After the abrupt passing of trailblazing animator Suzan Pitt earlier this summer, Brooklyn’s Spectacle Theater has orchestrated one of the first comprehensive retrospectives of the artist’s work in New York City. Incorporating four of Pitt’s most celebrated films (Asparagus, 1975; Joy Street, 1995; El Doctor, 2006; and Pinball, 2013), accompanied by the short documentary Suzan Pitt: Persistence of Vision (2006), the program offers audiences a glimmering portal into the handcrafted worlds of one of animation’s finest and most imaginative minds.
The program opens with Asparagus, Pitt’s most enduring work, which made its public debut as the warm-up act to a theatrical run of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) on the midnight movie circuit in the late 70s. Revisiting the short film in the context of her retrospective, it is difficult to imagine positioning Asparagus as anything but a stand-alone work, densely-packed as it is with Jungian signification and impossibly detailed dreamscapes. In twenty minutes of vividly rendered cel animation, a faceless protagonist dons a sock and buskin mask à la Claude Cahun, departing her dollhouse to explore an enchanting sexual menagerie of headless giants and phallic flora. Meandering through a shopping district (on offer: sex, guns, dolls, cigars), she makes her way into the backstage area of a local theater, unleashing a carpet bag of squirming figures and chimerical creatures upon an enraptured audience. The film resolves in an act of imaginative fellatio, as a bundle of asparagus metamorphoses into cascading water, metal filings, and multicolored pills under the manipulation of the protagonist’s mouth; it’s a stunning illustration of the haptic sensitivity which encircles acts of both creative and sexual realization.
Critics have frequently connected Suzan Pitt with Leonora Carrington, the pioneering surrealist author and painter who shared Pitt’s proclivity for nesting the personal and intimate within the strange. Like Carrington and her contemporary Remedios Varo, Pitt was heavily influenced by sojourns in Mexico, drawing from local folklore, Catholic iconography, and a rich tradition of magical realism. By the midpoint of the program (Joy Street, El Doctor), this influence becomes pronounced, and a happy symbiosis emerges between Mexico’s fabulist visual culture and Pitt’s organic imaginary. Inspired by her experiences on a Fulbright grant to Mexico and Guatemala, the semi-autobiographical Joy Street teems with jungles imbued with an almost Rousseauian vibrancy, delivering a revitalizing shock to its bed-ridden protagonist as she copes with her depression.
Likewise, the opening of the fully bilingual El Doctor, set in a post-Revolutionary Mexican town, features elements which feel equally at home in Latin American folklore and Pitt’s oeuvre: Santa Lucia offering up two eyeballs on a golden platter, paleta stand displays advertising various fruits and sweets. Aligned with Pitt’s interest in reversals and reprieves, the film follows an overburdened, alcoholic doctor who is visited by a series of fantastic apparitions at death’s door, enabling him to reconnect with the miraculous dimensions of his career of healing. While the film tilts at some moments into cultural caricature, Pitt here reaches the height of her ability to navigate slippages between the bizarre and the mundane, the sacred and the profane, each scene enlivened by her evident care for her adoptive second home.
Organized chronologically, the program illustrates not only the emotional potency of Pitt’s semi-autobiographical bent, but also the breadth of her experimentation over time. On most evenings, the program concludes with Suzan Pitt: Persistence of Vision, a documentary about the esteemed animator created by her son and daughter-in-law, Blue and Laura Kraning. The film’s interviews offer insight into Pitt’s singular devotion to texture and temporality, both of which led her to explore a vast array of animation techniques — including stop-motion, film scratching, sand animation, and transparencies — throughout her career.
Attendees of the September 25th iteration of the program will also be treated to a screening of Pinball, Pitt’s final film. In this striking work, Pitt opted to abandon narrative altogether, instead leaning heavily into the play with recursivity that features in her earlier narratives. Like Fernand Léger a century before, Pitt creates an avant-garde visual pastiche to accompany futurist composer George Antheil’s experimental Ballet Mécanique (1923-4), filling out the latter’s machinic percussion with dynamic form and color. Strobing, rotating paintings accentuate the delicate tension underlying animation’s illusory movement, picking up some of the themes which dictated Loops, the 1976 performance series she co-created with John Cage. Pinball is a fitting culmination for this program, which documents the growth of an artist striving to conjure ever more expressive forms and access a more plastic representation of time. With Persistence of Vision, Spectacle enables audiences to encounter a broad swathe of Suzan Pitt’s imaginative palette, projected in its proper cinematic dimensions and situated in a space which feels similarly woven with handmade care. For the price of a movie ticket, this bundle of otherworldly journeys makes a Williamsburg trip well worth the effort.
Persistence of Vision: The Films of Suzan Pitt continues at Spectacle Theater (124 S. 3rd Street, Brooklyn) on September 19 and September 25. The program is organized by Spectacle Theater with special thanks to Blue and Laura Kraning.