Remembering Hans Breder

Sunday, June 18th my major professor, Hans Breder, passed away. Hans was instrumental in the development of video and performance art, launching the first MFA in Intermedia/Multimedia at the University of Iowa after a career in New York, showing at the Richard L Feigen gallery and continuing through recent shows at the Dansiger Gallery.

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Breder was considered a minimalist, creating combines of mirrors, reflective boxes and simple linear paintings as well as body sculptures, photos of women with mirrors. The paintings would be reflected by the boxes and mirrors, creating an interactive experience for the viewer. As the viewer moves around the art object, it changes composition. Static lines become moving shapes and the focal point changes within the composition. Breder explored ‘liminal‘ spaces. A limen is a doorway between spaces, and Breder explored the metaphysical components of this concept. What is the reality of the painting or the reflective object? When we look through a mirror into a transitory “space.” In academic terms, the Intermedia/Multimedia program was developed for the purpose to explore the indefinite spaces between art forms.

Breder also explored the history of his home country, Germany in a 1996 interactive CD ROM, The Nazi Loop. Growing up in a violent and chaotic post World War II working class town Breder began looking beyond his current condition at an early age. I asked him about that time and he had little to say beyond the uncertainty of that time and place. His experiences in the art world and New York where there was an openness to explore the new and to take the time to try were the experiences on which he wanted to ruminate.

I recall a day in class where he lamented artist’s unwillingness to take time the way the experimentalists of the 1960’s and 70’s would. He described a performance where by hour nine only he and the artist were left in the performance space. “Something else happens when you stay with a performance for that long,” he said. Our intermedia studio was four hours and we usually experienced between one and four performances each class.

Breder’s program has influenced the history of modern, postmodern and contemporary art, including noted alumni Anna Mendieta and Charles Ray. Graduates of the program have worked as studio assistants for the likes of Bill Viola, known for making high budget, boundary pushing video portraits and sculptural installations exploring, nature, beauty and the spiritual in art. Others, like myself, have gone on to teach art and design, bringing the Intermedia approach to process and interdisciplinary thinking to design and media classrooms. He brought numerous visiting artists, including collaborations with recently deceased poet, performance, installation and video artist, and architectural instigator Vito Acconci.

In my own experience, Breder’s teaching opened me up to a new way of looking and deconstructing the world, its messages, ideas and images. The summer after moving from Iowa to Portland Oregon I made a video piece to reflect on my own thinking about the works of Breder, Mendieta and Aconci.

Something I struggled with and doubted in the program was the social value of the reduction of boundaries. Over the years I’ve met numerous women who felt Breder came on too strong. At a gallery opening in Portland one artist told me, “one time he came into my studio while I was painting, pulled me toward him and began weeping while holding me in a bear hug.” Others indicated that they had to continually brush off or create barriers between themselves and Breder because of his constant presentation of sexualized tone and innuendo. The former students affirmed the value of the program and experience, yet expressed a component of boundary maintenance that was not required of male students. These expressions led me to perceive that the experience of the program was unlikely to be the same across gender lines, and that a rigorous respect for students and clear ethical boundaries regarding interpersonal relationships between instructors and students is an imperative in continuing the legacy of liminal and intermedia arts.

The value of the thinking produced by Breder’s program continues today. The program and Breder’s instruction were at the forefront of the transition from technique and product based arts education to process and innovation based training. Today as media and tools for creating and expressing continue to proliferate we see the emergence of balanced process and technique curriculum and programs

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