Arts Desk

How the American Art Museum Acquired and Rehabilitated Nam June Paik’s Work

Nam June Paik, "Electronic Superhighway," 1995

In 2002, when the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired Nam June Paik’s "Electronic Superhighway,” a neon-outlined wall of televisions that forms a map of the United States, it didn't arrive in a truck or a van. Instead, it arrived in a box, in pieces: some electronics, videos, broken neon, and most surprisingly, no televisions.

Turns out, there is more to displaying a Paik than plugging it in and turning it on.

“One thing about [Paik] is that he never curated his career,” says Betsy Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Instead of keeping a couple of pieces from an exhibition tucked away in the closet, he would usually recycle components and use them in other works. He couldn’t have fit it all in any normal closet anyway: “Electronic Superhighway” consumes 2,400 cubic feet.

Considering the condition "Electronic Superhighway" arrived in, acquiring Paik’s estate archive might have seemed like a booby prize. But in 2009, that’s what the Smithsonian did. Locally, there wasn’t much fanfare over the Smithsonian’s big get, but in the museum world, it was huge: The Whitney, the Guggenheim, the MoMA, and the Getty had all vied for it—with good reason. Paik, who died in 2006, is considered the father of video and television art.

Though, he didn’t limit himself to movies on a TV screen. He developed synthesizers that manipulated the broadcast of video, sometimes live. He used the TV as sculptural unit, creating video walls and free-standing video objects. He incorporated TVs into wearables: bras, eyeglasses, a crude jockstrap. He used the television as a medium, disrupting its magnetic distribution of electrons for non-image, light-based works. Beyond that, he wrote compositions and musical scores, made performance art, and worked with lasers—even a satellite. Actually, calling him merely the “father of video art” doesn’t really do him justice.

Last week, the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art unveiled the anticipated exhibition, “Nam June Paik, Global Visionary,” which incorporates more than 140 objects from the archive as well as some pieces borrowed from other institutions. But the journey to Thursday’s opening didn’t begin in 2009; in many respects it began 17 years ago.

When Broun first saw "Megatron/Matrix” in 1995 during a visit to the Guggenheim branch in SoHo, she could scarcely believe what she saw. The piece consists of a wall of 215 television screens, divided into two distinct compositions: a visual cacophony of 150 screens on the left, combining overlapping animation and video; on the right, a smaller video composite, radially split like a pinwheel around a single central television of two nude female models. In short, it had razzle-dazzle galore. Broun went back the next morning to see if it was as good as she remembered. It was. “I thought, ‘We have to show it,’” she says.

Megatron/Matrix, 1995

When she returned to D.C., Broun raved about the piece to a member of American Art’s board of commissioners, Ken Hakuta. His response? "Well, you know, Paik is my uncle.”

Hakuta’s serendipitous familial connection helped Broun arrange a temporary showing of “Megatron/Matrix” in 1995. The exhibit lasted several weeks, and the work returned to New York. But Broun couldn’t get it out of her head. Three years later, the Smithsonian purchased the piece. It’s now part of the American Art Museum’s permanent collection.

Paik died at his Miami home in 2006. In April of that year, the Guggenheim held a memorial dinner, and Broun found herself talking with John G. Hanhardt, then the Guggenheim’s senior curator of film and media arts. Hanhardt had worked with Paik since the 1970s, first as head of the film and media department at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where he included Paik in its 1977 biennial, and organized Paik’s first retrospective in 1982. Handhardt brought up the need for a canonical history of the moving image in art. Who was creating its archive, building its collection, and writing its history? At the time, it seemed, hardly anyone. Broun told Hanhardt he should come down to the American Art Museum and do it. "We are the best at creating the historical archive,” she says. “Somehow out of that dinner we got serious about that idea."

By 2006, Hanhardt had been at the Guggenheim for a decade. He felt he had achieved a lot with their collection, but he wanted to shift his attention toward archives. “I didn't see that on [the Guggenheim’s] horizon in the ways I wanted it to be,” he says. He admired the way the Smithsonian had handled the diverse Joseph Cornell archives, which American Art opened to the public in the fall of 2006. He cites that as one of his primary reasons for joining the Smithsonian as a consulting curator on film and media that year.

But he especially appreciated how Broun went above and beyond in order to restore and exhibit “Electronic Superhighway.” While the museum was closed for renovations in 2002, they assembled the artwork at a warehouse off-site. The museum replaced its broken neon fragments, acquired TVs, built a new armature, and repositioned a closed-circuit camera inside of the piece. Unfortunately the artist died before he could see his grand work newly resurrected and installed at the museum when it reopened in the summer of 2006.

When he passed away, his archive became the responsibility of his nephew and executor, Hakuta. The estate invited proposals from five institutions to learn how they might utilize the archive. Come 2009, the American Art Museum had won the estate, and the next phase began: combing through the contents of seven tractor trailers, each containing a fraction of the Paik’s life’s work. At least this time, the acquisition came with a few televisions.

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