Looking through the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection recently, a short note caught my attention. It read:
reel may have been compiled by Stan Brakhage
work in progress
The reel in question was Crystal Clips, a 16mm film that was gifted to the Walker in 2005 by Sally Dixon, one of the most significant curators of artists’ film from the 1970s. The reel’s status as a work by Stan Brakhage, one of America’s foremost experimental filmmakers, was as yet unconfirmed. I requested that it be brought up from the archive’s preservation freezer for closer inspection.
It takes about a day for a celluloid film reel to thaw and, on the cautious side, another day for the film to acclimatize to room temperature so one can safely handle and examine the material up close. So, while I was waiting, I set about sorting through other information that was more readily available, identifying the following questions: What was the relationship between its unconfirmed source (Stan Brakhage) and its eventual owner (Sally Dixon), and how might that inform the provenance of the reel? How and when was this film made and displayed? And, most crucially, was this indeed a Brakhage “work in progress”?
Answering the first question didn’t immediately demand a viewing of the film, and so below I attempt to answer it with historical context and some facts I do know for certain. (The other two questions required patience, a projectionist, and bookable time to run the print in the Walker Cinema; I’ll come to that in Part 2.) Here are some things I do know: Crystal Clips first came into the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson collection among 30 rare films in Dixon’s possession, most of which are works by Brakhage.
The curator and the artist first worked together in 1970, when Dixon had just established the Carnegie Museum of Art’s dedicated film section (later named the film department), which was only the second of its kind after MoMA’s film department in New York. At the Carnegie, Dixon hoped to develop greater museological context around artists’ film, a medium she considered as “the 21st-century art form.” She invited Brakhage to premiere a number of his recent films and, as he recalled, to bring him on as a lecturer in Pittsburgh.
It was through invitations such as this that Dixon began her career as a film curator. Her work went on to uniquely broaden the field of artists’ moving image, not simply because she was one of the only female curators working with moving image at the time, but because Dixon brought the work of an incipient generation of avant-garde filmmakers to new audiences throughout the Midwest. She cultivated a new appreciation and scholarship of these emerging artists’ film practices as they unfolded and grew.
She screened and discussed the work of artists including Kenneth Anger, Bruce Baillie, Robert Breer, Hollis Frampton, Ernie Gehr, Storm de Hirsch, Chick Strand, Carolee Schneeman, and many others—in addition to organizing tours for shows at other galleries and cinemas, working with Film in the Cities in St. Paul, and, later, founding Filmmakers Filming in 1979. At the Carnegie, Dixon was one of the first advocates for paying artists working with moving image (MoMA did not initially pay artist-filmmakers for the presentation of their work), a fundamental source of income to artists who were often struggling to afford to produce their own work. In an illuminating letter Schneeman wrote to James Tenney on August 9, 1973, she noted her own encounter with Dixon:
“Very hard to come by jobs lately. Only one thing for fall (Nov.) workshop & film retrospective at Carnegie Tech—which is great—no, Brakhage had nothing to do with it! Program run by a woman which means delight, curiosity, emotional generosity in all the dealings/arrangings.”
But it was primarily Dixon’s work in organizing the production of artists’ films—securing access to facilities, providing equipment, hosting her artists, as well as occasionally starring in a number of roles in front of the camera—for which she is perhaps better known, and it was this work as a commissioner that established her friendship with Brakhage.
In a letter in the Walker’s Sally Dixon Archive, Brakhage wrote to Dixon on September 8, 1970, to confirm his artist fee and travel arrangements to the Carnegie, adding:
“Thank you: Looking forward to the world premiere of these three new films—to get them happily out of my hair and into the eyes and knowing of the world… via this mysterious city Pittsburgh I’ve heard/seen so much about but never been able to visit.”
While picking up Brakhage from the Pittsburgh airport, Dixon and the photographer Mike Chikiris listened to the artist describe an unmade work he hoped to shoot in the back of a police car. In his hometown he hadn’t been successful in securing permission to ride with the Boulder Police Department. Dixon and Chikiris took on Brakhage’s project and arranged access for the artist to shoot in a number of Pittsburgh locations, including a police car. And so a year later, in the fall of 1971, Brakhage returned to shoot what was to become his Pittsburgh Trilogy (1971), also known as the Pittsburgh Documents. The Trilogy darkly documents the civic spaces of the police, a hospital, and a morgue; and respectively comprises eyes, Deus Ex, and, one of Brakhage’s most famous films, The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes.
Although Dixon left the Carnegie in 1975, she kept in close contact with Brakhage, exchanging a huge volume of letters, notes, films, programs, essays and newspaper clippings. Along with the voluminous number of letters she received from Brakhage, she also collected and was gifted a large number of his films, both on 8mm and 16mm. (While working my way through both collection and ephemera, I also found a hand-painted, 70mm trim among their correspondence, possibly from the period Brakhage worked with the format for Night Music (1986) and, a year later, for The Dante Quartet.)
Brakhage sent many of these films as gifts, in acknowledgement of Dixon’s relentless championing of his work. And when the Walker received Dixon’s film collection in 2005, the original cans, reels, and packaging were removed, and the films were transferred to archival plastic containers and placed in the archive’s freezer to keep the films stable.
Brakhage’s original packaging was kept together, and it was among these boxes that I located the original can for Crystal Clips—the most likely rationale behind the assignation of the reel to Brakhage. The grouping of the packing materials at the Walker mirrored Dixon’s own storage sequence for the films themselves but, even so, provenance of Crystal Clips was far from confirmed through its proximal location to other Brakhage works. That said, this did explain the “may have been” description that caught my eye in the first place. The question would have to be answered in relation to the content of the film itself.