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by Mario Cutajar

(Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, West Hollywood) At its core, modern art has always been a contradictory enterprise. Its characteristic striving after pure form was implicitly a rejection of a condition that defines modernity: the secularization of culture and the attendant reduction of all value beneath that of the market. As long as culture retained, even if only nominally, a religious foundation, it also harbored a degree of respect for qualities such as honor, integrity, and refinement as rooted in the notion that men are answerable to the higher power of God and morality. To the degree that modern art manifested a surreptitious loyalty to these outworn ideals--World War I, The Great War, after all undermined them for that generation-- under the guise of a dedication to the nonobjective, it was in fact profoundly anti-modern. But since modern art had to rationalize its antipathy to modernity in such a way as to itself appear not only modern but avant-garde, it was an enterprise ultimately doomed to failure. One legacy of modernism has been the romanticization of failure as guarantor of artistic integrity, the modern version of the martyrdom that confers sainthood upon the martyred.

Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967) embodied the modernist ideal of the maladaptive artist so well that a balanced evaluation of his work as filmmaker and painter depends on one’s ability to withhold automatic beatification based solely on his biography. Born and educated in Germany, exiled to Los Angeles when Hitler came to power and abstraction was decreed a “degenerate art,” Fischinger was an uncompromising abstractionist who throughout his life retained a dogged faith in the transcendental potential of pure geometry and color. Persecuted in Germany and condemned to grinding poverty after he settled in L.A., Fischinger’s devotion to the integrity of his art was exemplary.

“Abstraction,” oil on
canvas, 19 x 15”, 1939.

"Abstraction," oil on board,
17 1/2 x 13 3/4", 1950.

"Undeciphered," oil on
panel, 24 x 18", 1949.

"Space Abstraction No. III,"
oil on canvas, 48 x 36", 1966.
Yet the overall significance of his work remains unclear. Was he a visionary whose films presaged music videos, op art, psych-edelia, and fractal imagery? Or was he a stubborn crank whose purist fanaticism cut him off from the world and from the anarchic inventiveness he displayed in his earliest films? This show, which brings together a selection of the artist’s films transferred to video and some 40 of the artist’s artworks (many of them executed after poverty forced Fischinger to give up filmmaking) is an opportunity to assess both the artist’s uneven legacy and that of European modernism.

In conversation, Jack Rutberg points out that in his films Fischinger realized the Futurist dream of making painting dynamic. The truth of this is visible in the artist’s animation studies, in which he was able to create complex choreographies of geometric shapes and lines. With one notable exception, however, Composition in Blue (1935), a brassy syncopation of blue and orange shapes that clash, flip, and throb with raw phallic energy, the studies tend towards sterile technical exercises. Tellingly, the films that stand out are the “impure” ones, in which the abstract choreography is married to some form of narrative. Something as simple as the passage of time conveyed through sequences of liquefying and exfoliating wax (the Wax Experiments of 1923), or the marching cigarettes in Muratti Gets in the Act (1934) make the point.

His most extraordinary film, in which Fischinger exploited the fluidic potential of filmmaking to the fullest, was actually one of his earliest. Spiritual Constructions (1927) is a fever dream of a film that starts with the silhouettes of two drinkers seated across from each other at a table, which then develops seamlessly through an intoxicating sequence of ever more outrageous mutations of the figures and their surroundings. Trippy, grotesque, psychotic, comical, poetic, and subversive all at once, this film reveals the workings of a dark, unruly imagination that Fischinger’s later and tightly ordered choreographies seem to have reigned in.

Fischinger’s paintings reveal a kinship with the likes of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, and the Russian Constructivists. At times his geometry seems stiff and lifeless, but he proves capable of infusing his forms with uncanny delicacy, lightness, and luminosity. A tempera-on-paper series that employs overlapping green and red rectangles arrests attention by virtue of its combination of aggressive color and exquisitely controlled composition.

Again, it’s difficult to say what it all adds up to. But perhaps the very fact that Fischinger’s place in the history of modern art is uncertain and problematic make it possible to approach his work with a fresher eye than one would bring to an exhibit devoted to one of his more famous contemporaries.

"Circles in Circle," oil on masonite stereo
painting, each panel 12 x 12", 1949.

“Abstract Landscape," oil on
masonite, 24 x 32", 1959.