Robert Breer - Writer

Animator. Nationality: American. Born: Detroit, Michigan, 30 September 1926. Education: Attended Stanford University, B.A. 1949. Career: 1944—began painting; 1949—moved to Paris, painting in mode of neo-plasticism; exhibitions at Denise René Gallery and elsewhere; 1952—made first film; 1955—following one-person painting show, interest shifted to filmmaking; 1958—ceased painting; began making mutoscopes; 1959—returned to United States, settled in New York; 1971—film style shifted from abstract to more eclectic mode including use of rotoscoping and photographed images; 1973—film teacher at Cooper Union; 1981—painted large mural outside Film Forum, New York City; 1996— Now You See It! , a thaumatrope-like spinning disk installed at the American Museum of the Moving Image, New York City. Agent: Film-Makers' Cooperative, 175 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10016, U.S.A. Address: 80 Sparkill Avenue, Tappan, NY 10983, U.S.A.

Films as Animator:


Form Phases I


Form Phases II ; Form Phases III


Form Phases IV ; Image by Images I (endless loop): Un Miracle


Image by Image II ; Image by Image III


Image by Images IV ; Motion Pictures ; Cats ; Recreation I


Recreation II


Jamestown Baloos ; A Man and His Dog Out for Air


Par Avion


Cassis Colank ; Chutes de pierres, danger du mort (Fano) (sequence only)


Eyewash ; Trailer


Homage to Jean Tinguely's Homage to New York (live-action); Inner and Outer Space


Blazes ; Kinetic Art Show—Stockholm


Pat's Birthday (live-action); Horse over Tea Kettle




Fist Fight




69 ; PBL 2 (for PBL TV); PBL 3 (for PBL TV)




Elevator (for CTW TV); What? (for CTW TV)


Gulls and Buoys




Etc. ; Rubber Cement








Swiss Army Knife with Rats and Pigeons


Trial Balloons




A Frog on the Swing ; Blue Monday (video)


Sparkill Ave!


By BREER: articles—

"On Two Films," in Film Culture (New York), Summer 1961.

Interview with Guy Cote, in Film Culture (New York), Winter 1962–63.

"Robert Breer on His Work," in Film Culture (New York), Fall 1966.

Interview with Jonas Mekas and P. Adams Sitney, in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1973.

"Tape Recorded Interview with Robert Breer," with Paul Cummings, in Archives of American Art (New York), 10 July 1973.

The American Film Institute Report (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1974.

"Independent Film: Talking with Robert Breer," with L. Fischer, in University Film Study Newsletter (Cambridge, Massachusetts), no. 1, 1976.

Paris-New York , exhibition catalog, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1977.

Velvet Light Trap (Madison, Wisconsin), no. 24, Fall 1989.

On BREER: books—

Hulten, K. G., The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age , exhibition catalog, New York, 1969.

Hanhardt, John, and others, A History of the American Avant-Garde Cinema , exhibition catalog, The American Federation of Arts, New York, 1976.

Russett, Robert, and Cecile Starr, Experimental Animation , New York, 1976.

Hein, Birgit, Film as Film , Arts Council of Great Britain, 1979.

Moore, Sandy, Robert Breer , St. Paul, Minnesota, 1980.

Mendelson, Lois, Robert Breer: A Study of His Work in the Context of the Modernist Tradition , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1982.

On BREER: articles—

Burch, Noël, "Images by Images, Cats , Jamestown Baloos , A Man and His Dog Out for Air (films by Robert Breer)," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley, California), Spring 1959.

Mancia, A., and W. Van Dyke, "Four Artists as Filmakers," in Art in America (New York), January 1967.

Rosenstein, H., "Motionless Motion," in Art News (New York), November 1967.

Mekas, Jonas, "Movie Journal," in Village Voice (New York), 24 April 1969.

Tomkins, Calvin, "Onward and Upward with the Arts," in New Yorker , 3 October 1970.

Michelson, Annette, "Intellectual Cinema: A Reconsideration," in Yale University Art Gallery Catalogue (New Haven, Connecticut), April/May 1973.

Hammen, Scott, " Gulls and Buoys , an Introduction to the Remarkable Range of Pleasures Available from the Films of Robert Breer," in Afterimage (Rochester, New York), December 1974.

Fischer, Lucy, "Avant Garde Film (Homage to Robert Breer)," in Soho Weekly News (New York), 3 April 1975.

Camper, Fred, "Animated Dissection," in Soho Weekly News (New York), 20 May 1976.

Taubin, Amy, "At Long Last Breer," in Soho Weekly News (New York), 14 April 1977.

Hoberman, J., "A Mixed Bag of Tricks," in Village Voice (New York), 22 January 1979.

Carroll, Noel, "The Other Cinema," in Soho Weekly News (New York), 25 January 1979.

Tournes, A., "Robert Breer: l'avant-garde revient aux sources," in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), March 1979.

Hoberman, J., "Robert Breer's Animated World," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), September 1980.

Camper, Fred, "Robert Breer: Fuji , 77 , LMNO and TZ ," in Ten Years of Living Cinema , New York, 1982.

Taylor, G. "The Cinema of Ontology: Sound-Image Abstraction in Robert Breer's TZ ," in Wide Angle , vol. 15, no. 1, 1993.

* * *

Robert Breer's work as a filmmaker has been primarily in animation. He has made two live-action films ( Pat's Birthday and Homage to Jean Tinguely's Homage to New York ), and many of his other films contain photographed images, but his films generally are made one or a few frames at a time, which is what distinguishes them from live-action cinema. He is arguably the most extraordinary maker of animated films the cinema has given us since Méliès.

Just as many avant-garde live-action filmmakers have defined their work—in terms radically opposed to the "illusionistic" main-stream of commercial film—so Breer defines his work in direct opposition to mainstream commercial animation. The Hollywood cartoon, and many of its offshoots, are based on continuous movements of characters through connected spaces. Breer's films are full of disjunctive breaks, multiple and discontinuous spaces and rhythms, and acknowledgments, often humorous, of the animation process itself and the animator's presence.

The tremendous richness of Breer's cinema comes not from a simple exclusion of continuities, but rather from the attempt to include as much as possible. Thus he situates his films at a number of "thresholds." A burst of continuous movement will suddenly arrest itself in a freeze frame. Extremely jerky and irregular rhythms will unexpectedly become continuous ones. A drawn object will appear to rotate in three dimensions, creating the illusion of depth; a moment later we find ourselves watching a flat surface once again. The sound track will oscillate between apparently synchronous effects that match the action, a more abstract accompaniment, and sounds that are intentionally, often humorously, ill at odds with the images. The audience thus finds itself presented with a virtual panoply of styles and techniques. The effect is that the audience is held literally at the edge of its perception by a continual unfolding of surprises. Each time a brief section ("brief" being generally only a few seconds) establishes some form of continuity, the film leaps outside the pattern just established into some new realm. While it should be apparent from this that Breer's attitude toward his medium and its materials locates him clearly within the modernist tradition, the effect of his work is unique. Time and space are profoundly fragmented, and the film and its viewer are placed firmly in the infinitely uncertain realm of the instant.

In the first two decades of Breer's filmmaking, he utilized a variety of approaches and styles. His earliest films, such as the Form Phases series, are abstract, and grew out of his work as an abstract painter. Mondrian was an early inspiration, and some of the abstract films seem to be questing after idealized, perfect forms. There are hand-drawn and animated films, such as A Man and His Dog Out for Air and PBL 2 , in which tension is created between line as representation of figure and line as an abstraction. There are some highly eclectic works, such as Eyewash and Fist Fight , in which cut-outs, various kinds of animation, and live-action photography are intermixed. There are "abstract" animations such as 66 , 69 , and 70 , which are amazing for their fusion of purity and complexity. It should also be mentioned that Breer has made kinetic sculptures, works that move along the floor so slowly their movement can barely be seen, and a number of constructions inspired by early "pre-cinema" devices such as thaumatropes; these works again play at the threshold between movement and stillness.

In 1972, Breer's filmmaking entered a new period, in which he mirrors the eclecticism of his earlier filmography within individual films. Abstract animation, animation that mimics photographed scenes, and actual photographs are combined with dense, collage-like sound tracks to produce a visionary mixture of humor and surprise, whimsy and ecstatic delight. The use of rotoscoping in Gulls and Buoys and Fuji , and of photographs combined with drawings based on them in many other films, also creates a relationship between these films and daily seeing: every object, every landscape, seems to harbor underlying abstract shapes and movements. In the "kitchen sink" multiplicity of these films, different kinds of image material interact in multiple ways, resulting in a new, and profoundly energized form of seeing: traces of recognizable objects perpetually oscillate between their existence as identifiable places and things and the multitudinous abstract shapes and colors that they contain, or suggest.

—Fred Camper

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