Robert Reed. Photo: Lisa Kereszi.

I was seventeen years old when I met you. You were wearing khaki slacks and tasseled loafers. You had round spectacles.

You bellowed your most infamous assignment, fifty 22 x 30" drawings of a New Haven park, astonishing us with its rigor. An everlasting mission. A page full of charcoal might qualify as completion, but the task was a catalyst. Trees are everywhere; they are a permanent subject and continuing metaphor for representation—their differences and their inherent incompleteness—growth, death, and perspective.

Your spirit is pervasive. But my loss of the gentleman, scholar, and artist grieves me. Since your passing, the trees are unfamiliar. And more and more often I see artists cloaking industriousness with style to hide earnestness.

I remember Drawing 1 in the basement of the gray cardboard of Paul Rudolf’s Art & Architecture building. Your “velvet hammer” tapped away at my malleable ego, forming it into something sincere.

You kept cynicism at bay. The trees, the charcoal, the paper, our peers, the paint were archetypical. I’ve never seen a bigger silver beech. We’ve never drawn more leaves. We could lean on the structure of your pedagogy. Its trustworthy edifices inspired quests into the woods. These same woods we would thin to furnish our studios as we graduated.

Drawing wasn’t easy. You had to repot me. My young habits were the wrong soil. And I dreamt of you recently. You had a tweed shovel. You were dumping out potted students and pointing out the light source. You reminded us to look at the object, not subject ourselves to the page.

Professor Reed, you sowed my ego deeper in the dirt than I wanted to be. Drawing, painting, germination, the vulnerable position of needing resources to represent pushed me up through knowledge to understanding. Like a giant old-growth shim, you continue to level this drawn world. Thank you.

Robert Reed, Sigh Less Green, 2000, collage, 20 x 16”. Courtesy of David Findlay Jr Gallery, NY.

Joseph Montgomery is an artist based in New York.

HE ASKED US to do drawings with coffee and tea, then paused and asked us in his most serious voice to consider what would happen if we added cream and sugar.
—Wiley Kestner, Yale University student, 1998

The passing of Robert Reed, a professor for almost fifty years in both the undergraduate and graduate programs at Yale University, is a great loss. A great loss not only for his wife, children, grandchildren, friends, students, and colleagues; not only for the fact that he was the only tenured African American ever in the Yale School of Art; but also for education itself as a profession, a concept, and a calling.

Reed’s significance as an educator does not diminish his accomplishments as an artist. A steadfast geometric painter, his work is included in the collections of such venerable institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia (to name a few). Bob, as he was known to many, fulfilled his role as a professor by placing his artistic ego aside—a notion that has become foreign, forgotten, overlooked, or simply unfashionable in art education today.

Robert Reed, Cabbage, 2000, collage, 20 x 16”. Courtesy of David Findlay Jr Gallery, NY.

Much has been said of Bob’s demanding teaching style. He famously expected his painting students to produce twelve paintings and his drawing students to produce fifty drawings by the second class. In addition, students were to attend a kind of weekend art boot camp at Yale’s Norfolk campus, where they worked from morning until night. He accepted no excuses for any work not fully done. Most apparent was that his methods displayed his belief in the connection between hard work and success. What was perhaps less obvious was his understanding and investment in his role as a mentor. You never found Bob in a public review making a show of his career, his knowledge, or his ego. More often than not, he remained rather quiet. He shared his wisdom willingly and rigorously in private. It did not happen in the hallways, a bar, or a restaurant. It was not confined to a class session, a semester, or a year. It was delivered personally with empathy and respect. It was not for show but for forming a dialogue, a conversation—extended, for sure—a foundation for a teacher-to-student, student-to-teacher relationship, one that continued and developed over time. Bob’s was a role that was not a choice but a given: professor as mentor. In his position as professor he deeply understood it not to be about him but about “us.”

Success in academia is so often measured in preapproved career checklists and awards. Bob had many of these, but they seemed to matter less to him than assisting and bearing witness to the progress of his students and colleagues. As a professor, he measured his own success by the success of those of us he had mentored. I am happy to say that I am one of the many who benefited from his generosity.

Twenty years ago, I met Robert Reed in a gallery in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I was exhibiting my paintings. He introduced himself, and a conversation began that led to many wonderful years of my teaching alongside him at Yale. As a very green professor, I watched all the notable artists I worked with for clues on how to be a better teacher, but I could not read Bob, due to the very private nature of his approach. I now understand how he embraced the role of the professor as mentor, something I still find difficult to consistently practice. Education is ultimately a conversation: a process of sharing, supporting, relating; in essence, a group activity. Bob understood this and resisted the impulse to make it into the singular, me-me-me agenda we see in so much of contemporary culture.

In the years since leaving Yale, I remained in touch with Bob. His continued support and belief in me as an artist and an educator never waivered. With each correspondence, I was reminded to try harder to be a more effective teacher and mentor. And even as I do strive to follow his example, I am sure that the hole Bob has left in art education will be very hard for all that follow to fill.

Lisa Corinne Davis is an artist and professor of painting at Hunter College in New York.

Otto Piene, 2007.

WALKING INTO OTTO PIENE’S OFFICE at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge in 1999, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew Piene was one of the founders of the German artists’ group Zero and had been a practicing artist since the 1950s. I also knew he had enjoyed a long and illustrious career as the director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, having succeeded György Kepes in 1974 and served in that role for twenty years. The man I met was as distinguished in his demeanor as I had imagined, and yet he was also immediately open and generous, treating me as a worthy colleague even though I was a graduate student at the start of researching a doctoral thesis. Before that first meeting ended, he entrusted me with a manuscript of an unpublished, incredibly illuminating text he had written in the mid-’60s, “Zero and the Attitude,” and a few months later he and his wife Elizabeth took me under their wings in Esslingen, Germany, at the opening of the exhibition “ZERO aus Deutschland 1957–1966. Und heute” (ZERO out of Germany 1957 – 1966. And today), a show that gave me the first concrete glimpse into a history that had until then only existed for me in words and images.

These two personal anecdotes illustrate Piene’s dual role as author and teacher, a figure who imparted an important chapter in the history of art of the ’50s and ’60s to subsequent generations of artists, scholars, and curators, and an artist who continuously advocated for exhibitions that brought visibility not only to his own work and the original German group Zero but also to ZERO, the larger, international network in its various manifestations. Up to the very end of his life, he remained faithful to the ethos and spirit that inspired him and his friend Heinz Mack to undertake the challenging task of reviving the experimental art scene in post–World War II Germany. They did so by organizing single-evening exhibitions in their Düsseldorf studio, self-publishing three issues of ZERO magazine, and establishing relationships with colleagues working in various countries on the European continent, which had so recently and violently been divided by war. Rather than being paralyzed by the past, Piene was energized by the future, looking ahead to “tomorrow” and daring to hope for and dream of a better world. This positive outlook is certainly an important aspect of his legacy.

For Piene, such a world came into focus through his art, which often underscored that creation could arise from destruction (as, for example, with his fire and smoke works), and through his active efforts to connect with others, exchanging ideas and formulating joint—and often multidisciplinary—projects on various scales over many decades. Writing about Zero in 1964, he contended, “We are fond of collaborating and occasionally doing teamwork . . . but we are at the same time convinced that teamwork is nonsense if it tries to be an alternative to or rules out individuality or personal sensibility.” This paradoxical condition—wanting to clearly and forcefully express one’s own views yet simultaneously striving to collaborate with others—defined Piene’s career and life.

View of “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s,” 2014, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. From left: Otto Piene, Venus of Willendorf, 2014; Light Ghost, 2012. © Otto Piene/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Germany.

I feel fortunate indeed to have had the opportunity to spend so much time with Otto over the course of the last two years, as I prepared for the 2014 exhibition “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s,” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Just before traveling to Berlin last June, Otto came to the Guggenheim to discuss his works being presented there with me and my team. We finalized the scale and placement of a refabrication of his 1969 inflatable sculpture Venus of Willendorf. I continued to debate the details with him, since the 2014 version was significantly larger than the ’60s original (and so effectively a new work in what I had conceived as a historical show). But in the end, we agreed to proceed according to his wishes. Before he left for Germany, Otto said, “Valerie, I trust you.” Those simple words held so much meaning after the many years we had spent building a relationship that started out as that of teacher and student and ended up as a profound and productive combination of artist and curator and friends.

Otto passed away about three months before the show opened. Throughout “ZERO”’s run, I watched the inner and outer balloons comprising his Venus deflate to nothing and repeatedly be restored to their full size. Every time I looked at the sculpture, I felt Otto’s quiet presence. I understood the ways in which this work captured his fundamental belief that opposites can coexist; that what may at first seem to be lost can be reimagined and reborn in the present.

Valerie Hillings is curator and manager of curatorial affairs at the Abu Dhabi Project for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and is curator of “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s,” which was on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York from October 10, 2014–January 7, 2015.

Harun Farocki, 2007. Photo: Hertha Hurnaus.

I DIDN’T REALLY KNOW Harun Farocki. Although we worked on similar ideas, participated in a number of joint exhibitions, and have a book together (Visibility Machines [2015]), we never really got to know each other. So I can only memorialize him by choosing moments from his work that spoke to me and to society at large. Farocki was inarguably one of the most astute observers of the present, whose observations were consistently years ahead of their time. His anxieties about the twenty-first-century relationships among image-making, automation, militarization, domination, and control are distilled in a pair of sentences at the end of his much-celebrated film Eye/Machine I, 2001. After twenty minutes of footage showing the development of automated vision and targeting systems in everything from cruise missiles to driverless automobiles, Farocki asks the audience to “imagine a war of autonomous machines. Wars without soldiers like factories without workers.”

Two sentences. Two extraordinary diagnoses. Two critical warnings about a future that has already come to pass. The first is an imperative but also an observation about the relationship between seeing and contemporary warfare. The second is a premonition about the fate of humans in an age of autonomous machine warfare.

In the first sentence, Farocki asks us to “imagine” rather than to “see” this war. The distinction is crucial. Its implication is that the war he’s trying to describe is unseeable and undocumentable and that Farocki’s efforts to provide a glimpse into the world of autonomous machine warfare are insufficient. The artist seems to be saying that the film is little more than a series of images that is only useful insofar as it creates the conditions for an audience to “imagine” what the actual subject of his documentary might be. Farocki’s point is different than the standard critical analyses of documentary practice: that images never fully represent their object or referents, that images are always only ever fragmentary, open to interpretation, mystification, and the like. Instead, Farocki is pointing out that we’re at a historical moment when the operations of autonomous warfare are actually invisible, not because of the inevitable fetishization and mystification of images in general, but because wars are being waged through systems that are simply postvisual, or more accurately, systems whose imaging capacities exceed those of human eyes to the point of being invisible to them. A quick survey of the twenty-first century’s paradigmatic weapons bears this out: from Stuxnet sabotage software to FOXACID espionage servers and from the PRISM and TEMPORA mass-surveillance programs to the drone attacks triggered by various metadata “signatures,” the weapons of the present-future are decidedly postvisual. Roads and trenches are replaced by server pings on a network, crosshairs are replaced by algorithmic metadata analysis, and “the whites of an enemy’s eyes” are replaced by their electromagnetic signature. Farocki asks us to “imagine” the war of machines, not because that war of autonomous machines isn’t taking place, but because we can only attempt to “see” it though our own imagination. It is literally invisible.

But the second sentence in Farocki’s formulation, the last in the film, is perhaps an even more poignant warning: “Wars without soldiers like factories without workers.” It’s a specific and deliberate Marxian analogy, and indeed, Farocki was deeply indebted to Marxist theory: His consistent methodology of bringing a camera to sites of image creation and spectacle strongly echoes Marx’s own materialist methodology of examining spaces and relations of production to understand capitalism and society. For Marx, the factory was the foundational site of capital, the predominant one through which the capitalist class extracts surplus value through the exploitation of workers. But there was more to Marx’s formulation—the factory, like nearly every other corner of the capitalist system, was rife with contradictions. In the Marxian schema, the worker is ultimately the source of all surplus value, a fact that imbues the working class with a unique historical agency. Despite its exploitation, or more accurately because of its exploitation in the factories, the working class is in the position to overthrow capitalism itself. So what does Farocki mean by the idea of “factories without workers”?

On one hand, Farocki describes a world in which automated weapons and targeting systems have come to dominate the operational aspects of warfare—autonomous machines making decisions for themselves about what will be targeted and what will not and who will live and who will die (signature drone strikes, automated cyber weapons). But there’s a deeper implication to the factory without workers, which is a world in which humans no longer have any agency, a world in which humans could not stop the war even if they wanted to. A total war that bootstraps itself, a self-sustaining process that continues without any external input.

When I remember Farocki, I remember a great artist who more than just about anyone taught me to “see” the historical moment in which we’re living. An important part of that lesson was his warning about the things that we can’t see but under whose influence we nonetheless increasingly find ourselves.

Trevor Paglen is an artist and geographer based in New York.

See the February print issue of Artforum for more on Harun Farocki.


We want to create an institution, that would initially just be an office for the instruction and coordination of some documentary film works.

Ultimately a (the) national library of images.

Producing materials to investigate the present, which will be the future past.

This institution should collect, or more precisely safeguard existing things and produce, more precisely initiate things that do not exist.

It should operate non-commercially, collecting resources and labour power from the public research sector.”

These lines open a text Harun Farocki wrote in 1976, in which he argues for creating a publicly accessible library of documentary images. The text has been made available to me as a scan of a hectographed document stapled together in the upper left-hand corner. From one page to another, one sees the paper creasing around the staple, looking vulnerable and ephemeral.

Now this piece of paper has come to be the closest thing we have to a manual for the foundation of a Harun Farocki Institute, which would not only take care of the afterlife of his many films and video installations but also safeguard this other text like it. In the aftermath of Harun’s unexpected and tragic passing in July this past year, such effort will be necessary. This endeavor would also include a much-needed systematic and complete edition of his prolific writing, always wonderful, at times mordant and sharp.

Even an operational text such as the one above is full of brilliant shorthand observations about the image and its relation to history:

“What we call documentation shows the world as if it were already known and after a few years already we are not anymore able to reconstruct how this world looked like. But the images that have to be produced are ones that aim to explore the world as strange and alien; which turn the present into history. We have to produce building blocks. First we have to develop methods to create these building blocks and then we have to assemble them and take them apart again.”

This passage anticipates Harun’s life project: to create fundamental visual elements that could potentially grow into sustainable structures. But, true to its operational nature, Harun’s text goes beyond pure reflection to become a survey. It morphs into an organizational device:

“We ask you, if you would like to do this work or could do it or if you know anyone, who would like to do it.”

Harun’s family and a circle of friends and collaborators have begun the vast and demanding task of creating the Harun Farocki Institute to continue Harun’s project of instigating images that render a presumably known world into something that needs to be explored as strange and alien territory.

Harun’s text closes: “It will be difficult to create a work place. We have to know how much time and energy everyone can put to work. Please tell us how you would be available within the next one and a half years. Please answer until Sept. 30th 1976 to Filmkritik editorial office, 8 Munich 2, Kreittmayerstr. 3 (9).”

Hito Steyerl is a filmmaker, writer, and artist who teaches at the Berlin University of the Arts.

See also the February print issue of Artforum for more on Harun Farocki.