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Not Your MTV

Andy Mann treats video like abstract art

That instant of restrained sentiment is embedded in a stream of lovely pictures that range from slightly to very abstract, hiccuping in a rhythm reminiscent of the throbbing of single-cell organisms, silent supernovas, swimming sperm. In his images of light sprinkled on water, the moon shot through flames, even the copper-colored fountain towers of Tranquility Park, Mann has captured something primally biological, or bio-geological. That theme is carried over into the video kaleidoscopes, two of which are on view. When you put your head into the hexagonal tube of mirrors, the video screen at the end is reflected in such a way that it seems like a globe, a roiling planet that has not yet hardened into earth.

In the early '70s, after graduating from New York University's School of Film and Television, Andy became part of the first wave of artists to experiment with video. Some were convinced the medium would revolutionize art, and maybe television as well. Others complained, as Allan Kaprow did in Artforum, that video art was simply an "old wine" in a "new bottle," that the art produced was not living up to the radical promise of its medium.

Early video art came in two varieties. First, and most obvious, was the theatrical, narrative sort, often used by performance artists to preserve their work and reach a broader audience. The other focused on techniques unique to video. The vertical hiccup that occurs when your TV reception's not right, for example, became a formal element. The idea that video could be expressive in itself, rather than as a way of documenting action, is analogous to the idea that underlies abstract painting: that paint need not be solely dedicated to representing the world outside the window.

At times Andy Mann's glowing video pyramid looks like some post-Aztec gift to the gods.
At times Andy Mann's glowing video pyramid looks like some post-Aztec gift to the gods.

Basically Mann is the video equivalent of an abstract painter, and he has come as close as anyone to making something that's entirely born of video's capabilities. Near the outset of his career, he learned to flip and reverse images and began using four monitors, arranged two by two, as a basic unit, refracting single images into balletic four-way symmetries. After some early short videos such as One-Eyed Bum, which still gets included in video exhibits, Andy stopped framing his images as if they'd be viewed on a single monitor and started framing them with a diagonal emphasis, the better to fit the "X Matrix" (when oriented a certain way, the same image displayed on four monitors forms a central X.) Though he did tape real-world images, he cared more for aesthetic qualities than subject matter -- one four-monitor piece that was shown at the Whitney Biennial had two strings of images, one light (filmed outside), the other dark (filmed inside).

A Soho scenester, Andy was represented by a top gallery, Leo Castelli, and says the video curator there told him that he could go far if he would take himself seriously. "That turned out to be a problem," says Andy. "I just didn't consider myself star material." Instead, in 1976, Andy retreated to Houston, where his friend Jim Harithas was curator of the Contemporary Arts Museum. Here, he expanded on and perfected the grid concept, using multiple monitors in different configurations, such as the Video Christmas Tree.

As much as Mann's work depends on cheesy effects such as colorization and making images negative, he doesn't embrace the glibber aspects of video theory. He doesn't, for example, show you a hundred things at once, as if that is somehow better than one thing at a time. Rather, he shows you one thing a hundred times, a hundred different ways, fashioning a new, bigger meaning instead of shattering an image into fragmented messages. I haven't seen such good television since James Turrell hid a TV behind a scrim at the CAM and had us watch its reflected glow. If video didn't revolutionize art, Mann at least proves its legitimacy as a medium, and he does so by using it to amplify the flow of life in a way that, oddly for such a mouthy self-saboteur, drives home the point that it goes on and on.

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