Willard Rosenquist
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Light Form 1 Light Form 2
  Lostine   Lostine  

Brice Howard, founder of the National Center, had this to say about Willard: "Willard Rosenquist was very expert in the use of light, and also brought with him a kind of maturity which I particularly respected and still care for - a kind of curious, wily quality."


Since Willard is no longer with us and, therefore, can't speak on his own behalf, I'll presume to construct a brief narrative about him, and his work at the National Center.

Willard was a modest, kind, and gentle soul (I don't think I ever saw him angry). Among many other academic and artistic roles he was, when I knew him, professor emeritus in the Design Department at U. C. Berkeley. He was the most senior of the NCET group, and was revered as such.

His U. C. memorial describes Willard as: "A beloved, creative, and innovative teacher, he attracted many graduate and undergraduate students, who felt privileged and honored to be able to work with him.

"He taught courses in light as a medium in design for design undergraduates and advanced courses in visual communication. His work with students in light and motion as an aesthetic and environmental medium was the basis for a grant from the University of California Institute of Creative Arts for a television piece. The work dealt with miniaturization, innovative use of projections and low level lighting, and abstract expression by means of poetry, dance, and electronic music. His sensitivity to music made him insist that as much attention be paid to accompanying sound as to the visual aspect of his pieces. He was always able to interest composers in collaborating and composing for his specific pieces. Two noted musicians who were involved were Richard Felciano of the University's music department and Warner Jepson, an independent musician.

"He was best known for his significant abstract work with the National Center for Experiments in Television and KQED, starting in the early seventies. It was here he met and worked with Rudolph Arnheim, Brice Howard, Paul Kaufman, Stephen Beck, William Roarty, Don Hallock, Ann Turner and others involved in the field. He was the center's consulting artist and became a leader in video art. His work was shown in museum video exhibits and broadcast internationally."
(for the full text)

His classroom/studio was rumored to be a veritable wonderland of art highly unusual and unexpected art materials, and works in progress. For instance, when I first arrived at NCET, I was shown (as if one could miss it) a gigantic soft, sensuously curvy, stretch-fabric sculpture which Willard called a 'tension sculpture,' and which he had suspended over the entire studio space at the Bryant street building. We all worked under the protective presence of Willard's art. He was an artist-in-residence with the National Center from about 1969 to 1972, and his video work strongly echoed his concern with the interplay of curves and light. Since Willard's primary concern was with his materials, and not the complex vagaries of the video and sound equipment per se (not being much of a techie), he collaborated freely with Bill Roarty and Bill Gwin for video processing, and Richard Felciano and Warner Jepson who composed his electronic scores. That is not, by any means, to minimize the final product, as Willard's output was always unquestionably his.

How Willard's work was produced is a subject of some interest, since the end result was not only quite unique, but also exquisitely mysterious. So, from memory, i will try to "shed some light" on his process.

This is what I first observed of Willard at work: In the middle of the studio space, a whole sheet of plywood rested flat on some low saw horses. On this surface a smooth substrate (probably light colored cardboard) was laid down. And then loosely and randomly scattered pieces of mirror-surfaced, 3 mil acetate, in irregular shapes, were distributed. Since all these pieces were cut from a roll, they all displayed varying degrees of curvature. This rendered what was reflected in them 'distorted,' in conventional mirror terminology. But these so-called distortions formed the secret of Willard's imagery.

Next, various theater lighting instruments, mounted on rolling stands, were set up surrounding the plywood 'stage,' and shown on the acetate jungle. Cameras were focused on various groupings, and the camera signals fed into the Templeton Video Mixer to be superimposed, keyed, colorized, and otherwise processed. Willard would then move the lights slowly around the 'stage,' and watch the result, in real time, on a monitor. He became incredibly adept at 'playing' this whole orchestration of materials and technology.

And here is where the whole thing really gets interesting (this will require a bit of imagination on your part). Since the various pieces of acetate were reflective, they reflected not only the lights trained upon them, but the reflected lights from other pieces as well - and then all that was reflected onto the plywood substrate, and those reflections back to the pieces of acetate. Technically speaking, the effect here is holographic, as whenever a light source was moved, and changed its reflection in one piece of acetate, it would simultaneously, and smoothly, change on the substrate, and in almost all the other pieces in the camera frame. This constituted a tour-de-force of reflections, reflecting reflections, reflecting reflections - on and on, in an ever deepening image complexity - becoming an open-ended meditation on 'light.'

With the help of original musical scoring, and the expertise of the two Bills with video processing, Willard's imagery was realized in a number of completed video works, the best known of these was Lostine. And although most of this early experimentation was done using basic imagery in black and white, later pieces were made on 2 inch videotape, and using broadcast quality color cameras. I believe the two images at the top of this page are from those sessions.

To sum up the 'mystery' of Willard's light forms, the final visible forms, as seen on a televison set are, therefore, not the acetate itself, but the multiplicity of lights reflected from it. They are only light, conveying the illusion of materiality, however numinous.


I know of only two precedents in the video field for Willard's imagery (though it's likely that he was aware of neither). Both occurred in broadcast television. One was - according to John Minkwosky - in a piece produced by Fred Barzyk at WGBH-TV in the 1960s, for a series of shorts called Jazz Images. Fred described the 'late night studio' scene to John this way:

"Mark Stevens had gone out and bought a 50-cent kaleidoscope, got a turntable ... and we set up aluminum foil all crumpled up on this turntable. So it would be turning around slowly while the lights were changing, and then what he attached to the front of his lens ... was a kaleidoscope. So he could turn the kaleidoscope to match the music, and the lights would go to match the music..."

The other occurrence was seen on the (you may have guessed it) Ernie Kovacs shows of the 1950s. The methodology was not revealed, but this is how it worked. A now unknown artist discovered that a shiny cookie sheet with all but the show's title blacked out, and then lighted with a single point-source of light, and reflecting on a blank screen could, if tilted, bent and warped, produce a remarkable effect resembling the text flexing, flying and reversing like a bird in flight. This, quite naturally, appealed to Ernie, and several show segments were produced with purely abstract shapes (much like Willard's) looping, flowing, undulating and inverting in time to a musical score. If you can imagine the intervals between the following frames filled in, you might have some idea of the overall sequence. Although Willard's materials didn't move (only the light did), and are then different from the Kovacs sequences, the basic principle is the same....and still the ultimate effect, entirely different. I will hazard this: Willard's work was decidedly more mature and, therefore, memorable. But that's the way art works.


In homage to Willard, It might be said that, in a manner of speaking, he had devised the 'De-luxe Rosenquist Optical Synthesizer.'

Light Forms




The above gem is from the archives of Warner Jepson, and he writes, "[This photo was] taken in Southern Illinois when NCET went there because KQED wouldn't allow NCET artists to touch KQED 2 inch machines. U. of Southern Ill. did. Spent two weeks there to make copies; what else? Roarty was there ahead of Willard and had the motel make the sign to greet Willard. Pretty nice." Pretty nice indeed.




  Willard at Asilomar - 1973  
  Photo by Penny Dhaemers  
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