If coining the phrase “electronic superhighway” were the only thing that Korean-born visual artist Nam June Paik accomplished in 1974, his name would still go down in the history books.
Aside from envisioning a future in which data transmission happens instantaneously, Paik also will be remembered as the father of video art for having created works that pushed the boundaries of television when the medium was still revered.
Using screens to create sculptural installations, he described his goal as shaping the TV screen canvas as precisely as Leonardo da Vinci, as freely as Pablo Picasso, as colorfully as Pierre Renoir, as profoundly as Piet Mondrian, as violently as Jackson Pollock and as lyrically as Jasper Johns.
After moving to New York in 1964, he began to collaborate with classical cellist Charlotte Moorman, after being introduced to her by Yoko Ono. In 1988, he worked with David Bowie in “Wrap Around the World” as part of an international roster of artists and musicians, with Paik providing graphics and the satellite transmission.
Pieces such as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ “TV Buddha” — with a head of Buddha placed in front of a TV monitor silently watching itself on the screen in an infinite loop — demonstrated that Paik was a major innovator among a rising tide of up-and-coming artists scouting new modes of artistic expression.
His “Sonata: Print Series” on display at University of Richmond’s Harnett Museum of Art comes as a bit of a surprise, then, from an artist who at the height of his video powers in the 1970s declared that paper was dead.
“For people in Richmond who are only familiar with Paik’s one piece at the VMFA, this series kind of puts it in context,” says Richard Waller, the show’s curator and executive director of university museums.
Although they may be paper, all four large, silk-screened pieces in the show clearly refer to his favorite medium with 16 screen-shaped boxes comprising a common theme. Extremely sculptural, each resembles a bank of television screens.
In “Sonata 1,” the background images are I-Ching hexagrams and the 16 screens relate to Paik’s participation in the fluxus movement that took shape in the ’60s and ’70s and was devoted to integrating life into art through an experimental approach.
One screen shows George Macuinas, the father of the fluxus movement, and another is a still from a performance video of Moorman “playing” Paik as a cello. Yet another still comes from his 1982 video piece, “Allen ‘n Allan’s Complaint,” showing Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and happenings creator Allan Kaprow.
“This series is like an anthology of his creativity,” Waller says of the 64 screens documenting Paik’s past performance pieces, musings, drawings, musical compositions and media finds. “Sonata 4” shows his summary of a Wall Street Journal article he’d read: Debt, divorce and death equal the art market.
With a background of Paik’s musical scores, “Sonata 2” relates to the artist’s years studying music history and composition in college and with several European composers. A screen shot of Moorman playing cello in a gondola in Venice is accompanied by a video still of performance artist Laurie Anderson from “Wrap Around the World” and a Paik-invented equation that reads, “Silence = Turned Off TV.”
“I love it being called Sonata,” Waller says of the series. “It is musical. It may be two-dimensional, but it’s musical.”
Moving from one piece to the next, the viewer does get a sense of one symphonic movement ending, with the next beginning once in front of the succeeding collection of 16 screens and a fresh theme.
Record aficionados will immediately recognize what “Sonata” represents: a greatest hits compilation. S
“Sonata: Print Series” runs through July 2 at Harnett Museum of Art at the University of Richmond. museums.richmond.edu.