He was a musician by training whose conceptual art frequently blended the aural and the visual into the quirky and quixotic. Credited with coining the term “electronic superhighway,” he was famous for mixing sculpture and performance with a relatively new invention called television, which in time would define his creative output.
Seoul-born Nam June Paik, known as the father of video art, was also a relative of Ken Hakuta, M.B.A. ’77, who has gifted a number of his uncle’s pieces to the Harvard Art Museums in recent years. Those works are the focus of “Nam June Paik: Screen Play,” on view through Aug. 5.
“Paik was a really important player in artistic developments over the 20th century,” said Mary Schneider Enriquez, Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, who helped curate the show. The artist’s effort to engage viewers with his work was “revolutionary,” Enriquez added, as was his “electronic way of thinking about this interaction.”
Born in 1932, Paik was a budding classical pianist when the Korean War forced him to flee with his family to Hong Kong and eventually to Japan, where he studied music at the University of Tokyo. Later, as a student in West Germany in the late 1950s, he met artist Joseph Beuys, avant-garde musician John Cage, and members of what would eventually become Fluxus, a 1960s movement that rejected the commercial art market in favor of art for the masses.
Cage is perhaps best known for “4’33,” in which a pianist sits for four minutes and thirty-three seconds at a piano without playing a note. Paik’s reaction to the composer’s work was similar to that of many experimental artists of the era.
“Cage really was that epiphany for a lot of artists during this period and I think he just really expanded Paik’s idea of what music and art could be,” said Marina Isgro, Nam June Paik Research Fellow and curator of the new show.