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Robert Breer

CAPC Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France

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The situation is at once magic, hilarious and inexplicably subversive – a kind of sculptural comedy. In the middle of the CAPC Bordeaux’s majestic nave, around 20 coloured, abstract volumes made of polystyrene, plywood, foam or fibreglass (‘tanks’, ‘rugs’; a trapezium-like red block, a green pedestal, a large white double wall) crawl slowly and almost imperceptibly along the floor, bumping into one another here and there. These taciturn bodies (among which there is also an abstract painting, creeping on the wall) move in magical suspension a few centimetres away from the floor on what might be tiny motorized wheels – although the near-illusionistic device also suggests minuscule paws hiding somewhere underneath their shells.

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It is not surprising that Robert Breer, the American artist who created the ‘Floats’ in the mid-1960s and who took up making them again in the ‘90s, defined his moving sculptures once as ‘motorized molluscs’, shifting away from the indefinite solemnity behind which concrete sculpture was starting to disappear at that time. The zoological comparison is apt to these works, whose behaviour (rather than their form) brings about a somewhat figurative halo. In fact, the exhibition lends itself to all sorts of similes, provoking (as abstract sculpture rarely does) the visitor’s spasmodic laughter: sometimes the nave of CAPC appears as an esplanade colonized by erratic snails; sometimes the visitor feels surrounded by a bunch of sedated characters in an asylum. Or maybe the slowness of the figures (a yellow hedgehog that bumps against a fat tablet, for instance) could evoke an underwater quarrel between dense gastropods. None of this is caricature or interpretive excess: after creating the first set of ‘Floats’, Breer declared that he felt a sort of euphoria for ‘liberating’ his sculptures from their pedestals, as if they were living beings that would now be free to ‘leave the studio’. (There is actually a photograph, taken in 1965 by Frances Breer, in which we can see a group of Floats plodding on a country road.)
The value of Breer’s work in terms of what we know historically as minimalist sculpture has been widely discussed over the years, without any definite conclusion about the artist’s position within the movement. It seems quite plausible that Breer, initially very influenced by Jean Tinguely and the kinetic sculptural tradition (and also attached to concrete art), produced his early ‘Floats’ disregarding the production of artists such as Robert Morris or Carl Andre. Beyond the anxiety of chronology, Breer’s production of his ‘Floats’ has continued until the last decade, and the variety of his works (animation pieces, optical devices, sculptures) still stands as the best token of his independence. However, it is interesting to observe how his work can function as a powerful ironic comment (if not a perfect joke) about both minimalism and the formalist criticism of this movement. In fact, it is tempting to interpret the ‘Floats’ as a parody of Michael Fried’s anti-literalist doctrine, overwhelmed by concepts such as ‘absorption’, ‘facingness’ or ‘to-be-seenness’, which Breer’s moving molluscs seem to furtively mimic.

Manuel Cirauqui


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About this review

Published on 06/12/10
by Manuel Cirauqui


Other Articles by Manuel Cirauqui

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