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Robert Breer Feature Image Swiss Army Knife with Rats and Pigeons
  • Robert Breer: Master of the 4 inch x 6 inch


    Posted on: 01/09/2003

    By Natalia Radywyl

    Natalia is a Postgraduate student in Media and Communications at the University of Melbourne.

    Animation is a system that leads to metamorphosis. And I like that to happen. I encourage it. (Robert Breer) [i]

    In a career spanning over 50 years, artist and animator Robert Breer has rotoscoped David Bowie, exhibited in lightbulbs over Times Square and appeared alongside artists as great and varied as Marcel Duchamp, Claus Oldenburg and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Often satirical and surveying the nature of everyday life, Breer's work explores movement, form and colour with energy and a sense of humour.

    Although most commonly recognised for his avant-garde filmmaking, animation and sculpture, Breer began his career as a painter. After completing his studies in art at Stanford University he moved to Paris in 1949, interested in exploring the capacities of the paint medium. This sense of curiosity and playfulness with form has continued to inform Breer's artistic practice. In fact, it was this sense of wonder which led Breer to experimentation with film, as he found working within a pictorial format too constrictive: 'The great thing that film did for me - which I couldn't do in painting - was to give me a rationale for heterogeneity; of being able to expose different things at different times'. [ii]

    The early days: modern art, paintings and a Bolex camera

    Breer drew inspiration from various modernist art movements, such as constructivism, Bauhaus and Dada. He particularly engaged with the films of Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling and Walter Ruttman and 1920s German graphic cinema, as well as French cubist painter, Fernand Léger. These influences can be traced throughout his work, starting from his first series of animation, Form Phases I-IV (1952-1954), where he used a Bolex camera to create stop-motion films of his abstract paintings. These films, now considered classics of underground cinema, move with impatience, surprise and vigour, where 'in a few short minutes, these abstract elements appear, encounter each other, collide in fits and starts, and eventually fade into light or to black'. [iii] 

    New styles of innovation and Felix the Cat

    This period of experimentation led to the development of a variety of techniques which later evolved to include cartooned paper cutouts, drawn lines, magazine excerpts and found objects. [iv] Breer had begun to explore movement through one of the oldest forms of the moving image - the Mutascope - effectively a flipbook with a handle. Breer used 4" x 6" cards, fascinated by the extent to which he could play with this format and extend its capabilities beyond that of conventional animation: 'I don't think of it so much as a proscenium as I do a square of canvas. But at the same time I thought of the square of canvas as a proscenium. So there's a blend there of some sort. I think of off-screen space'. [v] Breer drew inspiration from Emile Cohl's animation in the early 1900's, Otto Messmer's Felix the Cat films (which he pays homage to in Rubber Cement 1975), and Chuck Jones' cartooning of animal behaviour, although disapproves of a generalist cartooning style: 'I deplore the look of conventional studio animation. I deplore the cartoon conventions that they use, because they seem to accept them all too readily'. [vi] 

    Paris, pink soldiers and photographic unreality

    In 1955 Breer was involved in 'Le Mouvement' (The Movement) in Paris, the first show to feature kinetic art. [vii]  Held at the renowned Galerie Denice Reneé, Breer exhibited his work alongside artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Jean Tinguely. [viii] The kinetic art movement continued to spread throughout Europe and America in the 1960s. [ix] In this time, Breer produced works such as Recreation (1956-57), terming it a 'pastiche-collage'.[x] Jamestown Baloos (1957) is a further example of this, where a strong political and social critique was made with animated cutouts of pink soldiers. He continued exploring different animation methods, such as that of employing painting techniques by treating each card like a new canvas: 'my point was to carry it much further, to develop a kind of textual continuum that would be anti-film in a sense - wouldn't be narrative.  It would be a painting that would forever change and forever stay the same'. [xi] In this way, Breer was rejecting the animating tradition of Fleischer's Rotoscope where film is projected onto a screen and copied frame-by-frame by an animator, thus achieving a likeness to real-life image and movement: 'I wasn't really interested in the tension between photographic reality and drawing reality. But I was interested in taking advantage of photographic reality'. [xii]

    The forming of a new solidarity

    By 1958 Breer had abandoned painting to continue his pursuit of form and movement through film and sculptural works. [xiii] He attended the Experimental Film Festival in Brussels and met a group of American experimental filmmakers, including Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Marie Menken and Peter Kubelka, with whom he formed an especially close friendship and similar artistic vision. [xiv]Aside from Kubelka, these filmmakers were committed to an exploration of Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Although these movements were not of Breer's immediate artistic interest, this encounter was Breer's first interaction with filmmakers who also sought to challenge the conventions of cinema and narrative structure. [xv] This is significant, as much of Breer's early filmmaking had occurred in isolation, away from the influences of filmmakers with similar concerns. In some ways, this has shaped Breer's approach to animation, often preferring to work in solitude than in a large studio environment where works are first sketched and then reproduced, as this limits the immediacy of artistic freedom: 'when I make a line, that's gotta be a final line. That's not a sketch for a line - it's a line. And it's that mentality all the way'. [xvi]

    Coming home: America and abstract aesthetics

    Breer returned to America in 1959 and continued his association with the group, becoming involved in performance, theatre, dance, music and art. Still occupied with animating images, his geometric painting style featured in the short films 66 (1966), 69 (1968), 70 (1970) and 77 (1970), where each comprises of frame-by-frame photographs of hand-drawn images, thus marking a return to an abstract aesthetic. [xvii] He was particularly interested in challenging filmic stability through images, 'so there's a continuous texture, as well as an interrupted texture'. [xviii] Breer's use of sound further enhanced this idea of 'texture' by playing with stillness and sound effects: 'silence is just as true to me as a sound. An absence is not just an absence, it's a specific entity'. [xix] In 69 he produced neat constructivist forms, yet deliberately shuffled the 4" by 6" cards and shot them out of order, describing the result as 'a constructivist structure. that I demolished in later parts of the film - a deconstruction of a construction'.[xx] As interest in Abstract Expressionist painting began to decline, Breer was drawn to Pop art, often collaborating with artists for Happenings and performances, such as in Claus Oldenburg's film, Pat's Birthday. [xxi]

    The fantastic world of floats

    Breer also continued to expand upon his work with kinetic sculptures, known as 'floats'. These are battery-powered objects which 'creep silently around the gallery, a little like unfriendly cats', thus bringing Breer's fascination with form and movement into real space.[xxii] The largest of these was made for the Pepsi-Cola Pavilion at Expo '70 Osaka by the Experiments in Art and Technology Group. [xxiii] They had in-built tape decks and towered well above head height, whilst others have been housed in modern art museums and can be ridden around the museum gardens. [xxiv]

    Taking a stand: making the old new again

    In the 1970's and 1980's Breer became concerned by the increasing homogeneity of film. His works, whilst clearly informed by earlier ideas, attempt to challenge contemporary film with a new spirit and innovation. He explains his interest in combining the 'flicker-effect' of older film with animation as a way of defying film convention:

    In film a lot things have been repressed for so long that they're fresh. There's an awful lot of conformism. That's the natural tendency, just for the sake of convenience and safety. You learn what doesn't kill you; you play it safe. But when it comes to art, you can do stuff that'll 'kill' you. A basic example of that is the oscillation of light and dark in the projector. Of course, the modern cinema device was designed to eliminate flicker, but you can bring it back and play around with it. [xxv]

    Breer continued this play between old and new techniques, using a Rotoscope to create a  rhythmic exploration of flying seagulls in Gulls and Buoys (1972). Fuji (1974) moves swiftly between 2D and 3D, exploiting the tension between moving images and stills. Rubber Cement (1975), LMNO (1978), TZ (1978), Swiss Army Knife with Rats and Pigeons (1980), Trial Balloons (1982) and Bang! (1987), feature a variety of textures and movements, combining live action, drawings and real objects within disjunctures of sound and image.

    A lifetime of work

    Breer's exploration of rhythm, movement and image have brought consistently fresh and diverse films to screens around the world. In having produced more than 40 films Breer demonstrates an enduring commitment to experimentation and innovation. Along with sculptures and painting, Breer's animation reveals a delight in challenging conventions and testing the capacities of various mediums, thus creating an entirely new filmic experience for his audiences.



    [i] Breer in Robert Breer: the 'Five & Dime' Animator 1985, Dir: Keith Griffith, [for Channel 4, BBC]

    [ii] Breer 1985

    [iii] Maldonado, G 2002, 'Robert Breer 7: GB Agency' (translated from French by Jeanine Herman),Artforum International, January vol 40 issue 5, p 149

    [iv] MacDonald, S 1989, 'But first a little Ru-Ru: an interview with Robert Breer - recent films' The Velvet Light Trap, Fall vol 24, p 75

    [v] Breer 1985

    [vi] Breer 1985

    [vii] Leger, J 1996, 'Robert Breer: Animator' Animation World Magazine [Online] [accessed September 3, 2003]

    [viii] Mendelson, L 1981, Robert Breer: A study of his work in the context of the modernist tradition, UMI Research Press: Michigan p7

    [ix] 2000 'Robert Breer' The New York Times, January 7, pE41

    [x] Breer 1985

    [xi] Breer 1985

    [xii] Breer 1985

    [xiii] Sachs, S 2000, 'Robert Breer at Staff USA' Art in America, October vol 88 issue 10, p173

    [xiv] Mendelson, L 1981: p9

    [xv] Mendelson, L. 1981: p10

    [xvi] Breer 1985

    [xvii] Sachs, S 2000 : p173

    [xviii] Breer 1985

    [xix] Breer 1985

    [xx] Breer 1985

    [xxi] Mendelson, L 1981: p10

    [xxii] The New York Times, 2000 : pE41

    [xxiii] MacDonald, S 1989: p75

    [xxiv] Robert Breer: the 'Five & Dime' Animator1985, Dir: Keith Griffith, [for Channel 4, BBC]

    [xxv] MacDonald, S 1989 : p 78

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