Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Robert Beckmann :: The Body of a House Tour Blueprint

Robert Beckmann’s The Body of a House Displayed as it is in (1993) is an anchor work for the NMA’s permanent collection. the Installation Gallery, which was designed specifically to hold the works when the new building was constructed, The Body of a House invites visitors to an up-close-and-personal encounter with an emotional and highly-charged period of American—and Nevadan—history. The Body of a House is an eight-canvas series of images depicting 2.33 seconds of real time during the March 17, 1953 detonation of Annie, a 16-kiloton atomic bomb that was part of Operation Upshot Knothole at the Nevada Test Site. One of the primary objectives of the test was to determine the blast effects of an atomic bomb on the “typical suburban home,” so the test included the construction of two model homes, filled with the dummies and the stuff of contemporary life. The military built one house 7,500 feet from ground zero; the other was constructed 3,500 feet from the detonation site. An automatic motion picture camera encased in a two-inch-thick lead sheath recorded the effects of the detonation on the model home at 24 frames per second. The resulting 55-frame film was broadcast on television and then used to “educate” children in schools about nuclear fallout and air raid drills. The house closest to the detonation was completely destroyed. The impact of the film and its still frames on the artist’s psyche can be felt through his depiction of the event.
This exhibition lends itself to discussions of Nevada history, the nuclear legacy of our state, and both the impact and power and the desensitizing anesthesia of photography in American culture.

Wall Text
As a young boy during the Cold War era, Robert Beckmann remembers watching documentary film footage of the United States military testing a 16-kiloton nuclear bomb nicknamed “Annie” at the Nevada Test Site. Before the experimental explosion in 1953, the government constructed several houses—outfitted with furniture, automobiles, and human mannequins—just 7,500 feet from ground zero.

Beckmann, who now resides in Las Vegas, painted this series of large-scale, iodine-hued paintings titled The Body of a House in 1993. His imagery is based on still frames taken from the films he saw as a child, and the eight sequential scenes represent a mere 2.33 seconds of real time. Each painting focuses on a different stage of the menacing destruction, a mood that Beckmann heightened through his dramatic use of fiery orange and red coloring.

Beckmann joins a long line of artists who have depicted scenes of real and imagined apocalyptic destruction. Most notably, The Body of a House recalls the serialized imagery of Andy Warhol’s silk-screened print Atomic Bomb (1965) that featured an exploding mushroom cloud against a deep red background. The darkened skies and mysterious eerie glow in Beckmann’s paintings are a frightening reminder of the devastating effects of nuclear explosion.

The canvases are arranged in the Installation Gallery in the order of their creation and the narrative of the event, beginning with The Body of a House, #1, to the right of the wall text.

Tour Framework

  • Ask adult guests what they believe they are looking at when they look at Beckmann’s paintings. Guests of a certain age may know immediately what they are seeing; others will need some guidance to understand the significance of the paintings in terms of the Cold War, the Test Site in Nevada’s history, serialized images, photography, etc.
  • Ask children what they see in the paintings. A house? A fire? A house on fire? A rising sun? A strong wind? What in the paintings makes them think these things?
  • Ask guests what kinds of feelings and reactions the paintings evoke for them.
  • Explain that President Harry Truman was the thirty-third President of the United States (1945-1953), having assumed the Presidency upon Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death. Following his approval of the Nevada Test Site—part of the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range—for continental nuclear weapons testing on December 18, 1950, more than 1,000 nuclear bombs were detonated on this piece of Nevada land.
  • Explain that the tests ended in 1992 with the passage of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
  • Ask adult guests if they know what the Cold War was, and if it’s appropriate, what they remember of the Cold War themselves. What kinds of feelings do they remember experiencing during the Cold War? What was the political climate like?
  • Ask children if they have ever heard of the Cold War before, and if so, what they know about it.
  • Explain that the Cold War was an extremely complicated, largely political war waged primarily by two countries, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (and their allies), from the end of World War II until the 1990s. One of the features of the Cold War was a nuclear arms race between the two countries that led to a very serious game of one-upsmanship about who had the largest, most powerful arsenal of nuclear weapons.
  • Explain that as an eleven-year-old child, Beckmann had seen an American military film of a bomb called “Annie” exploding at the Nevada Test Site. The 2.33-second film (55 frames long at 24 frames per second) documented the impact of the nuclear blast on a model home constructed 3,500 feet—two-thirds of a mile—from ground zero. “Annie” was part of a series of tests called “Operation Upshot Knothole,” that occurred at the Nevada Test Site in 1953. The tests’ purposes ranged from nuclear weapon design to atomic combat training to, as in the case of “Annie,” testing the blast effect of a thermonuclear bomb on “typical” suburban homes.
  • Explain that Beckmann gained access to the eight original still frame images of the “Annie” test through the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society in Las Vegas. He re-photographed the original images and then made slides of the images, projected them onto the large scale canvases, and sketched in the shapes and lines before applying the paint.
  • Explain that the canvases average ten layers of paint, and some have as many as fifteen. This is how Beckmann is able to convey the brightness of the explosion in #1 and the chaos of the complete destruction of the house in #8.
  • Ask guests what story the eight sequenced canvases tell. What makes them think of the story in this way? What kind of an ending does the story have? Is there a moral to the story?
  • Explain to guests that the paintings are of course about nuclear bombs, their use and destructive power, the Cold War, and the Nevada Test Site.
  • Explain that Beckmann is also interested the power of film and photography in American culture. The artist notes that Americans consume photographic (or film/video) images with an insatiable appetite, to the point that we become desensitized to violence, poverty, consequence, war, and so on. But even when a painting is based on a photograph, it conveys a very different sense of the material in the photograph.

As writer William L. Fox writes about Beckmann’s work, “The paintings restore our ability to respond because we take them as a primary, involved, direct witnessing of an event, something that took hours and days and weeks and months to create. They are not only images, representations of an event, but are themselves their own events.”

  • Ask guests if the paintings move them in some way. Do they experience anger? Fear? Resentment? Sadness? Surprise?
  • Explain that some viewers see the paintings as a more-or-less straightforward protest against nuclear bomb testing in Nevada, and the resulting health effects—cancer, skin and respiratory diseases—on the “downwinders.” However, critics also see the paintings as metaphorical: perhaps seeing the destruction of the house by the bomb is cathartic in some way, that creativity can come from such destruction in the form of the paintings, and the feelings that the paintings evoke in viewers.
Finally, another statement about the work from writer William L. Fox: “Art such as The Body of a House does not allow us a passive role; it throws us back into the emotional intensity of that moment when, cowering beneath a desk, we imagined our house and family being blown to smithereens around us. Such feelings, even when recollected in the peaceful and deliberately isolated setting of a museum or gallery, bring us back to responsibility, as do the etchings of Goya and Picasso’s great, transcendent painting-as-mural, Guernica. Art’s ability—manifested in so many different ways late this century—to pierce through the ever-so-cynical media we face every day deeps us alive to our own senses.”

Robert Beckmann, The Body of a House, #1 (1993)

The two YouTube videos embedded below contain some of the actual footage of the 1953 Annie test depicted in Robert Beckmann's The Body of a House.