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OSKAR FISCHINGER (1900-1967)

Molecular Study, 1965

36 x 48 inches  |  Oil on canvas

Sullivan Goss is proud to represent the Estate of Oskar Fischinger – a master of early non-objective painting, an inventor of the music video, a pioneer in multimedia immersive environments, and a prophet of both Op Art and contemporary computer-generated motion graphics. 

While Fischinger’s contribution to the development of cinema and animation have been well documented in two thoroughly-researched books, OPTICAL POETRY: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger, 2004 by Dr. William Mortiz and OSKAR FISCHINGER 1900-1967: Experiments in Cinematic Abstraction, 2012 edited by Cindy Keefer and Jaap Guldemond, the project to properly historicize – and thus celebrate – his contribution to American painting remains ongoing.

Oskar Fischinger was born into a middle-class family on June 22, 1900 in Gelnhausen, Germany near Frankfurt. He took violin lessons as a child and apparently enjoyed drawing. At age fourteen, he was an apprentice to an organ maker for a year before working as a draftsman in an architect’s office at age sixteen. His familiarity with mechanical tools and drafting were to prove important to his later work. Subsequently, he walked to Frankfurt, where he worked as a tool designer while earning his engineering license. Art historian Susan Ehrlich noted in her PhD thesis that, “Fischinger’s early training in music, engineering, and architecture would profoundly effect his later art which ... would display a draughtsman’s surety of hand, an engineer’s penchant for geometric form, and a musician’s sense of harmonic proportion.”

Through a lecture at “The Friends of Literature Club” in Frankfurt, Fischinger met Dr. Bernhard Diebold, an influential theater critic who called for a new blend of fine arts, music, dance, and cinema. In 1921, Oskar joined Diebold for a run-through of a new film called Lichtspiel Opus I [Light-Play, Work 1] by Walther Ruttmann – a 13 minute film of non-objective color effects with a musical accompaniment. Entranced by the work’s possibilities, Fischinger’s life took a decisive turn.

Using his engineering background, Fischinger created a machine called a “Wax-Slicing Machine” for expediting the creation of abstract imagery on film. He then licensed it to Ruttmann in November of 1922 and delivered it in February of 1923, where it was used for a special effects sequence in a film called The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Ultimately, Ruttmann was unable to use the machine to much effect, but Fischinger made at least ten minutes of film using the machine.

By 1929, Fischinger was a recognized innovator in his field. Fritz Lang used him to produce special effects for his Woman in the Moon film that same year.

In 1935, his animation Composition in Blue won the King’s Prize at the Brussels International Exposition held that year. In 1936, he was hired by Paramount to bring his advanced ideas and techniques to the U.S. According to Ilene Fort, he began painting “non- objective” paintings the next year, although there are illustrations of non-objective paintings by Fischinger dated 1936 in Martina Dillman’s PhD dissertation, “Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967) The Painterly Work.” 1936 was, coincidentally, the same year the nation’s most advanced and aspirational abstract artists formed the American Abstract Artists group.

By 1938, MGM released Fischinger’s An Optical Poem – a seven minute, hand painted and hand cut animation of circles, triangles, squares, and comet shapes set to “Second Hungarian Rhapsody” by Franz Liszt. It was screened across the world. It preceded Solomon R. Guggeheim’s Museum of Non-Objective Art by a year and Disney’s Fantasia (on which Fischinger also worked) by two years. Remarkably, it was Fischinger’s 43rd film project.

1938 was also the year that Fischinger showed with Karl Nierendorf in New York. They knew each other from Germany. Fischinger had, in fact, secreted a good deal of Nierendof’s inventory of abstract art out of Nazi Germany as a favor. The exhibition was important to Fischinger’s future in two respects. First, Nierendorf was able to sell one of Fischinger’s paintings to Katherine Dreier – co-organizer of the Société Anonyme with Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and Man Ray (1890-1976). They were dedicated to teaching the American public about the latest trends in European and American Art through a series of exhibitions and lectures across the U.S. Secondly, the Nierendorf exhibition introduced Fischinger’s work to Hilda Rebay, doyenne of the future Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Non-Objective Art (today’s Guggenheim Musem). The Guggenheim, in turn, helped support Fischinger through the War Years with three grants – one of which helped finance his film Radio Dynamics of 1942.

Fischinger’s last major film Motion Painting No. 1 of 1947 followed. Alternatively exciting and meditative, the eleven-minute film showed the artist’s abstract paintings take shape. It was shown to standing ovations at both the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1949, the film won the International Experimental Film Competition in Brussels. Subsequent films showing Jackson Pollock (1950) and Pablo Picasso (1956) in the process of creation won over many who didn’t fully get what the whole “modern art thing” was about.

Fischinger was certainly a committed figure of the L.A. group of avant-garde artists in the 40s. He was friends with art dealer Galka Scheyer, architects Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, the musician Arnold Schoenberg, and artists like Lorser Feitelson (1898-1978), Peter Krasnow (1886-1979), Knud Merrild (1894-1954), and Stanton MacDonald-Wright (1890-1973). He continued to have important exhibitions at the Frank Perls Gallery in Beverly Hills, the San Francsico Museum of Art, and the Pasadena Art Museum (today’s Norton Simon) and to show in important group exhibitions at the Guggenheim, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but he never quite became a household name. In part, his generation’s success in convincing the public of modern art’s imperatives paved the way for the more successful generation of Abstract Expressionists that followed.

Since then, his reputation has grown and grown. Two monographs have been published. His painting was on the cover of a pivotal 1990 exhibition, Turning the Tide: Early Los Angeles Modernists 1920-1956, and he was given a full essay in the Smithsonian’s book on the subject. Within the last decade his film work has been featured at the Tate Modern and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 2017, he was the subject of a “Google Doodle”–a Google home page link celebrating a person’s cultural and technical contributions to the world. It seems that Fischinger’s work was simply too far ahead of its time.

 

Videos

7:18  |  Narrated by Jeremy Tessmer  |  Released for DREWES | FISCHINGER | GORDIN: The Invention of American Abstract Art​, 2020

8:16  |  Narrated by Jeremy Tessmer  |  Released for CALIFORNIA BAUHAUS: Influence & Adaptation, 2019

More Information

SOLO EXHIBITIONS (Compiled in part by the Center for Visual Music)

1938 Karl Nierendorf Gallery, New York, NY
1938 Philip C. Boyer Gallery, New York, NY
1939 -1940 Stendhal Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
1949 Art Center College of Design, Los Angeles, CA
1950 Forsythe Gallery, Hollywood, CA
1951 Frank Perls Gallery, Beverly Hills, CA
1953 "New Works of Oskar Fischinger," San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, CA
1956 Pasadena Museum of Art, Pasadena, CA
1963-64 Ernest Raboff Gallery, Hollywood, CA
1965 American City Bank, Los Angeles, CA
1966 Drew Gallery, Pasadena, CA
1970 "Bildmusik," Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, CA
1971 Goethe Center, San Francisco, CA
1971 The Egg and the Eye Art Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
1973 "Oskar Fischinger 1900-1967," Occidental College Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
1977 Goethe Center, Montréal, Canada
1981 Gallery 609, Denver, CO
1982 Tobey C. Moss Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
1985 "Oskar Fischinger: Experiments with Animation," Cambridge Animation Festival, Cambridge UK
1990 Galerie Kroner, Wiesbaden, Germany
1991 "Oskar Fischinger: Light, Space and Rhythm," Tobey C. Moss Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
1993 "Optische Poesie," Deutsches Filmmuseum, Frankfurt, Germany
1994 Luckman Fine Arts Gallery, California State College, Los Angeles, CA
1998 Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, Los Angeles, CA
2005 Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, Los Angeles, CA
2005 Goethe Institute, Washington DC
2007 "Movement and Spirit," Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, St. Louis, MO,
2010 "A Fischinger Celebration." Goethe Institut Los Angeles. Organized by CVM. September 23.
2011 "Oskar Fischinger: Paintings," at Peyton-Wright Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico. July 1 - August 3.
2012 "Oskar Fischinger: Space Light Art, A Film Environment," Raumlichtkunst installation at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, June-October 2012. Reviewed in New York Times and Artforum,
2012-13 "Oskar Fischinger: Experiments in Cinematic Abstraction." EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam. Co-organized by Center for Visual Music and EYE. .
2017-18 Oskar Fischinger: Raumlichtkunst. Weinstein Gallery at SoMA, San Francisco, CA, December 2017-February 2018. Included paintings and animation artwork. Catalog.
2018 "Oskar Fischinger: Paintings from the Permanent Collection." Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, CA 

 

COLLECTIONS

Museum of Modern Art MOMA (Square #1 - 2672, 1934)
Guggenheim Museum (Untitled, 1942)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art LACMA (Abstraction, 1943)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art SFMOMA (Circles in Circle, 1949)
TATE Modern (Untitled, 1952)
Laguna Art Museum, CA (Snow White, Red Circle, 1943 & Finger Painting, 1943)
De Young Museum, San Francisco, CA (Rhythmic Tapestry, 1952)
Smithsonian American Art Museum (Circles, Triangles, and Squares, 1938)
Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA (Bird in Flight, 1946)
Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, CA (Yellow Brown, 1944 & Untitled, 1940 & Crystals, 1960 & Untitled, 1934 & Illuminated, c. 1959 & Blue Green, 1951Angel, c. 1962 & Head, 1946 & Untitled, 1960 & Untitled, ND)
San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA (Balls #16, 1964 & Light Area, Motion in Space, 1944)
The Buck Collection at UCI Institute and Museum of California Art, Irvine CA ICMA (Spheres, 1941
Yale University Art Gallery (Abstraction, 1936) *orginally sold to Katherine Dreier, co-founder of Societé Anonyme with Marcel Duchamp

SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS (Compiled in part by the Center for Visual Music)

1945 The Museum of Non-Objective Painting (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation), New York, NY
1945 Non-Objective Painting, Fort Worth Public Library, Fort Worth, TX 
1947 American Contemporary Gallery, Hollywood, CA (with Jules Engel & Herb Klynn)
1947 "Abstract and Surrealist American Art," Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago IL
1947 San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, CA
1949 "California Centennial Exhibition," Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles CA
1951 "Contemporary Painting in the United States," Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles CA
1952 "Artists of Los Angeles and Vicinity," Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles CA
1959 Pasadena Art Museum, Pasadena, CA
1960 UCLA Art Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
1960 San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, CA
1976-77 "Painting and Sculpture in California: The Modern Era," San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
1982 "L'Art du Cinema Animation," The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
1990-92 "Turning the Tide: Early Los Angeles Modernists 1920-1956." Laguna Art Museum, CA; Oakland Museum, Oakland CA; Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute, San Antonio, TX; Nora Eccles Harrison Art Museum, Utah State University, Logan, UT; Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA; Palm Springs Desert Museum, Palm Springs, CA
1992-93 "Theme and Improvisation: Kandinsky and the American Avant-Garde 1912- 1950." Dayton Art Institute, Dayton OH; Phillips Collection, Washington DC; Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, IL; Amon Carter Museum, Ft. Worth, TX
2000 "Made in California," Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
2002 Pasadena Museum of California Art, Pasadena, CA
2004-5 "Sons et Lumières." Centre Pompidou, Paris, France (animation artwork)
2005 "Visual Music," Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles CA and The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (films and animation artwork)
2006-2010 "The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America." Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Philips Collection, Washington, DC; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX; Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, TN; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
2012-2013 "Structure and Clarity," Tate Modern Collection Displays. Raumlichtkunst installation at Tate Modern, London, through May 2013
2015 "Art of Music," San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA
2016-17 "Art and Cinema, 120 years of exchange," Caixa Forum, Barcelona and Madrid
2016-17 "Dreamlands, Immersive Cinema and Art," Whitney Museum, New York 
2017 "Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim," Guggenheim Museum, New York
2017 "Maven of Modernism: Galka Scheyer in California," Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA
2018-19 "First Glimpse, Introducing the Buck Collection." UCI Institute and Museum for California Art. Sept 2018-Jan 2019

 

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. Millier, Arthur. "Fischinger Still Paintings on Exhibit at Pasadena." Los Angeles Times 30 Dec. 1956.

2. Rosenblum, Gordon. Oskar Fischinger, 1900 - 1967. Fischinger, a Retrospective of Paintings and Films. Curators Gerald Nordland and Gordon Rosenblum. Denver, CO: Gallery 609, 1980.

3. Ehrlich, Susan. "Oskar Fischinger." Turning The Tide: Early Los Angeles Modernists, 1920-1956. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1990. 63-67.

4. Lorenz, Marianne. "Oskar Fischinger." Theme And Improvisation: Kandinsky and The American Avant-Garde. Dayton Art Institute, 1992: 159-162.

5. Karlstrom, Paul J., ed. On the Edge of America - California Modernist Art 1900 - 1950. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996. 13, 224-228, 232, 238, 283.

6. Knight, Christopher. "First Class Study of Fischinger's Impact." Los Angeles Times 2 May 1998: F1.

7. Moritz, William. Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger. Eastleigh: John Libbey, 2004

8. Karole Vail, ed. The Museum of Non-Objective Painting: Hilla Rebay and The Origins of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2009.

9. Diehl, Carol. "Oskar Fischinger, New York, Whitney Museum." in Art in America. November, 2012

10. Keefer, Cindy; Guldemond, Jaap. eds. Oskar Fischinger 1900 - 1967: Experiments in Cinematic Abstraction. Amsterdam and Los Angeles: Eye Filmmuseum and Center for Visual Music, 2013. 

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The Gallery is incredibly indebted to Dr. William Mortiz for his lifelong passion project to document and preserve the cultural legacy of Oskar Fischinger as well as to curators like Ilene Susan Fort of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Susan Ehrlich, and Paul Karlstrom of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art for their research and writing about Fischinger’s career. Sullivan Goss also wishes to express its gratitude to gallerists like John Wright Schaefer, Jack Rutberg, Tobey Moss and Herbert Palmer for helping to build the foundation for the artist’s current reputation. The Center for Visual Music is also an excellent resource for scholarly information about the artist’s life and work.

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