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Juan Downey at MIT's List Center for the Visual Arts

Posted by Sebastian Smee  June 20, 2011 09:37 AM

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Dibujos J. Downey 2.jpgIn the mid- to late-19th century, being an avant-garde artist meant being rejected by the official salons, going hungry, and espousing anarchist or socialist views.

What, if anything, did it mean a century later in, say, the 1970s?

One possible answer is offered up by close examination of a group of artists who were affiliated with the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT.

CAVS was set up in 1967 by György Kepes, a Hungarian painter, designer, and educator. Since CAVS was part of MIT, Kepes's focus on new technologies in art was hardly surprising. Nor was his determination to get CAVS fellows working with artists, scientists, and industry.

But there was also a quantity of social idealism in what the artists at CAVS pursued, and it's this that links their ambitions with the social and political ambitions of earlier avant-gardes.

Kepes wanted CAVS to be involved in large-scale urban projects. He liked art that was geared to society and to "all sensory modalities." Painted images framed on walls, in other words, no longer cut it. This was the era of TV, film, and light projections; computers were in their infancy; man had just walked on the moon, wars were being fought far from home; nuclear terror reigned.

New technologies were transforming medicine, the military, and mass communications: The people at CAVS believed they should transform art too. Art, in turn, should be involved in transforming consciousness, and society at large.

How did all that work out, then?

As part of its 150th anniversary celebrations, the List Visual Arts Center at MIT has been looking back at several artists associated with CAVS, and the results have been illuminating. The recent Stan VanDerBeek retrospective gave an overview of that artist's bold and prescient experiments with TV, film-sampling, animation, multimedia happenings, interactive art, and computer art.

I knew next to nothing about VanDerBeek before I saw the show. Now, I'd find it hard to account for such superstars of contemporary art as Matthew Barney and Christian Marclay without first mentioning VanDerBeek.

Later this year, the List will take a look at a better known - and still living - CAVS fellow, Otto Piene, whose enormous light display, "SKY Event," was the culminating event of MIT's Festival of Arts, Science and Technology in May.

But right now, the List is hosting "Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect," the second in a trilogy of historical exhibitions looking back at CAVS artists and researchers. (The show is a collaboration with the Bronx Museum of the Arts and was organized by Valerie Smith, a Berlin-based curator.)

Not unlike the VanDerBeek extravaganza, it's hectic with video and audio spillover. Much of the film footage is shaky and interminable. And almost every audio component is spoiled by competing sounds from nearby. You walk in and immediately sense you are involved, against your will, in a psych experiment designed to stretch your tolerance for noise and visual confusion to the limit. Read more here

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About the author

The Boston Globe Journalist Series: Sebastian Smee
Sebastian Smee is the Globe's art critic, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He joined the paper's staff from Sydney, where he served as the national art critic for The Australian. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee. Read Smee's full bio.

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