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Indepth Arts News:

"Playback: A Retrospective of Work by Robert Whitman"
2003-03-06 until 2003-06-15
Dia Center for the Arts
New York, NY, USA

Beginning March 6, 2003, Dia will present "Playback," the first retrospective exhibition of the work of Robert Whitman, a leading exponent of performance art in the 1960s and 1970s. The exhibition brings together a selection of Whitman's key works from the early 1960s to late 1970s, including sculpture incorporating projected film, a laser piece, a multi-projection film installation, and a suite of double-sided drawings.

Pioneering in its use of media as art material, Whitman's performance work is among the most influential of its period. His involvement with multi-media performance-based works began in 1960 when, together with fellow artists Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, and others, he first exhibited in such experimental New York City venues as the Hansa and Reuben galleries.

"Playback" includes four of Whitman's key sculptures that combine an ordinary object with a film projection. In "Window" (1963), a window reveals a nude woman glimpsed in a landscape. In "Bathroom Sink" (1964) the viewer's reflection is shown alongside that of a woman at her toilette.

Whitman was among the first artists to incorporate laser technology into his art. Among his works included in the exhibition "Dark," at PaceWildenstein in New York in 1967, was one in which a thin red line draws and then erases itself, mapping the gallery space in a continuous loop. This innovative work will be reconstructed for "Playback."

Whitman's monumental suite titled "Dante Drawings" (1975-77), now in Dia's collection, will be exhibited for the first time. Comprising twenty-seven double-sided drawings, it takes as its subject Dante's elusive vision of Paradise, deemed by Dante resistant both to imagining and to memorizing.

Whitman's theater work has involved fantastical and haunting visual imagery that does not adhere to traditional literary devices of plot, narrative, or other text-based schema. In fall 2003, Dia will restage "Prune Flat" (1965), his most celebrated work in this idiom, which explores the intersection of cinema and theater. Accompanying it will be the less well known "Light Touch" (1976), which transforms its milieu into a hallucinatory hybrid of the actual and illusory. Early in its history, in April-May 1976, Dia presented a retrospective of Whitman's performance pieces, titled "Theater Works 1960-1976," which incorporated both of these works. Later, with support from Dia Art Foundation, Whitman designed a performance space in New York City (in the building today owned by the Kitchen) to accommodate innovative performance-based work. Several of his subsequent theater works were presented in that space in the early 1980s.

Together with Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Kluver, Whitman spearheaded the collaborations among artists, engineers, technicians, and scientists that resulted in the formation of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) and the legendary "9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering" at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City in 1966. He subsequently devised work for the landmark Pepsi Pavilion at Expo 70, in Osaka, Japan (1970), and "Art & Technology Show," at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1971).

By surveying this influential period of Whitman's career, and offering works rarely, if ever, exhibited, "Playback" makes a claim not only for the historical prescience of Whitman's works, but for their timeliness in an aesthetic climate now riven by the introduction of new technologies. In addition, the exhibition offers Whitman's practice as a paradigm for a mode of invention that ultimately relies less on technical wizardry than on an ingenious poetic resourcefulness.

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