Alex Haas: Histograms

by Lawrence Rinder (2006)

It is 2006 and the much-vaunted “new media” (i.e. computers and other digital tools) are no longer new. It’s time we stopped pondering the significance of such technologies as such and return to the more important questions raised by artists who use them. Alex Haas’s Histogram series begins at this point. Although these works could only have been made using digital technology, Haas has thoroughly humanistic, even classical aims: he is interested in how we see and how we exist in the world.

Each one of Haas’s prints consists of a sequence of bands of color—sometimes horizontal and sometimes vertical—of varying widths. The striations are fairly dense, with dozens of bands compacted into the space of each frame. This compositional strategy endows his images with a certain dynamism and vitality that distinguishes them from the work of the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko to which they have sometimes been compared. Like Rothko, though, Haas’ color is richly saturated, sometimes almost monochromatic and at others vibrant with contrasting hues. These basic elements bring to the experience of Haas’s work sensations of temporal duration and visual specificity.

Duration is implied in the Histograms—besides in the title itself—in the suggestion of extension beyond the frame that the bands connote. To get from here to there—the “there” that the extending bands imply–requires time. The frame of each print contains our gaze, localizing it at a scale that can be momentarily perceived. Yet there remains the suggestion of other spaces, other times. By “visual specificity” I mean both this sensation of a localized present—a comprehensible, instantaneous visual phenomenon—as well as the simple fact that each of the Histograms is different. Difference, as we learned from Saussaure, is the basis of language, the means by which a set of random sounds or images comes to have meaning. Thus, the Histograms, as a series, lead the viewer to the sense that they are looking at “something,” that is, something more than a random set of lines and colors.

Indeed they are. The colors of the Histograms derive directly from another, specific source. I am tempted not to reveal what it is, because the pictures should tell it all. Yet, in this case, the process of derivation is intimately connected—on the level of metaphor—to the expression of the work itself. Haas borrows (or, “samples,” to use the musical terminology he prefers) minute pixels (that is, digitized fragments) from his father’s own photographs. Ernst Haas, was a renowned Magnum photographer who developed a unique approach emphasizing the passage of time through the controlled use of the blur. The particular photographs by the elder Haas that the younger prefers to use are images of leaves and flowers. For the Haases—father and son—photography is a means to articulate something about the nature of the real. That Alex Haas’s “subject matter” derives from Ernst Haas’s photographs of plants introduces a new and profound layer of representation, that of genetic continuity. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.

Haas is equally at home in the world of music and his approach to image making is deeply influenced by his experience as a composer and engineer of electronic sound. Indeed, it may be easier to identify precedents for his work in the field of music than in art history itself. Specifically, one can look to the use of found sounds and tape loops by the composers of the so-called musique concrete movement of the 1950s as well as the early serial works of Milton Babbitt—such as Three Compositions for Piano (1947) which incorporated motifs known as ‘derived sets,’ passages with formal properties extrapolated from preceding fragments. Haas himself has collaborated with electronic musicians including Brian Eno, with whom he created the video installation, Sanctum, in 2002.

A companion work to the Histograms series is a time-based piece titled Videogram. Here, much that is suggested in the Histograms series is made literal, especially the aspect of duration: Videogram unfolds over time, as a serene oscillation of color, tone, and sound. The composition incorporates the same horizontal bands of high-keyed color, that seem at times to flow upwards, at times downwards, and at times to shiver in place, rearranging themselves internally with pixilated flutters that hover at the very edges of our perceptual capacity. This dancing at the margin of perception creates a mirage effect, which is accentuated by the subtle and hypnotic sound element, a slow, alternating pulse of cool and warm overtones. Faint percussive accents spur attentiveness within the billowing sonic atmosphere.

Alex Haas is working at the frontier of contemporary art. It is a place where advanced technologies meet timeless themes, elucidating the subtle ways in which we live and see. His artistic vision is the same as his father’s: “I am not interested in shooting new things – I am interested to see things new.”