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2015.09.17 Thu, by
Nam June Paik: The Late Style (1996–2006)

“Nam June Paik: The Late Style” by John G. Hanhardt

On the occasion of the exhibition at Gagosian Gallery, Hong Kong, Randian is pleased to share an essay by leading Nam June Paik scholar, John G. Hanhardt, commissioned by Gagosian Gallery for the exhibition catalogue.

Gagosian Gallery (7/F Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Hong Kong), Sep 17–Nov 7, 2015

GRASP the Eternity.
—Nam June Paik, 1964 (1)

Nam June Paik (1932–2006) was a true visionary. He not only transformed video into an artist’s medium but also worked in an extraordinary range of media, including sculpture, installation art, television, performance art, music composition, painting, and drawing. A charismatic figure, he had a profound influence on the art world and a global reputation. He came to be identified with several of the countries in which he lived and worked, from his native Korea to Japan, Germany, France, Italy, and the United States, where he made his home after moving to New York City in 1964.

Paik’s achievements have been the subject of countless exhibitions, articles, catalogues, documentaries, and book-length studies, but until now, none have focused on the large body of work he created in his studio in the last ten years of his life. Those ten years began with a stroke Paik suffered in 1996, when he was sixty-four years old. As an introduction to what I am calling Paik’s “late style,” I will first focus on two of his commissions, from 2000 and 2004, respectively. Both of these large-scale works embody the ambition and complexity of his artwork from this period. “Modulation in Synch” (2000) was commissioned for his retrospective “The Worlds of Nam June Paik”, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Guggenheim Bilbao in 2000. In this remarkable artwork, Paik opened up Frank Lloyd Wright’s and Frank Gehry’s exhibition spaces to every dimension of the moving image. The centerpiece of the exhibition, which Paik sketched out for me over many visits to his studio and homes in New York City and Miami Beach, was a multistory waterfall through which a laser beam would be captured as it bounced off of mirrors positioned on both sides of the falling water from the base to the top. The exhibition floor was covered with a multi-channel display of monitors, screens facing up, showing a mix edited from his many videotapes. Another laser, projected from the floor, traced a changing geometry of shapes on the ceiling. These patterns recalled his earliest treatments of the cathode ray tube and the development of the Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer. Screens placed on the surrounding walls displayed projections of his celebrated live global-satellite-transmitted performances.

“Modulation in Synch” was described by Paik as a “post-video” celebration of past accomplishments and an expression of the future as the moving image expands and transforms itself beyond video through the power of laser and new media. The waterfall, with its laser propelled through cascading water, filled the space with sound and embodied change and movement as it linked the different modalities of the moving image installed in the exhibition space. As visitors walked across the ground floor and up the ramps in New York and through the galleries in Bilbao, they saw the unfolding presence of the moving image. The multi-sensorial experience in the Guggenheim museums created by the artist embodied the electronic moving image’s ability to create and circulate new views of our world. “Modulation in Synch” is as powerful an experience as Paik’s concept of the “electronic superhighway,” which he first named in a paper he wrote for the Rockefeller Foundation in 1972. That essay was prescient in anticipating the Internet and the expanding flow of art and ideas. This installation, created almost thirty years later, takes viewers into the outer reaches of communication as it projects its energy, figuratively and literally via the laser projection, throughout and potentially beyond the museum into a new virtual art world.

In 2004 Paik was commissioned to create another large installation, “Global Groove 2004″, for a one-artist exhibition celebrating his seminal 1973 videotape “Global Groove” at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. He fashioned a multi-channel mix of his videotapes that played on walls of monitors placed in the gallery. The installation was a powerful celebration of the premiere of “Global Groove”, which had proclaimed a future in which “TV Guide would be as thick as the Manhattan telephone directory.” (2) Key to this installation was the “One Candle (Candle Projection)” (1998), which features a closed-circuit video camera trained on the flickering flame of a candle that is projected in larger scale onto the walls of the gallery. The candle’s light gave a materiality to time and change as it flickered on the walls. In this installation, the “living” presence of the electronic moving image was joined with a multi-channel treatment of multiple points of view and multiple possibilities for communication and expression composed on the walls of monitors. It was a fitting tribute to Berlin, a city that was a part of Paik’s global journey from his homeland of Korea to New York City, where “Global Groove” was produced. His visit to Berlin for that project would be his last trip to Germany, and it was the occasion for a gathering of his old friends, including poet and Fluxus artist Emmett Williams. Two years later, Paik passed away at his residence in Miami Beach.

These exhibitions at the Guggenheim museums in New York City, Bilbao, and Berlin were the most visible representation of work created by the artist in the last ten years of his life after his stroke. This exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery offers for the first time a fuller look at the artwork created by Paik during this period. For me, looking at the sculptures, drawings, and paintings he created in his studio during this period brought back memories of visiting him in the hospital shortly after his stroke. He immediately gave me several sketches on paper. While his physical condition was changed, his desire to create and communicate through his art was undiminished, and he wanted to give me something that expressed his determination as he faced an uncertain future. He clearly felt the need to express himself visually and hold onto his art making. In the course of the next ten years, he returned to his studio and fashioned an array of pieces that are linked to the story of his life. “He felt a frustration and lack of physical freedom,” observed Jon Huffman—former studio assistant, now curator, of the Nam June Paik Estate—who worked closely with Paik at this time. But by working, Huffman said, Paik “could transcend his physical limits and reclaim his relation to the world.” (3)

The late pieces are not nostalgic ruminations on his past or glosses of his previous work. Rather, they are impassioned and radically new expressions of self-reflection. The gesture of drawing as a means to bring all that he accomplished into a vibrant presence in his studio is evident in this work and in the variety of media and forms of expression Paik explored. From early on, Paik drew in the margins of his writings and used the graphic arts as a means to poetically expand on the forms he was exploring in new media technology. We see elements of the Opus Paintings from the 1970s continuing in his “Notebooks”. The pages of “Notebooks” [Riverdale No. 1] (1984, pp. 98–99 and inset) are intimate and expressive evocations of nature, the body, and the television screen that have a sophisticated and sure feel for the line drawn on paper. There is in the immediacy of drawing, whether painting on the television set or exploring the human form in the “Robot Drawings” (1987, pp. 101–03). He is creating a place to feel “in time with time.” (4) I’ve taken this expression from Lynne Segal’s Out of Time: The Pleasures & Perils of Ageing, in which she reflects on how one feels part of a time, part of cultural and social movements, and how one experiences changes in worldview. Paik’s active creative life before his stroke included a worldwide network of friendships that sustained him as he was creating and contributing to enormous changes in communication and expanding the very definition of art through the electronic moving image. Now, late in life, he was in a sense alone except for the precious time he spent in his studio working and creating. What I am suggesting is that we see in his late style an expression of a changed sense of self and his discovery that he was “at one with the world…when we are in a sense least our ordinary selves. Paradoxically, being in time with time in these ways means stepping outside of normal temporal patterns, stepping outside ourselves.” (5) Segal is reflecting on old age, but her expression “stepping outside ourselves” identifies with subtle precision what I felt in Paik’s presence during these years. His condition was one not simply of age but of disability. He was no longer the artist/activist traveling the globe but a self-reflective artist looking back and creating a new sense of time and the present out of his condition. In a powerful way, this is what we saw in his last large projects at the Guggenheim: he reinvented himself by stepping outside himself in order to look back over his life and forward toward death. This is also expressed through his awareness of and reflection on the human frailty of his body. Confined to a wheelchair and dependent on others for his care, Paik was disabled physically, and this condition is reflected in his drawings and paintings as well as in installations such as the later Buddha pieces. The paintings are for him a means to make his world anew. The Buddhas he uses are no longer only seated but now stand erect. “Standing Buddha with Outstretched Hand” (2005, p. 92, 93, and 95) stands in for Paik himself as the statue stares forever into the video screens that echo back the presence of the Buddha’s closed-circuit images in a time out of place.

It was my privilege to know and work with Nam June Paik for more than thirty years on numerous exhibitions as well as the commissioning of artwork. He was open and generous, and he saw his art as a creative process that unfolded over time and through various media and materials. His working method was itself a form of inquiry, and Paik was constantly breaking new ground and creating new tools for art making.

Paik was a visionary but also a pragmatist who continually explored diverse media and materials. He was also fearless, willing to take enormous risks and collaborate on multiple fronts. He worked with video editors, engineers, musicians, and performers; brought films by other artists into his single-channel tapes; and produced live performances transmitted via satellite that linked broadcasters around the world. He worked with curators in museums and producers in television and postproduction studios to create, distribute, and exhibit his many large-scale video installations.

I am tired of renewing the form of music…. I must renew the ontological form of music…. In the “Moving Theatre” in the street, the sounds move in the street, the audience meets or encounters them “unexpectedly” in the street. The beauty of moving theatre lies in this “surprise a priori,” because almost all the audience is uninvited, not knowing what it is, why it is, who is the composer, the player, organizer—or better speaking—organizer, composer, player. —Nam June Paik, 1962 (6)

Paik was born in Seoul in 1932, and his family was dislocated to Hong Kong during the Korean War. The photographs of Paik’s home life show comfort and access to a changing media world. The family then relocated to Japan, where Paik studied music, aesthetics, and art history at the University of Tokyo. This forced migration was caused by international events that were out of his family’s control, and Paik learned early on to be self-reliant and independent in a changing postwar world. His mercurial temperament, developed as he wound his way through different countries, gave him great resilience. But as he searched for a new identity and transformed himself within the international avant-garde emerging in the 1950s, he embraced a collaborative approach that allowed him to strategically expand his original ideas and visionary approach. A key figure for Paik was George Maciunas, the founder of Fluxus, who embraced Paik’s actions and made him part of this self-proclaimed anti-art movement.

Paik wrote his thesis on the modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg, then left for West Germany in 1956 to pursue his interest in new music. He studied art history at the University of Munich, immersing himself in philosophy and aesthetics. His grounding in the temporal forms of music and modernism gave him the means, as a young artist in Europe, to challenge those academic traditions as he participated in formative avant-garde movements and found his distinctive voice, first in performance and then in the emerging technology of television. He radically opened the performance space to acts of aggression and to multiple forms of expression. This is best captured in Karlheinz Stockhausen’s description of Paik performing his composition “Simple:”

Paik came onto the stage in silence and shocked most of the audience by his actions as quick as lightning. (For example, he threw beans against the ceiling, which was above the audience and into the audience.) He then hid his face behind a roll of toilet paper, which he unrolled infinitely slowly in breathless silence. Then, sobbing softly, he pressed the paper every now and then against his eyes so it became wet with tears. He screamed as he suddenly threw the roll of paper into the audience, and at the same moment he switched on two tape recorders, which was a sound montage typical of him, consisting of women’s screams, radio news, children’s noise, fragments of classical music and electronic sounds. Sometimes he also switched on an old gramophone with a record of Hayden’s string quartet version of the Deutschlandlied. Immediately back at the stage ramp, he emptied a tube of shaving cream into his hair and smeared its content over his face, over his dark suit and down to his feet. Then he slowly shook a bag of flour or rice over his head. Finally he jumped into a bathtub filled with water and dived completely underwater, jumped soaking wet to the piano and began a sentimental salon piece. He then fell forward and hit the piano keyboard several times with his head. (7)

What Stockhausen described is the transgression of the traditional protocols of theater and performance as the body becomes the instrument of expression and the means to rupture the third wall between audience and performer.

Paik’s interest in performance and his transformation of audio and television technology reflected his desire to emancipate the viewer from the tyranny of one-way communication. He sought to create a community of shared expression that could alter the way art is consumed. Video and television became the means for Paik to break out of the prison of industrial models of production and distribution, which were not suited to the changing media culture of the late twentieth century. In 1991 Paik created “359 Canal Street” (pp. 116–19 and 121), the sculpture on view in the present exhibition that features the insides of televisions fastened to the wall above a large battered desk. They appear to be exploding from the desk, which contains letters—from Maciunas, among others—and newspaper clippings of Paik’s activities as an artist emerging in Europe. The piece has a lot of the qualities of the late style in its homage to the past and to the possibilities of new forms of expression that leap from the pages of the artist’s original ideas to realization.

Nam June Paik,

Nam June Paik, “359 Canal Street,” desk with wood blocks from George Maciunas demolition, acrylic, television chassis, newspaper clippings, piano key, and letters (authors included Yoko Ono, Ray Johnson, and Wolf Vostell), dimensions variable, 1991. © Nam June Paik Estate. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

The one good fortune in my life was that I got to know John Cage while he was considered more a gadfly than a guru and Joseph Beuys when he was still an eccentric hermit in Dusseldorf. Therefore it was possible for me to associate myself on an equal footing with these two senior masters as colleagues even after their stardom.
—Nam June Paik, 1988 (8)

Paik valued his friendships with composer John Cage, Fluxus founder George Maciunas, and artist Joseph Beuys, and he established a network of peers that evolved into a global network of collaborators. His collaborative approach was reflected in such works as the “Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer”. Developed with Japanese engineer Shuya Abe, the synthesizer was a radically new tool for producing and collaging sources as well as distorting and creating an abstract moving electronic image. Paik’s profound command of technology inspired Abe to help realize Paik’s invention. The videotapes created through this system featured a mix of new moving imagery and earlier work, incorporating image sources ranging from Japanese television commercials to films by Jonas Mekas and Stan VanDerBeek. Paik’s own videotapes also migrated into different forms in his artwork, from sculptures to installations. The single-channel videotape “Global Groove”, for instance, became the centerpiece of Paik’s landmark installation “TV Garden” (1974). Beginning early in his career, Paik constantly reworked his pieces, incorporating styles and sources from wherever he lived into the videotapes and installations, repurposing media in new ways. He called it “video compost,” and multiple pieces and an array of ideas grew out of it.

Early on, Paik moved easily and seamlessly between media and materials. In early performance pieces such as “Bagatelles Americaines” (1962), part of Neo-Dada in der Musik in Düsseldorf, Paik played audiotapes and manipulated phonograph records; he developed these into interactive pieces that he showed a year later in his one-artist exhibition “Exposition of Music – Electronic Television at the Galerie Parnass”. In “Random Access” (1963), he took apart audiotape players, and in “Random Access: (Schallplattenschaschlik)” (1963), he dismantled a record player. His reworking of the television set in “Exposition of Music” broke the frame of the television set as a one-way delivery system and remade it into a genuinely interactive instrument.

March 1963. While I was devoting myself to research on video, I lost my interest in action in music to a certain extent. After twelve performances of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Originale,” I started a new life from November 1961. By starting a new life I mean that I stocked my whole library except those on TV technique into storage and locked it up. In other words, I went back to the Spartan life of pre-college days…only physics and electronics.
—Nam June Paik, 1986 (9)

Paik’s art was about process. He charted ideas through all of his artworks, whether they were single-channel videotapes, sculptures, installations, performances, scores, or writings. Each idea was worked out through different versions and modalities. He explored projection in a series of major installations and performance pieces, including “Zen for Film” (1964), in which twenty-eight minutes of clear leader marked with scratches and dirt particles were projected onto the screen. In “Imagine There Are More Stars on the Sky Than Chinese on the Earth” (1981), he employed an early form of video projection to display glowing circles of electronic light on the walls and ceiling of the gallery space. And in “Laser Video Space II” (1981), made with laser artist Horst Baumann, Paik’s videotape was projected through a crystal, and the beams of laser light were captured on the floor, walls, and ceiling. Through the properties of the laser, each of these hundreds of moving images was seen without distortion and together filled the room with pulsating images from Paik’s signature videotapes. Paik experimented with layering multiple projections of a single-channel video of a legendary performance in Tokyo with Joseph Beuys in “Beuys Projection” (1990), as well as in his large-scale “Sistine Chapel” (1993) exhibited at the 45th Venice Biennale.

His artwork can be linked to specific writings in which he explored these media and technologies in a language that fused philosophical and cultural discourses. In a 1963 text, Paik wrote:

In usual compositions, we have first the approximate vision of the completed work, (the pre-imaged ideal, or ‘IDEA’ in the sense of Plato). Then, the working process means the torturing endeavor to approach to this ideal ‘IDEA.’ But in the experimental TV, the thing is completely revised. Usually I don’t, or cannot have a pre-Imaged VISION before working. First I seek the ‘WAY,’ for which I cannot foresee what it leads to. The ‘WAY’…that means to study the circuit, to try various ‘FEED BACKS,’ to cut some places and feed different waves there, to change the phase of waves etc.….whose technical details, I will publish in the next essay…. Anyway, what I need is approximately the same kind of ‘IDEA’ which American ad agency used to use…just a way or a key to something NEW. This ‘modern’ (?) usage of ‘IDEA’ has not much to do with ‘TRUTH,’ which Plato—Hegel ascribed to this celebrated classical terminology. (IDEA)= KUNST IS DIE ERSCHEINUNG DER IDEE: Art is the appearance of the idea (Hegel-Schiller). (10)

Paik’s text reflects an intellectual struggle in graphic terms: bold highlights, elisions, brackets, capital letters, breaks in words. As he wrestles to express his thinking, he creates a new art practice linking performance and interactivity with sound and the electronic moving image. We see this again in the late style, in which Paik draws and paints onto objects to express his thoughts and explore how they can inform and transform his art. Painting directly onto the television set (“General Electric”, 2005) seen with the videotape and the TV set joined with texts and objects (“Chinese Memory”, 2005, pp. 107–09 and 111) creates a multitextual treatment of language and moving image in a new body of work.

Nam June Paik,

Nam June Paik, “Third Eye Television,” single-channel video (color, sound) in a vintage television with permanent oil marker and acrylic, 44.5 x 52.7 x 47.6 cm, 2005. © Nam June Paik Estate© Nam June Paik Estate. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Permanence and change are in dialogue with each other in Paik’s work. He expresses this creative tension in his open and multidirectional process of experimentation. The rhetoric scholar Kenneth Burke explored this concept in his 1954 book Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. Burke’s writings can be compared to Paik’s in terms of the powerful role both ascribe to metaphor. Burke writes that metaphor is “revealing of hitherto unsuspected connectives which we may note in the progressions of a dream.” It exemplifies, Burke notes, “relationships between objects which our customary rational vocabulary has ignored.” (11) Paik contributes the added volatility of chance. As he wrote in the notes to his 1963 exhibition “Exposition of Music – Electronic Television”: “Indeterminism and variability is the very under-developed parameter in optical art.” (12) The controlled velocity of change and chance shaped the metaphors that broke through the standard vocabularies of the moving image. Paik disrupts the linearity of the mechanical medium of film with the more fluid collaging and layering of the electronic medium of the moving image.

In Paik’s score “Symphony for 20 Rooms” (1961), there are instructions for actions in each space that can vary according to the participant. The layout anticipates the rooms of TVs in “Exposition of Music – Electronic Television”, in which, describing “Zen for TV” (1963/75) and “Rembrandt TV” (1963/76), he wrote: “13 sets suffered 13 sorts of variation in their VIDEO-HORIZONTAL-VERTICAL units. I am proud to be able to say that all 13 sets actually changed their inner circuits. No two sets had the same kind of technical operation.” (13) In “TV Garden”, Paik linked growth and technology, the spread of ideas, and the organic and the technological. “TV Garden” employs growing plants as a dramatic metaphor for an expanding television culture. Paik also seized upon a unique feature of video that distinguished it from the other moving image medium of film. In video, what the camera was recording could be seen immediately, in real time, on the monitor’s screen. Videotape did not need to be processed like film. This gave video an immediacy and gave Paik the means to play with point of view. Paik’s “TV Chair “(1968, p. 71) represents one of his seminal treatments of the closed-circuit capacity of video. The video camera is pointing down to the seat, made out of plexiglas, through which one sees a monitor whose screen is facing up. The screen effectively replaces the seat of the chair. If you were to sit on the chair, you would be sitting on your own image and unable to look at it! If no one is seated on the chair, the image features video feedback, which is an endless loop generated by the camera recording itself on the monitor’s screen. This sculpture combines many of the features of Paik’s art practice, in which he explores the distinctive and unique capacities of the medium in order to give us another way to see and experience objects and the world around us. It also represents Paik’s “playful” engagement with art and the viewer. He wants to invite the viewer into a conversation with the artwork: What is happening here? How is this everyday object different? How is challenging my attitude to looking affecting the way I receive the image? All of these are questions fundamental to the reception of the artwork and to its making, which together perform a rhetorical inversion that deconstructs the basis of our definition of utilitarian objects and the ways we interact with material culture.

To describe Paik as being open to process in his working method does not suggest that he relinquishes control. His playfulness is genuine, but it is not thoughtless or undisciplined. I remember many times being with him at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, and the Guggenheim Museum, among others, when he quickly and precisely stated what he wanted and how it would work.

This will enable us to shape the TV screen canvas
as precisely as Leonardo
as freely as Picasso
as colorfully as Renoir
as profoundly as Mondrian
as violently as Pollock
as lyrically as Jasper Johns
Nam June Paik (14)

As the Happening is the fusion of various arts, so cybernetics is the exploitation of boundary regions between and across various existing sciences. —Nam June Paik, 1966 (15)

Paik was a bricoleur who gathered together a multitude of ideas and traditions. We see this in the toys, folk sculptures, and other visual embodiments of humankind’s cultural, social, and political memories and values that he brought into his studios and which are now housed in the Nam June Paik Archive at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. These materials became a way for him to embrace and celebrate the world in all of its differences. Later they formed “a kind of archeology of remembering,” (16) as Huffman eloquently described it, which Paik brought into his art making. I would also connect these objects to Paik’s interest in politics and culture. A news junkie, he watched television news programs regularly, especially after his stroke, read newspapers every day, and brought all kind of incidents and trends, especially in international relations and global economics, into the conversation. His writings on Chinese history and the impact of oil on geopolitics show a profound grasp of history and politics and reflect an ongoing testing of his own ideas. His musical interests embraced classical, avant-garde, and popular music, each of which provided a different set of notes in the score he was composing and visualizing in his artwork. After his stroke, audiotapes of his early compositions filled the space of his studio: Huffman recalls that Paik asked him to play them “extremely loud and over and over again.” Paik played Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on his piano as a way to relax, to seek inspiration from his memories, and to exorcise the frustration of his confinement to a wheelchair. Huffman felt that Paik was insisting, “I’m here. I remember.”

Paik’s art, like his life, was about the permanence of his aesthetic ideas and the changes brought about through new developments in technology and experiences in his life. His creative process could involve taking the details of one piece and migrating them into a work in a different medium. His ideas and art were about the future, about change and mutability, and his process was organic. I was always impressed with Paik’s prodigious memory, his ability to call up details about an artwork, an experience, or a person. He looked at current events through the experiences he’d had over his long life of reflecting on the ideologies that shape history. I like the term “beautiful circuits,” (17) which also forms the title of Mark Goble’s incisive investigation into the impact of technologies on modernism, to describe the restless movements and connections he fashioned physically and in terms of his art making. Those movements in turn yielded “beautiful circuits” of inquiry and reflection in his writing and in his art, work that spoke to the new media of communications and embodied the materiality of those technologies. His art was not “about” media technologies but was itself fashioned out of those very materials, and it invented new means and forms for a changing technological landscape.

My writing on Paik has been focused on formally linking his genres of work, including music compositions, performances, interactive pieces, multimonitor pieces, video walls, projections, sculptures, closed-circuit pieces, multimedia installations, single-channel videotapes, drawings, prints, paintings, and assemblages. We need to open up these categories, to see them as linked, and to follow the way images and ideas moved through different works. I would argue that the late work offers profound insights into his working methods and his vision.


Touched by death, the masterly hand sets free the matter it previously formed.
—Theodor W. Adorno (18)

I think it is in my character. I like bits of defeat. I like to be beaten. Maybe that is a spiritual pursuit. Spiritual pursuit means you don’t know what you’re doing.
—Nam June Paik (19)

“Nam June Paik: The Late Style” argues for the importance of a previously unknown and large body of work created by Paik after his stroke in 1996 through the last year of his life. The artwork described here constitutes a heroic and revelatory body of work that incorporates video into sculpture and installation and includes an astonishing range of drawing and painting applied to paper, canvas, and objects. Physically limited by the debilitating stroke, Paik kept his creative vision alive by making work that reflected on his past, while fashioning a distinctive aesthetic. I was reminded of a passage in Edward W. Said’s influential book On Late Style (2006), in which he comments on Theodor Adorno’s writings on aesthetics, noting that what Adorno looked for in style “was the evidence he found in late Beethoven of sustained tension, unaccommodated stubbornness, lateness and newness next to each other by virtue of an ‘inexorable clamp that holds together what no less powerfully strives to break apart.’” (20) Paik’s memories of personal experiences and friendships, and of his large body of artwork, all came into focus as he assembled a piece or drew his brush across a TV screen. Each decision he made was influenced by the sustained vision of a project that began early in his life, when he studied music, and subsequently took on a radical form of expression in the 1950s and early 1960s. After the stroke, the tension between the past and the present was expressed in explosive verbal outbursts as memories and desires fought with each other in the present moment. He sought peace through his art making, the “inexorable clamp” that brought language, moving images, music, and memories together. This tension is eloquently captured in Helen Vendler’s Last Looks, Last Books, in which she discusses the lyric poet late in life who “still alive but aware of the imminence of death, wishes to enact that deeply shadowed but still vividly alert moment; but how can the manner of a poem do justice to both the looming presence of death and the unabated vitality of spirit?” (21) To talk with Paik over his final decade as he created his last exhibition in the great rotunda of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, to walk alongside his wheelchair, to sit in his studio and see the extraordinary work he was creating, was to discover artwork that did justice to the “looming presence of death and unabated vitality of the spirit.” (22)

“Nam June Paik: The Late Style” identifies the distinctive quality of this work and attempts to describe the excitement of seeing it for the first time. Paik brought a highly developed iconography and collage technique to his paintings, sculptures, installations, and drawings, which reflected a sophisticated rethinking of key themes from throughout his career. This way of expanding upon his own work as well as incorporating fresh ideas into his process made his late work possible. He had an enormous memory bank of videotapes and experiences that he could refashion into a body of work that we now call his late style. The more than one hundred artworks that comprise his output during this period reflect an artist aware of his mortality. The stroke had confined him to a wheelchair and impaired his speech, but this work shows us an artist who had not lost sight of who he was and what he had created. Paik was not dabbling in unfamiliar waters or remaking familiar pieces. When seen alongside some of his seminal early pieces, his late work holds its own and offers us a look at another important dimension to this artist’s creative life. Each of these works is filled with emotion, tempered by self-reflection. Much of the work speaks in a profound way to the key issues and people in Paik’s life, including such important friends as the artists George Maciunas, John Cage, Charlotte Moorman, Merce Cunningham, and Joseph Beuys. There is an extraordinary breadth to his engagement with memory and a palatable feeling for the joys of creativity, tempered by enormous physical and mental struggles. These are not works of nostalgia or self-pity, however, but are vigorous artworks full of optimism and hope.

After his stroke, Paik would sit in a wheelchair at his worktable in his studio, surrounded by Buddha statues, toys, birdcages, old television sets, radios, drawing paper and canvases, paintbrushes, felt markers, and other objects (pp. 128–29). Nature videos, recalled Huffman, served as a kind of solace, and he referenced these animal sounds and birdsongs in his drawings. He depicted the natural world of expression as a model for a new technology that was not a corporate tool but a means to bring the world closer. With the help of Huffman, as well as that of his nephew Ken Hakuta, Paik found time to work in his Greene Street studio, and the pieces he made there were about setting himself free to create. I am reminded of the time I spent with Paik as he developed his ideas for his retrospective exhibition “The Worlds of Nam June Paik” at the Guggenheim. He was creating an artwork for the rotunda, and at the same time, he was working in his studio on Greene Street, where he regained the creative freedom to explore a variety of artistic strategies. He used closed-circuit video as well as videotapes and painted on a variety of surfaces, from canvases to television sets to a large section of the “Berlin Wall” (2005), liberating those objects from their utilitarian functions and bringing them into the magic circle of his art. Right up to his final months, Paik meditated on time, and on the beauty of the fleeting paintbrush moving lightly and quickly across the canvas, or the cathode ray tube, or the frame of the television set, transforming these objects into timeless works of art.

This body of work is defined by an aesthetic that draws from the artist’s past and meditates on the present. Paik’s late work is a compelling return to his avant-garde origins, expressed through a new visual style. The paintbrush and permanent marker are central to this late style, as is his intense attention to the rhythms of line sequencing and the unfolding of abstraction through repetition, from the drawings based on the scan lines on the television cathode ray tube to the iconic figure of the Buddha and the television that he painted on the outer casing of the TV set. These are styles he referenced in such earlier drawings as “I Ching TV, TV of Change” (1989) and “TV News” (1981). The precision of his technique in the earlier work, notes Huffman, becomes a “meandering” line in the later work, with drips and layers of images. The force of Paik’s gesture with the brush emphasizes what I would call a digging-deeper into the paint and its mark on the surface of the television. These pieces show Paik’s enormous strength and stamina through bursts of creative energy. The haiku-like shapes in his drawings and paintings convey new meanings. The expressive and economical lines of Opus Paintings from the 1970s—individual oil-on-canvas works featuring a minimalist series of marks evoking the iconic shape of the TV set—is redeployed in a new dimension in the remarkable notebook of drawings from 2005. This drawing technique also appears in the “ghosting” drawings made with permanent ink pen on paper, which include white pen drawings of television shapes on white paper. The central motifs of video and television are imprinted as the imagined, ghostlike material of memory. The signifying shape of the television set becomes an impression on paper, a delicate reminder of how Paik changed late-twentieth-century art through the electronic image.

There are fascinating connections between seminal early works such as “Magnet TV” (1965), with its interactive and abstract patterns, and the astonishing series of prepared televisions such as “Shiva/Kokoro” (1996), “Sony TV” (2005), “White TV” (2005), “Tester” (2005), and “Admiral/Crying TV” (2005). Paik opens up the television both with the videotape imagery he selects for the television and with his painting over the entire TV, including the screen. There is a sense of turning the television inside out, of remaking the TV as a painted surface that is animated in concert with the changing image-processed imagery on the screen. “Ceramic Vessel” (2002) features a live, closed-circuit feedback loop of the image of a vase, placed on the screen, through an ongoing real-time process of electronically generated image that hovers between the representational and abstract form. In these pieces, Paik further transforms how we see and understand the television as it becomes a surface of painterly signs that echo his treatment of light in “Candle TV” (1991–2003, p. 75), in which candlelight stands in for electronic light, and “Zen for Film”, in which the film being projected is emptied of images other than the chance scratches and marks left on its surface. Paik connects his ideas on art and technology to the graphic line of drawing and painting, transferring the imagery from the screen onto the exterior of the television set. In such works as “Chinese Memory”, he covers the object with words and expressions in a freewheeling evocation of memories and ideas.

In 2003, Paik asked his friend Shuya Abe to remake earlier pieces such as “Cosmos” (1964), one of Paik’s great artworks. Paik’s recovery of major pieces is echoed in his reworking of certain works as part of a larger dialogue with technology that includes his practice of painting directly onto the surface of different objects, as in “Lantern” (1996), “Broadcast Tube” (2005), “Untitled” (1996), “Atwater Kent Cathedral Radio” (2004), and “Bell and Howell” (2004). The animated movement of his videotapes is echoed in his painting on nontelevision objects, bringing those elements, in a sense, bringing them into conversation with video art, thus rendering them part of its story.

Before his stroke, Paik was an artist in perpetual motion, making links between people and institutions, ideas and art forms, through constant travel and an expansive sense of exploration. His global satellite performances such as “Good Morning Mr. Orwell” (1984) and the grand installation “The More the Better” (1988), installed in Korea, expressed his profound belief in the power of media to change the world. As he noted in a print (titled “Print”) from 1973, imagine a world where “artists would have their own television stations.” According to Huffman, Paik late in life often spoke about creating a “video artist cable network,” (23) and that utopian hope was always part of his vision. After his stroke, Paik had to turn inward, remake the resources at hand, and refashion the concepts that had animated his career. His notion of a new form of public expression through television transmission can also be found in the Newspaper Drawings (c.1990–2005), in which he applied oil stick to newsprint. His daily ritual of reading the newspaper became a means of self-expression as he commented on the content of the page and transformed it graphically.

Occasionally materials were brought to Paik for him to transform—a dramatic example being a large section of the Berlin Wall supplied by Ken Hakuta. “Berlin Wall” reflects Paik’s fondness for Germany, where he spent many years and forged lasting friendships. Paik had anticipated the destruction of the Berlin Wall; he believed that television and the window onto freedom it provided would prove overwhelming for the totalitarian regimes of Soviet Communism. By painting onto the concrete surface of a piece of the wall, layering his own graphic forms onto the existing graffiti, he reclaimed the memory and the energy of young people of the former West and East Germany whose hope for a new future brought the wall down.

In “Zenith/Self Portrait/Hand and Face” (2005), his drawing is in dialogue with his own portrait on film from 1962, which shows a young Paik covering his face with his hands. The incorporation of his videotapes into this work follows upon his earlier practice of bringing edited versions of his videotapes into different sculptures and installations as presenting them as single-channel videotapes. I agree with Huffman that video “is the perfect medium for time/space shift bringing past and present relationships/new contexts” (24) into play. The videotape sequence has an added intensity for Paik, which he expressed through painting on the screen and marking of the surface of the TV set. It is a fully realized composition, with the videotape grounded in the material of the sculpture. The masterful “Victrola” (2005) brings a video of Paik’s 1965 performance at Anthology Film Archives in New York City together with a painted record-player console. A shattered record on the floor marks the remains of a performance across time as Paik reflects back on his celebrated transformation of performance and music. An earlier work that resonates interestingly through all of these late pieces is Paik’s “Klavier Integral” (1958–63), the prepared pianos, covered with objects of all kinds, which were part of the extraordinary “Exposition of Music – Electronic TV”. His practice of combining diverse materials and redefining the original form links these different artworks across forty years.

Paik’s memory pieces embrace not only his earlier performances and art pieces but his friends and collaborators, including Charlotte Moorman, for whom he created the original “TV Cello” (1971). Unlike the original, the late works convey another level of urgency, as if Paik is trying to bring Moorman, who died in 1991, back to life. “Charlotte Moorman” (2002), “Charlotte Moorman’s Memory” (2002), “Charlotte Memory” (2003), and “TV Cello” (2005) are poetic pieces in which Paik combines the cello with video technology to evoke the extraordinary dynamic that existed between himself and Moorman. They are among Paik’s strongest works. Others include his testimonies to friendship in the sculptures “Deutschland Memory” (2005), “Chinese Memory”, and the astonishing “Untitled [Cage Composite]” (2005), a dazzling tribute to John Cage and Merce Cunningham that, in its refinement and focus, surpasses the more scattered and casual Random Access/Paper TV (1978–81). In addition, the robot pieces from his late period, including “Bakelite Robot” (2002, p. 105), “Tin Robot” (2002), and “Untitled [Console RCA Victor Deluxe]” (1996, p. 91), have a focus and power not evident since his first “Family of Robot” (1986).

Nam June Paik,

Nam June Paik, “Bakelite Robot,” single-channel video (color, silent) with LCD monitors and vintage Bakelite radios, 121.9 x 127 x 19.7 cm, 2002.© Nam June Paik Estate. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

One of Paik’s most celebrated pieces is his “Buddha TV” (1974, pp. 96–97), which places the Buddha in a timeless loop through closed-circuit video. A brilliant concept, it led to a number of variations over the years. In 2005 Paik created a remarkable sequence of Buddha pieces that rank among his best. They subtly reconceptualize the Buddha and the idea of time and are made more compelling by his awareness of his own mortality. “Standing Buddha with Outstretched Hand”, “Golden Buddha” (pp. 67–69), “Bronze Buddha Head”, and “Chinese TV”, all from 2005, speak to the timeless present of the past. While referring to earlier Buddha pieces, these late works also recall lesser-known pieces such as the brilliant “Old Man” (1994), which poignantly conveys the impact of time’s passage on the human body. Looking at these pieces, I am reminded of the resistance I often encountered toward Paik’s late work by people who had not even seen it. “Oh, he had a stroke;” “He’s in a wheelchair”… reactions that speak to the issue of disability and the reception of an artist who has suffered a stroke and appears “incapacitated.” We are finally getting past these prejudices, although they still linger. Paik’s later robots, in particular the smaller pieces created late in his career, when seen alongside his drawings of the robot, recall “Robot K-456″ (1964) and its “crippled” movements through the streets that astonished and were welcomed by everyone who encountered his shuffling figure (Paik was nearby controlling the robot’s actions). The staged accident with the “Robot” in front of the Whitney Museum in 1982 was, according to Paik, an expression of our coping with “a catastrophe of technology in the twentieth century”. (25) With the recent disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan and ongoing issues of climate change, the world faces the continuing and unfolding threat of man-made and natural destruction. Information about these threats is transmitted to people around the world through the technologies of the expanding “electronic superhighway” of the internet and instant social media.

Nam June Paik,

Nam June Paik, “Standing Buddha with Outstretched Hand,” single-channel video (color, silent) with televisions, closed-circuit video (color), and wood Buddha with permanent oil marker additions, dimensions variable, 2005. © Nam June Paik Estate. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

The late style of Nam June Paik is a remarkable and important body of work that makes it possible to account more fully for the artist’s entire career. I’m reminded of Paik’s radical statement in 1965 that he sought to remake video and the electronic moving image into a new paintbrush and a new canvas. In his final years, Paik heeded his own call by making the paintbrush one with the moving image, creating a metaphorical exchange through his hand/paintbrush with the electronic image/TV set. Metaphor was the great rhetorical trope that Paik explored to alter the way we see media and experience art.

I cannot help, in reflecting on Paik’s life and in looking at his late work, but realize that he did not see the end of life as defeat but rather saw in death, as the philosopher Francoise Dastur put it, “the very condition of life and in considering mortality less as a limit than as a secret resource nourishing existence,” (26) namely the life of his art—a body of work inspiring new generations of artists and people looking to imagine the possibility of surviving and flourishing no matter where we are or what our physical frailties might be. Gadamer called this the “enigma of health” (27) within a technologized world of health support. Paik late in life reflected on his own frailties as he created, through his art, a refashioned hermeneutic through which to look at the body and discover what the spiritual dimension to life might be through the changing, prosthetic human body symbolized by “Robot K-456″ joined with the ageless Buddha gazing from the pages of Paik’s “Notebooks” onto the world of the media arts.

Finally, I am reminded of a quote from Marcel Proust: in writing about his masterpiece Remembrances of Time Past, he discusses how the writer (himself) “can describe a scene by describing one after another the innumerable objects which at a given moment were present at a particular place, but truth will be attained by him only when he takes two different objects, states the connection between them…and encloses them in the necessary links of a well-wrought style; truth—and life too—can be attained by us only when, by comparing a quality common to two sensations, we succeed in extracting their common essence and in reuniting them to each other, liberated from the contingencies of time, within a metaphor.” (28) In his final years, Paik created lasting and powerful artworks, setting “free the matter it previously formed.” (29)

John G. Hanhardt

[1] Nam June Paik, “Afterlude to the Exposition of Experimental Television” in Nam June Paik: Global Groove 2004, by John G. Hanhardt and Caitlin Jones, (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2004), unpaginated. Originally published in Nam June Paik Videa ’n’ Videology 1959–1973, ed. Judson Rosebush (Syracuse, NY: Everson Museum of Art, 1974).

[2] Nam June Paik, quote from Global Groove (1973), video by Nam June Paik; reprinted in Electronic Arts Intermix: Video, ed. Lori Zippay, exh. cat. (New York: Electronic Arts Intermix, 1991), p. 157.

[3] Jon Huffman, in discussion with the author.

[4] Lynne Segal, Out of Time: The Pleasures & Perils of Ageing (London: Verso, 2014), p. 181.

[5] Segal, Out of Time, p. 181.

[6] Nam June Paik, “New Ontology of Music,” in Nam June Paik: Global Groove 2004. Originally published in Postmusic, The Monthly Review of the University for Avant-garde Hinduism (New York: Fluxus Edition, 1963); reprinted in Nam June Paik Videa ’n’ Videology 1959–1973.

[7] Karlheinz Stockhausen quoted in Edith Decker-Phillips, Paik Video (Cologne: DuMont Buchverlag, 1988), trans. Marie-Geneviéve Iselin, Karin Koppensteiner, and George Quasha (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Arts, 1998), p. 29.

[8] Nam June Paik, Beuys Vox 1961–86, exh. cat. (Seoul: Won Gallery and Hyundai Gallery, 1988), p. 7.

[9] Paik, Beuys Vox 1961–86, p. 21.

[10] Paik, “Afterlude to the Exposition of Experimental Television”

[11] Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 90.

[12] Paik, “Afterlude to the Exposition of Experimental Television”

[13] Ibid.

[14] Nam June Paik, in Hanhardt and Jones, Nam June Paik: Global Groove 2004. Originally quoted in Nam June Paik Videa ’n’ Videology 1959–1973.

[15] Nam June Paik, “Cybernated Art,” in Manifestos, Great Bear Pamphlets (New York: Something Else Press, 1966), p. 24.

[16] Huffman in discussion with the author.

[17] Mark Goble, Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

[18] Theodor W. Adorno, Beethoven, The Philosophy of Music, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 125.

[19] Nam June Paik as recalled by Huffman to the author.

[20] Edward W. Said, On Late Style (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006) p. 20. Said quotes Theodor Adorno, “Late Style in Beethoven” in Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), p. 186.

[21] Helen Vendler, Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 1.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Huffman to author.

[24] Huffman in conversation with the author.

[25] Nam June Paik in a television report of the performance.

[26] Francoise Dastur, How Are We to Confront Death? An Introduction to Philosophy, trans. Robert Vallier (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), p. 3.

[27] Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Enigma of Health, trans. Jason Gaiger and Nicholas Walker (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 25.

[28] Marcel Proust, Time Regained: In Search of Lost Time, Vol. VI, trans. Andreas Mayor and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright (London: Vintage/Random House, 1996), p. 246.

[29] Theodor W. Adorno, Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 125.