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Geometric Psychotropic: Hans Richter at LACMA

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Hans Richter: Encounters, is an unassuming gem of an experience currently exhibiting at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The retrospective examines not so much Richter’s career as it does his career as defined by collaborations with other artists. In a parallel stroke of ingenuity, the curators have set up the exhibition experience for visitors to not so much see the exhibition as to see the exhibition in collaboration with interactive media. What could have been a lacklustre walk through a series of rooms with art by someone whose works resembled those of other, more famous artists is now an exciting journey through artistic communities, interactive technology, and some truly mind-bending moments.

Hans Richter (1888-1976) was, according to LACMA, a “polymath, painter, filmmaker, and writer.” As a young German devout in his curiosity for art, he was in the right place at the right time when it came to being part of all the major art movements of the early twentieth century: Expressionism, Dadaism, Constructivism, and Surrealism. He created artworks that reflect each of these movements, which are dutifully displayed throughout the exhibition. Yet on his own he does not seem to have been an inventor; as a man of many interests he possessed no singular obsession and therefore what he produced looks remarkably similar to his more famous contemporaries (who were more singular in their obsessions, presumably). His skill was in collaborating with other artists to augment their ideas and breathe life into them from different angles than an artist had originally imagined.  There are films by Hans Richter and Man Ray, toy suitcase-dioramas by Hans Richter and Marcel Duchamp, and experimental paintings and films by Hans Richter and Kazimir Malevich. One can almost imagine Richter strolling up to El Lissitzky, looking over his shoulder, and remarking, “Hey man, that’s a pretty neat image you just made. Say, how do you think it would look as a stop-action film? Or as a jacket? Wanna make it happen?”

In addition to the antique methods of blowing minds (I watched a Dada film collaboration between Richter and Ray in which a fat man plays peeping-Tom to a host of individuals who live in laundromat washing machines, and gets sprayed, washed, and eventually pulled improbably into one of the machines where lives a woman who wants to kiss him and pointedly puts on an extra-froth wash cycle as she leans in to kiss him), there were some new-fangled methods that left me impressively loopy. These experiential installations (a marketing technique which museums are clambering to get the funds for to implement) allowed visitors to talk about specific parts of the exhibition while learning about it through multimedia. One of the features was a film by Richter and Malevich. The film was never completed and the film fragments never quite put in order. In the Constructivist theory of discovery based on one’s own interpretation, viewers could use a computer to select film fragments in various orders and then have “their” film played back on a screen across the room that other visitors could watch. It felt intellectual and trippy at the same time to me to select vibrating squares, rotating circles, and other pulsing polygon patterns and make something that other people stopped to look at (and I started a line for it).

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My favorite technology-collaborative aspect was the iPad kiosk. Instructions were put in a secondary position so the visitors didn’t know exactly what they were supposed to be doing, but it seemed obvious that the iPads should be picked up based on their placement. Near the ground, they seemed to act as normal iPad cameras, screening the outside world. But as one lifted them higher, strange things started happening! Strange, pixelated scaffolds unfolded and obstructed the view. A ticking clock with no backing surface hung in the air by the south wall of the room, Swirling blue spheres hurled through the air at random intervals. Near the ceiling was a dashed grid that suspended various objects within them. I felt a lost sense of space and gravity as I saw the world around me through the heightened, weird universe of the iPad. In fact, I couldn’t put it down long enough to read about the source of inspiration for the feature, though a passing docent explained to me that the constructions were based on ideas and artworks bey some of the collaborative artists shown alongside Richter in the exhibition. I walked away from that point slightly dizzy, expecting to have a sphere throttle toward me at any moment, and nearly walked straight into a movie screen where giant black squares were zooming in and out of the frame at alarming speeds to quiet, dissonant music. As a merger of the old and the new in technology and viewer participation, Hans Richter: Encounters was an exceptional collaboration and a surprisingly psychotropic adventure.

Images via Youtube.com and Robin Red / ArtNerdLA.

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