The Week (US)
Nam June Paik
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, through Oct. 3
Nam June Paik (1932–2006) “saw the future more clearly than any artist of his century,” said Jason Farago in The New York Times. Often called the father of video art, the Korean-American innovator anticipated how mass media would give way to multidirectional communication and how the gatekeeper institutions of high culture would soon be overwhelmed by a worldwide wave of images and voices sharing what he called, as early as 1974, an “electronic superhighway.” A major retrospective of his work has now reached San Francisco. When the show opened in London before the pandemic, I wrote that Paik’s work appeared “as pioneering as ever.” And also that, for a man of such vision, he made “an aboveaverage quantity of junk.” But the gathering of more than 200 of Paik’s works is “not only historic and absorbing,” said Jim Provenzano in the Bay Area Reporter. “It’s also a lot of fun.”
Paik “stunned the art world” with his very first solo exhibit, said Randy McMullen in the San Jose Mercury News. At a gallery in West Germany, he exhibited, among other things, the severed head of an ox, modified pianos that made unexpected noises when visitors played them, and televisions whose screen images responded to viewers’ voices or touch. “Paik could be a total prankster,” said Jonathan Curiel in SF Weekly. In an early performance piece in Cologne, he played Chopin on a conventional piano before walking into the audience, approaching John Cage, and cutting off the older man’s necktie. Cage and Paik became friends, and Paik later built an “infectiously funny” robot figure, included here, that’s named after Cage and composed of television sets, piano hammers, and, of course, a necktie. “That’s the brilliant thing about Paik”: His puckish art reads from a distance but reveals layers of meaning the closer you look.
Because Paik’s work was often dependent on performance or viewer interaction, said Sarah Hotchkiss in KQED.org, many of the artifacts collected here “testify to all the moments we can’t relive.” His many live collaborations with cellist Charlotte Moorman are represented by text and photos. TV Chair, a “hilarious” 1968 piece that foretold the selfie era, no longer invites every visitor to sit long enough to experience having the top of their head broadcast from a camera to a screen that points up at their butt. Only one installation, 1993’s Sistine Chapel, “is alive in a way that requires no mental time travel.” In that piece, projectors arranged on a central scaffolding bathe the walls and ceiling in videos from Paik’s career, and the images deliberately overlap and misalign. The effect is “truly spectacular.”