An artist whose work, 15 years after his death, still feels prescient, while radiating an optimism we currently need, Nam June Paik, the “father of video art,” is the subject of a new retrospective on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Oct. 3.
Organized by SFMOMA and the Tate Modern, London, “Nam June Paik” contains a near-overwhelming 200-plus works by Paik, representing his five-decade career. SFMOMA is the only U.S. venue hosting the show.
Paik (1932-2006), who was born in what is now South Korea and also lived in Japan, Germany and the United States, was not only a video artist but a multidisciplinary innovator whose “groundbreaking and contemporary influence is even more based on his crossover between all media,” says SFMOMA curator Rudolf Frieling.
Combining visual art, music, electronics and performance, Paik’s work was experimental, conceptual, irreverent, playful, serious, poignant and reflective of both his adventurous nature and the radicalism of his times.
His influences included his musical training, Buddhism and artists including composer John Cage.
In 1974, Paik — a member of Fluxus, the artist community that embraced experimental creative processes — coined the term “electronic superhighway,” which came to describe the internet-age flow of information a few decades later.
Operating in times predating dark-web activity and internet trolls, Paik viewed technology as a tool that would soon be connecting people worldwide in the spirit of cooperation and humanity. His art radiates positive spirit.
The thematically organized exhibition features works ranging from early musical presentations to TV sculptures and installations to provocative performance pieces to MTV-era international satellite video link-ups.
Elements from “Exposition of Music-Electronic Television,” Paik’s first major project, are on view. The immersing audience-participatory work, which debuted in Wuppertal, Germany, in 1963, contained modified musical instruments, such as customized and broken pianos and recording devices.
Paik took a similar approach to the use of television sets, which he often modified with magnets, altering images and sounds.
TV sets were to Paik what bronze and marble were to sculptors of yore. They were a primary material in installations such as his famous “TV Buddha” (1974) — which appeared in several incarnations, initially with an 18th-century Buddha statue watching itself on a 20th-century TV — and in pieces mixing electronics and live performance.
His TV sculptures sometimes had a deliberate rudimentary quality that illustrated his view of the screen as down-to-earth and accessible.
“TV Chair” (1968) is an amusing work with a chair, TV and camera — created to allow sitters to view themselves on a television screen.
“TV Garden” (1974-1977/2002), a showstopper, features dozens of TV sets placed in a setting of plant life. Buddhist in tone, the installation demonstrates the concept of connectedness, in terms of technology’s compatibility with the natural world.
Paik’s collaborations with other artists also receive significant attention. Featured prominently is cellist Charlotte Moorman, who shared Paik’s convention-busting approach to art and worked with Paik for nearly 30 years.
“TV Cello”(1971) — TV sets and other materials arranged into the shape of a cello — is on view. When Moorman plays the instrument, an image of her appears on the screens.
The pair’s best-known collaboration, a 1967 attempt to put sexuality into the chaste world of music, featured Moorman performing topless. The act got her arrested and prompted Paik to create a “TV Bra” (on display in the exhibit) to prevent future legal run-ins.
Additional featured creative collaborations include those with Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Works saluting them include two of Paik’s TV-set robots: “John Cage Robot II” (1995) and “Merce/Digital” (1988).
“Zen for Film” (1962-1964), inspired by Cage’s silent music, consisted of a blank reel projected onto a screen.
In “Chongro Cross” (1991), an installation suggesting a shrine and revealing Paik’s soulful side, Paik honors his family history and Korean traditions. The work, which includes photographs, objects and TVs, also salutes another Paik collaborator — German artist Joseph Beuys — with its inclusion of a fedora, a fashion item Beuys frequently wore.
Another personal work is a 2005 “Self-Portrait,” one of Paik’s later works. It consists of (what else?) a TV set, on which Paik playfully presents his visage.
As technology became increasingly sophisticated, Paik rose to its possibilities, with ambitious satellite hook-ups that prefigured internet technology.
The show includes two such video projects: “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell” (1984, naturally), an upbeat work that countered George Orwell’s grim worldview; and “Bye Bye Kipling” (1986), which, by connecting Seoul, Tokyo and New York City, debunked Rudyard Kipling’s famous statement that East and West could never meet.
The exhibition culminates in a reconstruction of Paik’s “Sistine Chapel,” a monumental video installation that first appeared at the 1993 Venice Biennale.
At once anarchic and arresting, this grand finale both recaps the entire exhibition and delivers a blast of Nam June Paik — an artist who could shake up seemingly incompatible elements in a creative beaker, project the results onto a wall, and come up with something spectacular.
IF YOU GO
Nam June Paik
Where: Fourth floor, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except closed Wednesdays and to 1 to 8 p.m. Thursdays); through Oct. 3
Tickets: $19 to $25; free for 18 and younger
Contact: (415) 357-4000, sfmoma.org
Note: COVID-19 safety measures include timed ticket entry for all patrons.