In a 1969 interview with the psychedelic light show outfit Pablo for the New York underground magazine Changes, filmmaker Jud Yalkut was asked by his interview subjects about his own work—more specifically, the installation art of the commune-dwelling multimedia group, USCO, for which Yalkut made some of his most beautifully disorienting films. “Find another way to hit people, to dislocate them, and then re-center them at the end—very much a trip analogy,” Yalkut said. “You have to bring them back down where they function, but have to give them a new insight beforehand.”
Yalkut passed away in July at the age of 75, leaving behind a corpus of still and moving image art that entails both dislocation and re-centering, simultaneously emphasizing formal experimentation and collectivity. In his work, which ranged from film and expanded cinema to video and collage, he sought to find new ways of shifting his viewers’ perceptions in order to increase their awareness of their shared humanity.
Born in New York City, Yalkut explored poetry at McGill (where he was fraternity brothers with Leonard Cohen) before turning to moviemaking in the early 1960s, when he returned to New York. There he immersed himself in the city’s flowering avant-garde, lending his talents to like-minded artists working in a variety of media and practices. His films documented and subsequently re-cast some of the most radical art of the time into vibrantly expressive moving images, images characterized by oneiric superimpositions and what Yalkut dubbed “body zooms”—turbulent camera moves engendered not by a lens (he said he couldn’t afford one at the time), but by the filmmaker’s own kineticism. The results are at once ecstatic and vertiginous. Moondial Film (1966), for example, records an “electromedia” happening by artist and filmmaker Aldo Tambellini, whose Gate Theater was a locus for experimental cinema, dance, and poetry in the East Village. Yalkut captures the thrum of original performance, intensifying the proceedings by overlaying imagery in-camera and then reworking the material through single-frame editing. His film of Yayoi Kusama, Kusama’s Self-Obliteration (1967) is not merely a recording of the artist’s performance, but rather a discursive meditation on the performance’s themes, using multiple dissolves and additional superimpositions to transform Kusama’s polka-dot painted subjects, including writhing dancers, a horse, and lily pads, into a treatise on community and interconnectivity.
Yalkut is perhaps best remembered for the hybrid video-films he made with Nam June Paik, such as Beatles Electronique (1969) and Cinema Metaphysique nos. 1-5 (1965-1972). The former presents a rainbow vision of the Fab Four, first twisted by Paik’s video machinations and then reworked by Yalkut’s cinematic editing, while the latter riffs on Zen Buddhism, similarly frustrating traditional TV framing by fragmenting the action around the “safe area” of the picture plane designated for broadcast.
Yalkut, it turns out, was platform-agnostic avant le lettre. He combined a range of moving image technologies so as to create new ways of expression and seeing the world. As he told Seth Thomphson in 2004, “you take the film and put it back into video and do things that can’t be done in film. You make use of the imperfections of the medium and you become more aware of what the limits of the medium are. I use the limit of the medium to define it at the end of the film.” Yalkut’s ability to conceive of moving images beyond medium specificity meant that he was happy to experiment in new environments and with various apparatus. His multi-part Dream Reel, a 1968 performance at the University of Cincinnati Spring Arts Festival made use of four 16mm projectors, two 8mm projectors, four carousel slide projectors, and two four-track stereo tape systems in order to combine swirling abstractions with footage from rock shows, peace demonstrations, and H-bomb explosions. One year later, Yalkut projected the same material onto a parachute as part of artist Yukihisa Isobe’s Floating Theatre. Similarly, his 1972 Planes demonstrates how his film of NASA rockets and open skies could also serve as an interactive backdrop for dancers in choreographer’s Trisha Brown “Intermedia ’68” touring piece.
Yalkut was not only a practitioner, however. He was an enthusiast and historian, eager to foster relationships between artists and to find out what made them tick. Clarence (1968) is a loving filmic portrayal of outsider-artist Clarence Schmidt and his monumental “sculpture-garden-house.” Yalkut also coordinated the film program for Charlotte Moorman’s New York Avant Garde Festival for many years, and ran weekly Personal Non-Narrative Filmmaking workshops at Millennium. In addition, Yalkut interviewed scores of moving image artists. His nearly 400-page account of the first wave of avant-garde video artists, Electronic Zen, compiled in 1984, offers indispensible insights into not only well-known artists such as Paik and Stan Vanderbeek, but also a host of overlooked pioneers of hybrid media such as Scott Bartlett, Frank Gillette, David Cort, Shridhar Bapat, and Drew Browning, among others.
Yalkut’s curiosity and generosity were boundless. When he left New York in 1973 to start a film and video program at Wright State in Dayton, Ohio, he quickly became a beloved and integral figure in that city’s art scene. He turned up to project films behind local punk and new wave groups, helped found the Dayton Visual Arts Center, taught at a number of local universities, and contributed collages to underground zines and literary journals. Earlier this year, he enjoyed a sweeping career retrospective at the University of Dayton that covered 50 years of his remarkable artistic output.
Though he made fewer moving image pieces in his later years, his mature video works reflected his lifelong interests in personal forms of meditation and vision. The multi-channel Vision Cantos, made for his one-person show at the Whitney in 2000, focused on Buddhist imagery, asking spectators to relax on yoga mats on the floor. Light Display: Color (2002) reworked film footage he had shot some 30 years earlier in order to flatten the play of László Moholy-Nagy’s kinetic sculpture of steel and cellophane, Light-Space Modulator (1930) into fields of hot electronic color. The piece finds common ground between past and present, and among film, sculpture, and video. This work, as with the entirety of Yalkut’s corpus, is set in motion by a delight in finding new ways to see through technology—insights freely given before bringing us back down to where we function in the world.
The New York Film-Makers’ Cooperative will screen two memorial programs celebrating the work of Jud Yalkut on September 21 and October 18. See film-makerscoop.com for details.
GREGORY ZINMAN is an American Council of Learned Societies New Faculty Fellow in the Film Program at Columbia University and the scholar-in-residence at the New York Film-makers Cooperative. He has written on film, art, and culture for the New Yorker, American Art, Film History, and Millennium Film Journal. He is currently finishing his first book, Handmade: The Moving Image in the Artisanal Mode, and co-editing, with John Hanhardt and Edith Decker-Phillips, the collected writings of video artist Nam June Paik.