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Robert Breer

 (1926 - 2011)
Robert Carlton Breer was active/lived in New York, Arizona, Michigan / France.  Robert Breer is known for animation, kinetic sculpture, drawing.

Robert Breer

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Robert Breer
Following is The New York Times obituary of the artist.

Robert Breer, Pioneer of Avant-Garde Animation, Dies at 84

Robert Breer, an animator whose use of novel techniques to set lines and forms scrambling across the screen opened up a new language for film, died on Aug. 11 at his home in Tucson. He was 84.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Kate Flax.

Mr. Breer, a painter by training, turned to animation after making flip books and stop-action films based on the abstract paintings he produced while living and exhibiting in Paris in the 1950s.

Early on, he saw the potential for breaking with the narrative sequences and anthropomorphic forms that defined the medium.

In films such as Recreation (1956), A Man and His Dog Out for Air, (1957), "69" (1968) and Swiss Army Knife With Rats and Pigeons (1980), viewers were bombarded with wiggling lines, letters, abstract shapes and live-action images that jumped and flashed, zoomed and receded, appeared and disappeared, inflicting what Mr. Breer once called "assault and battery on the retina."

"He was a seminal figure in the new American cinema and the American avant-garde beginning in the 1950s and continuing right up to the present," said Andrew Lampert, a filmmaker and archivist at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan. "He was a real pioneer in animation and short-form filmmaking."

Robert Carlton Breer was born on Sept. 30, 1926, in Detroit. His father, Carl, was an automotive engineer who designed the Chrysler Airflow and, in his spare time, invented a 3-D camera to film family vacations.

Mr. Breer attended Stanford, where he started out as an engineering student but soon turned to art, producing figurative work but undergoing a conversion to abstraction after seeing paintings by Mondrian on a school trip. After earning a bachelor's degree in 1949, he sailed to France.

In Paris he turned out large geometric abstract paintings, which he exhibited at the Denise René Gallery. One of his flip books and several of his films were included in the gallery's influential 1955 exhibition "Le Mouvement," which put kinetic art on the map by showcasing the motion-conscious work of artists like Jean Tinguely, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder and Victor Vasarely.

Determined to introduce motion into painting, Mr. Breer had already begun making stop-action films, titled "Form Phases," based on motifs from his paintings. He quickly began developing an idiosyncratic store of images in short animated films whose geometric forms and absurdist tendencies reflected his debt to Dadaism and Russian Constructivism.

In Un Miracle (1954), a short film that anticipates Terry Gilliam's work for Monty Python's Flying Circus, the pope appears on a balcony and begins juggling balls.  Suddenly his head falls off, and he juggles that too.

In a 1971 interview with Jonas Mekas, Mr. Breer said, "In all my work I tried to amaze myself with something, and the only way you can amaze yourself is to create a situation in which an accident can happen."

On returning to the United States in 1959, he encountered filmmakers including Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger and Mr. Mekas, who were developing a new avant-garde American cinema along lines congenial to his own.  He also began collaborating with Pop artists such as Claes Oldenburg, with whom he made the film Pat's Birthday (1962), and the leading figures involved in happenings, multimedia art and performance art.

Billy Kluver, the Bell Labs scientist who was a founder of the organization Experiments in Art and Technology to bring engineers and artists together, invited Mr. Breer to contribute work for the Pepsi Pavilion at the world's fair in Osaka, Japan, in 1970.  Mr. Breer fashioned large dome-shaped versions of the motorized sculptures he called floats, which moved slowly and randomly.

Mr. Breer, who inscribed his images on 4-by-6-inch index cards, devoted considerable ingenuity to undermining traditional narrative structures and speeding up the delivery of images to the viewer's eye.  Rather than having one frame flow to the next, creating a seamless continuity, he made each frame as different as possible from the one that preceded it. A devotee of early cinema technology, he used rotoscopy, a technique devised by Max Fleischer for animating live-action scenes, in Fuji (1974), a quasi-travelogue based on his experiences in Japan in 1970.

He taught film at Cooper Union in Manhattan for 30 years, beginning in 1971.

His first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, Kate, he is survived by five daughters, Sophie, of Minneapolis; Julia, of Closter, N.J.; Emily, of Garrison, N.Y.; Sabelle, of Palisades, N.Y.; and Sally, of Los Angeles; a brother, William, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; and three grandchildren.

A retrospective of Mr. Breer's career is on exhibit until Sept. 25 at the Baltic Center for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England.


Biography from Butler Institute of American Art
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.

Like many of his generation, Breer did early work 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 non-sensible 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.

Titled Homage to Tinguely and 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.

The work, Swiss Army Knife with Rats and Pigeons, Robert Breer, 1981 by Robert Breer is in the collection of the Butler Institute, courtesy of Robert Breer.

Breer was influenced by the new performance art and "happenings", which was 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 including 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.

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About  Robert Breer

Born:  1926 - Detroit, Michigan
Died:   2011 - Tucson, Arizona
Known for:  animation, kinetic sculpture, drawing