Art That Has to Sleep in the Garage
By EDWARD LEWINE
Published: June 26, 2005
New York Times
ONE day last month, Pam Kramlich tried to serve lunch to two guests, but the artwork kept interrupting. A gentle rain tapped the windows of her stone house atop one of the city’s best hills. The antique table was set with salads prepared by the housekeeper, and the video art simply wouldn’t shut up.
On one screen, the artists Gilbert and George, filmed in crude 1972 video, sipped cocktails while classical music played and a voice intoned over and over, “Gordon’s makes us drunk.” To the right was a 1969 piece by Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson, in which Ms. Holt schlepped the camera through a field of reeds, the soundtrack booming with her stomping and puffing, while Mr. Smithson gave her barely audible directions.
Mrs. Kramlich, a slender 62-year-old with a serene smile, and her gruff venture-capitalist husband, Dick, 71, own what may be the single largest private collection of art that uses electronic sound or moving images. This is known as video art, or media art, or time-based art, and the Kramlichs share their labyrinthine California Tudor home with it. Screens flash from a snarl of tubing atop the dark-stained oak staircase. Slides scroll above the fluffy duvet on the guest bed. A boy’s face flickers on a movie screen in the otherwise muted calm of the cream-colored master bedroom.
When all the art is activated, the house hums, thrums, squeaks and squawks, gibbers, moans and shouts. In fact, the effect is so overwhelming that the Kramlichs are more or less forced to leave most of their expensive, impeccably chosen collection turned off most of the time. But when the pieces are on, as they were during lunch, Mrs. Kramlich says she savors the cacophony. “I enjoy having these works on,” she said. “This is fun. It’s playtime.”
As eccentric as the Kramlichs’ domestic situation may seem today, 10 years ago it would have been a downright oddity. Back then, video art was an outlier, a market that collectors barely touched. But now, video art is widely bought and exhibited by collectors and museums alike, and there are those who say flat screens may soon be as common on household walls as picture frames.
“Video is where still photography was in the 1970’s,” said Bruce Jenkins, a dean at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “There used to be a hesitance to purchasing photos. Now photography is the rage.”
Yet, as the first generation of video collectors is discovering, video remains a confounding, ornery medium – especially when it’s placed between the silver-framed vacation snapshots and the door that leads to the laundry room. Most artworks sit, mute and distinguished, on a mantel or behind a couch. Video pieces demand attention, and they never blend into the background the way even the most monumental Rothko or vibrantly colored Stella can.
“They remind me of my Jack Russell terriers,” said Norman Stone, another avid collector. “You can’t ignore them.”
THE first odd thing about collecting video art is this: the medium came into being partly because artists wanted to make work that couldn’t be collected. It was born in 1965 when Sony introduced the first portable video camera, attracting artists like Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman, Joan Jonas and Vito Acconci. “The dream we had was art that couldn’t be sold, but broadcast on television,” the video artist Bill Viola said in a recent phone interview.
By the 1980’s, however, dealers and artists were turning video into a commodity. Now prices range from a few thousand dollars to six figures. Though collectors aren’t talking money, the Kramlichs’ curator allows that the couple have spent “millions” amassing some 250 pieces.
The pair, who married in 1981 after just seven weeks of courtship, began collecting art when they discovered they had nothing in common. In consultation with curators from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and their adviser, Thea Westreich, they chose to amass video art, because it fit in with Mr. Kramlich’s interest in technology, the museum needed patrons in this area, and there was little competition from other collectors.
At first Mrs. Kramlich assumed that video art would be easy to deal with. “You just pop the tape into the recorder and play it,” she said.
Soon she discovered that it wasn’t quite that simple. Buy a painting, and you get the painting sent to you in a crate. When the Kramlichs buy a video installation, say one of Bill Viola’s – they own several – they are typically buying one of an edition of anywhere from 3 to 10. They’ll receive a master copy of the piece, in digital Beta or the highest-fidelity format available; a DVD home-viewing copy; the equipment needed to show the piece; and an archival box that includes setup instructions, blueprints and a signed certificate of authenticity…….