, spiritual and speculative-scientific issues. For Yantra and Lapis, he reduced the basic materials of the films to the dot and the pure colour frame — the smallest (and largest) unit of perception in pure graphics, but also the aether of Hindu/Buddhist and alchemical theory. Out of these minimal building blocks, he carefully constructs some of the most splendid and awesome but transcendentally reflexively involving of sequences.

'Yantra' means 'machine' in Sanskrit, and though usually implying a meditational aid (like a mandala, rosary or prayer wheel) may also refer to the Great Cosmic Machine — the elemental manifestations of energy which fragments, coalesces and seemingly differentiates to produce the illusion of our visible world. James' film answers to both these criteria, for it induces and aids a meditation on the nature of reality and the generation of matter — which can as well be contemplated in a scientific framework as fertilization/cell-division or nuclear fission and fusion, or in the alchemical context as the boiling up of the elements in the Grail. Or — and this is crucial — as a purely aesthetic visual communication divorced from any extrinsic knowledge.

The repeated accelerating flickers between black and white or solid colour frames photo-kinetically induce an alpha meditative state. Into the climax of these generative alternations of spectral opposites, the dots enter and enact movements which are as carefully 'choreographed' in the sense of purely visual 'music' as had been the imagery in the Film Exercises, including variations, inversions, harmonic and contrapuntal balances and imbalances, etc. The screen is scrupulously sustained as a flat expository surface, and a reflexive consciousness of the film material process is maintained by the use of flickers, transparent/ white backgrounds, scratches, and solarized, step-printed episodes, in which the hand-wrought, irregular textures also recall both James' expertise as a raku potter and the alchemical processes of transmuting elements, in this case the coloured chemicals of the film emulsion by the 'solar' fire.

Similarly Lapis, meaning 'stone' in Latin, refers to the Philosopher's Stone or transmutation medium in alchemy, and is ideologically related to Jung's discussion of the individuation process. But no knowledge of these outside frames of reference is necessary to appreciate the intricate and resplendent imagery. Again the film functions perfectly in purely aesthetic terms. The imagery is completely, conscientiously devoted to centric, circular patterns (like yantra-mandalas) and the film itself suggests a cyclical structure, beginning and ending with transparent white screen surface onto which the dots converge and from which they disperse, while vigorous flickers between pure red and green frames herald the opening union of particles into a pattern/illusion and the closing division of the pattern into parallel manifestations, implying, like the repeated Ouroboros logo, a continuing reoccurrence of the phenomenon. The red and green colours (associated with beginning and ending in alchemy, cf. Smith's Film No. 6) and the colors in general are precisely controlled as a factor of meaning in the film. Parallel rasters of dot patterns in varying colours are superimposed in many scenes to create, in a divisionist fashion, the effective or composite colour sensation of the sequence. Other scenes unfold in related (complementary, approximate, etc.) 'pure' colours which tease the mind/eye as to their identity, or in parallel patterns of complementary colours which refuse to blend (e.g. orange and green). However, in some scenes James even manages to superimpose red and green dots to yield the purplish puce colour (associated with the union of positive/negative yin/yang to produce fresh vigour, royal/power, occult wisdom, etc. in Hermetic thought) which appears as a pure hue in some other scenes. Another 'effective' colour frequently used in the film is the celestial blue, which is carefully planned to endure throughout a long sequence so that when it suddenly vanishes to black, the red/green lotus wheel seems to float in a field of radiant (union/vigour) magenta because of the after-image from retinal exhaustion.

This positive-negative colour afterimage relates directly to the central theme of the film, in which most gestures and manifestations repeat in positive and negative states — e.g. the ring of dots converging on a white vs. later a black field; the dots forming a positive-space function by aligning in rows, chains or progressions vs. a negative-space pattern by enclosing and describing implied configurations.

James worked on Yantra for about eight years (1950-58), meticulously painting the patterns of pin-point small dots on paper cards, and hand developing and solarizing much of the footage. Although Lapis was executed in only three years (1963-6) with the aid of a computer, it cannot be considered a computer-graphic per se, since the images were planned and hand-painted (exactly like those of Yantra, but on cel sheets) and the computer was merely used to ensure the accuracy of animation where hundreds of tiny dots must be precisely superimposed and moved in infinitesimally small graduations. James provides an alienation from this astonishing technical perfection by including several momentary 'flaws', like a fleeting freeze in the action or a flash-frame from the beginning of a dissolve (again suggesting the cracks in raku ware).

Both Yantra and Lapis were conceived as silent films. Yantra received its soundtrack when it was shown in one of the Vortex Concerts; Jacobs and Belson mixed portions of Dutch composer Henk Badings' "Cain and Abel" to form an uncannily appropriate and exciting musical counterpoint to the images.[CVM-1] The lack of exact synch and the relative obscurity of the original score (which has never been available on a commercial recording, I believe) rescue Yantra's track from the problematic status of other 'found' music for non-objective films. Lapis's Indian raga track was added after it had already been distributed as a silent film, at the behest of James' distributor, Bob Pike of the Creative Film Society. Again, the original musical score was blended to form a satisfactory accompaniment to the images, and its re-release in this sound version, coincidentally just before the Beatles-inspired vogue for Indian music, helped contribute to Lapis becoming the most widely known and admired of any abstract film. However, as any silent viewing will show, perception of the visual meaning of the film can be enhanced without the music, and James plans in the near future to withdraw the current version and re-issue the film either with sound prepared specifically for it, or as a silent film.

Working with the computer on Lapis proved quite frustrating for James, since he found the potential of the machinery more limited than his imagination. Therefore, after Lapis, even though he had specific ideas for further films, James rested from filmmaking for several years, and concentrated his efforts on producing raku-ware pottery. Then he began work on a trilogy — of which only Dwi-Ja and Wu Ming are completed — which is a sublime expression of his spiritual and artistic maturity.

Dwi-Ja, meaning 'twice-born' in Sanskrit, runs almost a half hour at silent speed (although, at the time of this writing, James has been working on a possible soundtrack for the film). The idea for the subject-matter grew out of a dream, and James' spiritual researches, and even from watching the firing of his raku pottery in his kiln. Throughout the film's duration, we actually see only eight sequential drawings of alchemical vessels, each containing a depiction of a bird in a slightly different position — the eagle whose upward and downward flights symbolise the repetitive processes of sublimation, solution, conjunction, separation, etc. which constitute the purification/transformation rituals of alchemy. A basic loop of this eight-drawing sequence repeats continually in different combinations, for most of the film is solarized, and the imagery is superimposed in several non-synchronized layers through re-photography by rear-projection, sometimes one layer purposely out-of-locus to provide a kind of 'halation'. These purely filmic processes mirror the alchemical formula of repetitive distillation as a refining means to transmutation, but the purely filmic processes also fully re-create and enact in their own terms those alchemical methods, so that no prior knowledge of the hermetic tradition is necessary for the viewer. The loop of eight drawings establishes a minimal structure, while the aleatory effect of the solarization and non-synchronous juxtaposition of loops provides a flame-like ambiguity and vigour without destroying its basic simplicity.

Wu Ming ('No Name' in Chinese) is more diverse in imagery but the lucidity of its separate gestures is such that it functions in quite as pure a manner as Dwi-Ja. The opening sequence shows the Chinese characters (from the Tao Te Ching) reading 'No Name is the beginning of Heaven and Earth', ritualistically repeated in varying colours as in Yantra. The film (like Dwi-Ja, almost a half-hour, silent) shows only two basic gesture — a sequence in which dot patterns (again solarized and re-photographed) move in bold horizontal and vertical streaking alignments, often resembling churning and flowing drops of water, and another sequence in which concentric circular waves radiate, undulate and pulsate from a white centre. The transition between these two primary manifestations of energy, particle and wave takes the form of an audacious, absolute visual statement: a rich, complete spectrum of colours has possessed the dots in the particle sequence, with saturate reds flaring through yellow to settle in celestial celadons, lapises and turquoises which are pierced by creamy white shafts of light that open in turn to reveal even whiter, purer projector light.

While viewing these first scenes, we are simultaneously aware that the basic, original footage used to create the imagery begins, as in Dwi-Ja, with a loop of a very simple, minimal image — in this case, dots in a circular arrangement which varies from frame to frame in the graduated size of the circle — and that the illusion of 'vertical shafts of light' is being created not only by multiple exposures, solarization and 'halation', but also by some kind of literal vertical streaking of the image that suggests pulling the film-strip through the gate, and hence arouses a reflexive awareness of the film-making/projection process.

Parallel horizontal cluster-alignments of bluish-white dots cascade down and up a blue-black field, and streak and blur to suggest force fields that magnetize and materialize between them a third alignment of brighter white dots. Then white corners begin to appear on the screen, and slowly a white circle closes around the blue-black imagery, constricting it till it flutters out and fades to pure black. For some five minutes the black circle implodes, diminishing in size until it disappears. The slowness of this pure gesture is staggering; it admits no sensations of depth-perspective, no seductive comforts of painterly ingenuity (albeit the smoothness and precision of the shot was certainly not easy to contrive). With deliberate grandeur the black dot dwindles — a spot of no-light in the projector beam, a particle merging with the white oneness, a shape contracting into nothingness, an emptying. The black spot becomes a focus of perceptual illusions assuming an iridescent white glow from retinal fatigue charts and aggressively charts the tiniest eye-movements with luminous 'white' auras and roving 'white' after-image dots. The process of emptying/filling the screen is so absolute that when, after a moment the circular waves begin to pulsate outward toward the corners of the frame, we accept their beauty and the beauty of the glowing 'white' centre of the image (pure projector light) they reveal and outline in a completely fresh perceptual framework. The duality of yin/yang has undergone a union in visual terms, inside our eye/minds, and our sense of vision (and aesthetics) is cleansed and amplified by it. James describes the particle-to-wave action in Wu Ming as being like throwing a pebble into water and seeing the ripples spread out (cf. Basho); the clarity, lucidity, balance, directness and purity of his filmic gesture is a radiant revelation that echoes and expands inside the spirit into which it is cast through the vision.

Dwinell Grant, a film-maker who worked in New York during the 40s in relative isolation from the film-makers discussed above, composed a series of films which stands as a substantial contribution to the literature of non-objective film. With a background in abstract painting, Grant began making films as a result of experiments with stage production at Wittenburg University in Ohio. His first Composition, Themis (1940) uses circles, squares and line/cylinders of glass, paper and wood moved on several layers of glass plates, lit in complex fashion from all angles with different coloured gels and moving light sources, so that the textures, shadows and changing forms of the relatively static objects become the major factors in the 'action' of the film. Grant's sensitivity to the density and luminosity of light as a compositional element also distinguishes his four later Compositions (1941-1949, New York) even though he worked with flat drawings, cutouts, static background paintings, and other less tractable animation techniques in these later films. Each of Grant's Compositions is constructed with great awareness of the principles of non-objective visual organization as it had been practiced and discussed by the master painters such as Kandinsky, Klee and Mondrian. Even in Composition No. 2, Contrathemis (1941), where he seems consciously to use drawn figures that recall alternately the shapes used by Ruttmann, Eggeling, Fischinger and Richter, Grant combines these figures in such fresh juxtapositions, with such a subtle manipulation of structure, density and rhythm, that they are manifestly allusions integral and unique to Grant's personal idiom and discussion.

Composition No. 4 (1945), in stereoscopic 3-D makes the most complex and inventive use of abstract pictorial depth of any of the non-objective stereo films.(5) Grant uses mostly squares which mirror the film's image-shape, so that their movements in size and 'space' constantly create a special tension against the basic film illusion. The squares and sets of bars that help delimit them sometimes flicker with slow deliberation and press backwards and forwards in careful rhythms, while a streamlined 'snake' occasionally intertwines itself through and around the rectangular forms to heighten the force of the illusion.

All of the Compositions are silent, as Grant believes in the independent validity and vitality of the potential directions of non-objective visual structure, a subject about which he wrote an extended essay in 1948 under a Guggenheim Foundation grant, but which he finally abandoned, finding much of the visual information basically unsuited for verbal explication.

One of Grant's most interesting and important films is Color Sequence (1943) which consists only of pure solid-colour frames that fade, mutate and flicker. He made the film as a research into colour rhythms and perceptual phenomena, and although it now appears not only visually exciting but also as a precedent for the work of younger film-makers like Paul Sharits, Grant himself found the film to be too disquieting when it was first screened (cf. the Film Exercises), and it received little further play until the 70s.

The Eggeling tradition of classicist visual music had yet another pioneer practitioner whose work, however, remains largely a curiosity. In 1939 a Swiss painter Blanc-Gatti made a five-minute film Chromophonie based on the principle that each tone of music ought to have a single, consistent corresponding colour in the spectrum. His animation, tightly synchronized to a gladiators' march, closely resembles Fischinger's Art Deco designs for Allegretto (which the Swiss artist could not have seen), but the insufficiency of Blanc-Gatti's theoretical assumption is mirrored in the film's poverty of movement: a stylized trumpet may emit a ray-wedge of red, but after that it often has nothing else to do. Music has depths Blanc-Gatti was unable to deal with, but his film is amusing and interesting none the less, since this concept of a correlation between auditory and visual tones has occurred to many artists, though few have confronted it quite so directly.

Later followers of the 'Eggeling tradition' probably include film-makers like Robert Breer, the Conrads, Peter Kubelka and Paul Sharits (discussed elsewhere in this catalogue) particularly in reference to their more abstract work. One young American artist, Larry Cuba, is able to programme his own films on a computer, and perhaps because of this intimacy with the numerical system, he has produced films, like First Fig, which allow simple geometric forms to modulate, overlap and interlace in clear and complete sequences that unfold at a generally serene tempo, delighting by the purity of their mathematical cadence.

A young Frenchman, Jacques Haubois, prepares non-objective film performances, using his own painting and photography for imagery, but pressing them through a complete range of purely cinematic transformations that create keen reflexive sensations in the viewer. Eclamorphoses, for example, lasts one and a half hours; it balances a loop of sound (by La Monte Young) with loops of visual material derived from re-photographed slides of amorphous painted abstractions which are carefully and systematically permuted by super-impositions, scratches, punctures, slices, reticulated paint-on-the-film-strip, step-printing, changes of projector speed, and finally zooming of the image with the projector lens and live manipulation of the projector and light beam (with a hand-held prism).


Non-objective film performance with modulated or multiple projectors is not, of course, new, and a variety of colour-organs and other analogous performances is discussed elsewhere in this catalogue. In general, however, such performances aim toward a proliferation and multiplicity of image that brings them rather outside the ascetic tradition of Eggeling or Haubois.

We know that between 1923 and 1926 [CVM-2], Fischinger worked together with a composer Alexander Lแszl๓ preparing visuals (including films and slides) for a colour-organ concert called Farblichtmusik. Unfortunately little information survives indicating the way in which Fischinger's visual materials were composed, but two newspaper articles (June 1926 and January 1927) report that Fischinger performed three 'light shows', Fieber, Macht, and Vakuum, with multiple projectors at least in his Munich studio. Again, the accounts fail to indicate exactly how he manipulated the projectors, whether superimposing the images or arranging them in various configurations. No specific or consistent print of this 'light show' material survives, though numerous tinted fragments and some painted glass 5" x 7" slides undoubtedly belong to these performances.(6) Evidently the difficulties of equipment and performing, coupled with the uncooperativeness of theatre-owners discouraged Fischinger (as they have many other film-makers) and he did not pursue multiple projection later in his career.

The mysterious Hy Hirsh apparently preferred to 'perform' even his single-screen films live with various soundtracks and visuals re-edited for each specific programme. We know that he prepared at least two films for double projection — Double Jam (ca. 1955, probably an oil-wipe film with jazz track, but no certain or consistent print is currently known) and D้collages Recolles ('Unglued things re-glued'), of the late 50s, perhaps a blanket title for re-edited collage performances, but one surviving print seems to be marked for double projection, with purely non-objective imagery on one screen and mixed abstract and representational footage (scratched, painted and optically-printed, as well as pure 'found footage', e.g., a colour shot of an A-bomb blast which turns into fireworks, early Chaplin comedy, etc.) on the other.

Unfortunately, again, we have little evidence as to Hirsh's mode of projection, largely because of the poor condition of his estate. He was born in Chicago in 1911, and starting in 1937 he participated in representational experimental films in Los Angeles and San Francisco as an actor and cameraman. He was a professional still photographer, and his work took him to New York, Spain, Holland, and Paris, where he lived in the late 50s and died suddenly of a heart attack while driving through the Place de la Concorde. [CVM-3] Apparently he had trafficked for some time in marijuana and hashish, and the police seized all his personal effects (including what films were left after friends had removed what they could, since he stored the dope in film cans) from his Paris apartment as evidence. By the time the affair was settled and the films returned to his daughter in Los Angeles, and then to the Creative Film Society which had purchased rights to the films, the remaining prints and papers were in an extremely depleted condition. No print at all has been found for several films listed by title in programmes (Change of Key, Djinn, Recherche, Double Jam), while incomplete or silent prints only were found for several others (Eneri, La Couleur de la Forme), and no proper printing materials for any of the films was recovered. The attempts of Bob Pike of the Creative Film Society to restore the films led to even further confusion in some cases — linking the extraordinary visuals of Couleur de la Forme (if indeed these visuals belong to that title, since the original was not labeled) with a completely inappropriate soundtrack, and including a film actually by Baird Bryant and Tajiri Shinkichi, Mad Nest, among Hirsh's oeuvres (because Hirsh, who roomed next door to Bryant and Shinkichi in Paris, owned a print of the film — which has no titles).

What emerges from the remnants of Hirsh's estate is quite inconclusive. One group of films is abstract, loosely synched to music, employing oil-wipe (Chasse des Touches) and oscilloscope patterns (Divertissement Rococo, Come Closer, Eneri) optically printed sometimes in multi-screen configurations. Another group includes beautiful live-action footage nicely edited for rhythm and visual continuity (Autumn Spectrum, D้fense d'afficher, Gyromorphosis). A third group is complex optically printed collages (La Couleur de la Forme, Scratch Pad) involving matting, high-contrast colourizing and texturizing, step-printing, and other technical devices already exploited by Len Lye (who is discussed elsewhere in this catalogue). Scratch Pad also includes scratch/paint-on-film footage, while both Scratch Pad and La Couleur de la Forme contain manipulated 'found footage'. And the silent copy titled D้collages Recolles (mentioned above) contains elements of all the other films.

Dating the films proves difficult. Friends in Paris (ca. 1957) recall that Hirsh built an optical printer in his apartment there from essentially junk parts — he was a marvelous tinkerer and mechanic — but this does not mean that he did not have one before in America. Gyromorphosis won a prize at Brussels in 1958. Jordan Belson used some of the abstract oscilloscope footage in the Vortex Concerts (1957-9) but never saw any of the optically printed representational footage. It is tempting to align the films in a 'logical' order: abstract films first, then simple live action, then complex, composite-imagery optical printing last — but this may well be false, since Chasse des Touches, Come Closer, and Eneri are optically printed into multi-screen sections, which is technically as difficult as the more subtle and spectacular work in La Couleur de la Forme.

The aesthetics of the films are equally confusing. We know Hirsh liked to 'perform' his films live, re-editing them specially for each programme. Some of the current prints — Autumn Spectrum, D้fense d'afficher, Gyromorphosis, Chasse des Touches, and Divertissement Rococo — are quite smoothly edited into 'finished films', and they present a very mellow sensibility, the epitome of the cool jazz world of the 50s. Come Closer, in polaroid stereo 3-D, is quite accomplished and well-integrated, with oscilloscope patterns twirling in festive arrangements that recall carnival decorations, while Jamaican music supports this mood; the depth sensation is pleasant and striking, with many figures choreographed to move in appropriate rhythmic pulses that exploit a forward-backward alignment, while other figures (notably a set of bracelet-like circles), through the magic of optical printing, intersect and move through each other in a delightfully impossible way. Eneri, Scratch Pad, and La Couleur de la Forme display a high degree of technical inventiveness; though Eneri and La Couleur seem somewhat unclear in structure (perhaps due to fragmentary print condition), Scratch Pad ranks as one of the best scratch-on-film works, using abstract paint-on-film and live action footage, and in both cases scratching over what are revealed to be the energy centres of the movements.

Hirsh re-uses similar footage in several films (flights of birds, fireworks, parades, multi-screen configurations, certain oscilloscope figures, bodies of models matted with abstract textures and representational scenes inside them, etc.) clearly in an attempt to construct a compositional series, but it is hard to judge the result of the serial arrangement with the films in their present condition. As it is, the only overall impression one gets from Hirsh's films is not of a highly intellectual or mystic thinker (like various other film-makers we have discussed) but rather of an individual with tremendous dexterity and inventiveness, of considerable joie de vivre and a sensibility for mellow, charming experience.

Jordan Belson's Vortex Concerts in the late 50s specifically established the tradition of the psychedelic multiple-projector light-show, which blossomed in the late 60s as part of the 'Hippy' revolution in San Francisco (with film-makers like Bruce Conner, Ben Van Meter, Robert Nelson, Jerry Abrams and Scott Bartlett participating in various shows), Los Angeles (where Single Wing Turquoise Bird included Sam Francis, Jeff Perkins, Peter Mays, David Lebrun, Mike Scroggins, Jon Greene, and other groups such as Thomas Edison, The Hog Farm, and John Whitney's sons performed), and New York (Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and Stan Vanderbeek, among others). Laserium Concerts continue to be performed in planetariums throughout the world during the 70s. However, the visual quality of the 60s light shows — which, with the support of the Rock music boom, were able to sustain 25 or more projection devices and a dozen performers for an event — is unlikely to be seen again. These rich collaborative performances were often governed by aesthetic principles that valued the uniqueness and irretrievability of each event. Many of these light concerts — which included a sizable amount of pure non-objective imagery, and which often ran from silence and minimal, still imagery to unbelievable symphonic riots of sound and controlled multiplicity — were among the most complex and rewarding art experiences of our age, but inevitably they must join the Dada seances in becoming the anecdotes of the priveleged [sic] few.


The 'Second Generation' of non-objective film-makers ranges far beyond the handful of film-makers discussed here. Programmes I have seen from the 40s and 50s list more than 30 abstract film-makers (excluding student work) hailing from all parts of the United States and South America. While all of these people made more than one abstract film, few pursued non-objective work with the dedication of the Whitneys, Belson and Smith. A number of the film-makers and their films seem to have 'disappeared' and other films which are still available seem, on the whole, primitive and uninteresting.

One more interesting figure of the Second Generation is Jules Engel, who had practiced non-objective painting since the 30s, and been involved in representational cartoon animation since working for Disney on Fantasia, where he came to know Fischinger. During the 40s, Engel, in his role as painter, also knew Man Ray and was familiar with Duchamp's work through the Arensbergs and their remarkable collection. However, Engel continued with representational film work (including cartooning with UPA, etc., advertising films, and several documentaries on painters and sculptors) until the late 60s when he began to produce a series of a dozen non-objective animation films. Some of these (like Silence, a computer-graphic from 1968) exhibit a keen conceptual sense of balance of form and ideation, and others (like Shapes and Gestures, 1976, and Wet Paint, 1977) breathe a charming grace (with Hirsh's 'cool jazz' sensibility), a vigorous decorative quality (reminiscent of Kandinsky, Miro and the Abstract Expressionists of the 50s) and technical mastery, which make us regret that he did not devote more of his early career to non-objective animation.

The purpose of this essay has been to follow strictly non-objective film-making through the 'Second Generation'. No attempt has been made to cover exhaustively the younger abstract film-makers — those, for example, involved with computer graphics, like Lillian Schwartz and Doris Chase — or to deal at all with the complex issue of truly 'abstract' film-making involving mixtures of live-action and non-objective footage, or representational imagery used out-of-context for its purely graphic qualities — e.g., Ballet M้canique, Chomette, Dulac, Film Studie, etc. or the Man Ray/Brakhage/Jon Rubin film material tradition. These issues, along with the work of Duchamp, Len Lye, etc. are covered elsewhere in this catalogue.



(1) If one looks carefully at the 'fragments' of Rhythm that Richter supplied, one can see that the incompatible diagonal compositions at the end of so-called Rhythm 21 belong directly to the beginning of so-called Rhythm 23, and, quite aside from spoiling the alleged formalism of Rhythm 21, probably indicate that the film(s) we now see labelled Rhythm 21 and Rhythm 23 are actually one film Rhythm made in 1923 or 1924, except for the very brief shots of Eggeling-like scroll drawings that constitute the Film is Rhythm which Richter shot around 1921 and which Van Doesburg screened in Paris for the critic who missed seeing the film because he took his glasses off to clean them.

(2) For a general introduction to these ideas which are so important to many non-objective film-makers and painters, see Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics (Shambhala Press, Berkeley, 1975).

(3) We are using here the numbering system from the current New York Filmmakers' Co-operative catalogue and P. Adams Sitney's book Visionary Film (Oxford University Press, 1974) pp. 270-1. However, be aware that in earlier documents various other numbering systems are used. For example, in what are probably the primary documents, the Art in Cinema programme for October 24, 1947, lists the world premiere of a black-and-white film numbered '5' and titled Fast Track, which, it says, is ten minutes long and 'closely synchronised' to sound; though Smith's only current black-and-white film (Film No. 4) is shorter in its present state, the programme note probably refers to the same film, since Smith may have edited a special projection copy (as Hy Hirsh often did) with some repeats to correspond to various verses or recaps in the music — which was perhaps Dizzy Gillespie's 'Manteca'. On this same programme note, it says that Smith's colour films, originally scheduled to be shown, had not returned from the laboratory where 16mm reduction copies were being made, but promises that they will be shown at a future screening; then, a week later, October 31, 1947, the programme note (signed by Smith himself) lists the premiere of an untitled film numbered '6' (with no indication of colour or length), which it groups together with Man Ray's La retour เ la raison and sculptor Robert Howard's Meta [which was photographed from swirling coloured liquids], saying that 'Number 6 has utilised forms assembled purely for their plastic value, but in this case [as opposed to Man Ray and Howard] the artist has limited himself to geometric shapes which follow their own characteristic developments and motions', while, by contrast, Jordan Belson's first film Transmutation, which was also premiered on this programme, is described as containing 'forms created by the artist.' — so perhaps this film represents the coloured lights now included in current Film No. 5/Circular Tensions, or another live-action film now lost. In a subsequent series of Art in Cinema, we find the February 11, 1949 programme listing Smith's Films No. 1 and 4 (dated 1949, as if they had just been finished), and from the description it is clear that while No. 1 corresponds to the current Film No. 1, the No. 4, a batik film, is either (or both) the current Film No. 2 and (or) Film No. 3. Smith says about them: 'Types of movement employed have also [in addition to colours] been limited to the smallest possible number so that whatever interest and sequence the film possesses can depend on the rhythmic recurrence of a few specific non-objective tensions rather than curiosity on the part of the spectator as to what the forms are going to do next.' The Art in Cinema programme for May 12, 1950 lists four Smith films by title only: A Strange Dream (the current Film No. 1?), Message from the Sun (the current Film No. 2, which Smith says in the Co-op catalogue 'takes place either inside the sun or in Zurich, Switzerland'?), Circular Tensions (the current Film No. 5), and lnterwoven (by elimination, perhaps current Film No. 3, since current Film No. 4 was called Fast Track). For this screening the four films were accompanied by a live six-man jazz band. Also, the programme notes state that Smith was already working on his 3-D film (currently Film No. 6) under the auspices of the Guggenheim Foundation. Smith's re-numbering and re-dating of his films undoubtedly relates not to any desire to fraudulently claim some innovation or precedence, but rather to a kabbalistic, alchemical desire to align his Great Work in proper numerical and elemental order (e.g. two cycles of seven films, etc.; of also Kenneth Anger's seasonal re-arrangement of his Magick Lantern Cycle).

(4) The term 'romantic' can cover a multitude of eccentricities, so more filmmakers can probably be seen as belonging to this tradition than any other of the more strictly non-objective ones. However, one can note several trends, such as the various film-makers overtly devoted to musical illustration (Mary Ellen Bute, Oskar Fischinger's younger brother Hans Fischinger, the Disney studios, Norman McLaren, etc.) or film-makers who are extremely interested in techniques and edit their footage after its production according to emotional principles (including an older film-maker like Douglass Crockwell, and most computer graphic artists currently working, most notably Stan Vanderbeek and John Stehura, who mixes his non-objective graphics with psychedelic live-action footage in a highly lyrical, emotional way). Among younger film-makers, Dennis Pies (who has worked in delicate pastel drawings that slowly merge with each other through dissolves) and Adam Beckett (who optically prints his elaborate hand graphics in such a way that they rival the complexities of computer generated imagery) seem specially worthy of note.

(5) Norman McLaren's Now Is the Time and Around is Around, Fischinger's Stereo Tests, Smith's Film No. 6, and Hy Hirsh's Come Closer, all ca. 1950.

(6) See Film Culture No. 58-59-60, pp. 44-5, 86-7, and 91-3 for further details.


-originally published in Film as Film, Formal Experiment in Film, 1910 - 1975, David Curtis and Richard Francis, Eds. London: Hayward Gallery and Arts Council of Great Britain, 1979.

Notes by CVM (added 2008)

Publication note: several long paragraphs about Wu Ming and James Whitney were accidentally transposed with Dwinell Grant text in the published Film as Film catalog. CVM has presented the text here according to Moritz's intended order, correcting the accidental mis-ordering, by using Moritz's marked corrections in pen in Elfriede Fischinger's actual published copy of Film as Film as a definitive guide.

[CVM-1] This synchronization by Belson of the track was done in 1959, after the last Vortex Concert, not during a Vortex Concert. The first public performance of Yantra accompanied by this track was in the Fall 1959 film screening/concert called "Vortex Presents" at a San Francisco museum, which was actually not one of the famous Vortex Concerts. (See Keefer, 2008)

[CVM-2] Later research indicates the collaboration between Fischinger and Lแszl๓ was in 1926. See Keefer (2005): "Space Light Art" - Early Abstract Cinema and Multimedia, 1900-1959

[CVM-3] Later research reveals that Hirsh died in a Paris hospital, not while driving.


Regarding Harry Smith and the statement above that he composed his films with "no specific music in mind"; in Moritz's later writings, after conversations with Harry Smith, Moritz later states that Smith insisted Films 1 - 3 were made to be synchronized with Dizzy Gillespie tracks. See Moritz (2001): "Harry Smith, Mythologist"

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