Beckmann's exhibit blows the roof off

By Michael Eilers
Arizona Daily Wildcat
February 9, 1996

Robert Henry Becker
Arizona Daily Wildcat

One of Beckmann's segments from "The Body of a House."


In the summer of 1953, a horror was unleashed upon the world. Physicists had found a way to capture the sun in a bottle. A nuclear explosion flattened houses and military vehicles, burning the Nevada desert clean in a Cold War test. The '50s were the height of American nuclear paranoia, the era of "Stop, Drop & Cover" instructional films and ever-present references to the "Red Menace" waiting overseas.

Robert Beckmann grew up in this time of paranoia, and saw the infamous footage of the test on national television - 2 1/3 seconds of film recording the reduction of a pleasant family home to a rubble of planks and ashes. In the eight large-scale paintings that comprise his piece "The Body of a House," he examines this seminal image, stretching that blink of time into frozen moments, ripe for contemplation.

The canvases themselves are hypnotic, even menacing. Keeping true to the footage of the film with remarkable photo-realism, Beckmann amplified the images with a luminous palette shading from fiery oranges to the deep rusty reds of coagulated blood.

In the first "frame" of the sequence, a typical two-kids-and-a-dog home sits in a desert valley, lit intensely from the front. The details are captured with stark realism, yet exaggerated and amplified€the house's geometry is subtly altered, throwing the house forward in perspective and making it seem to float against the darker background. As the sequence travels around the room, the house first catches on fire, then folds in on itself as the heat flash and shock wave of the nuclear blast tear it apart.

Beckmann used his masterful skills to capture the moments in exquisite detail, amplifying and focusing the images- frozen moments from an apocalypse. His attention to the original clip was so precise that he actually duplicated the motion blurs recorded on film.

The large size of the canvases and their spacing forces the viewer to examine that 21/3 second moment over a matter of minutes, as the house is stripped of its outer shell and then torn from the foundation. As Beckmann contemplated that moment, so must the viewer, and join Beckmann in considering the implications of unleashing such a power on the world. Rather than simply reproducing the frames, he enhanced and focused the details, burning them into the viewer's retinas.

The footage of that house's destruction Beckmann used for a source is nearly ubiquitous: I first saw it as a child in a documentary about World War II, but it was also used as the opening sequence for the '80s version of MTV's Headbanger's Ball. Just a flash and a cloud of dust, nothing special compared to the titanic explosions of Hollywood creations and the cartoonish fireballs that are the staple of action movies. Beckmann knew this image was easy to miss, and chose to capture the moment in a way that allows contemplation, that gives it the proper weight it deserves.

Beckmann's canvases seem to radiate heat. The image of the house, an obvious symbol for the family, crumpled up and tossed away like a ball of paper will give any viewer pause. It takes little effort of the imagination to assimilate the image with a vision of flesh being stripped from a human skull.

"The Body of a House" is showing through March 10 in the North gallery of the U of A Museum of Art. Beckmann will present a talk about his work at 12:15 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 12. Museum hours are 10-5 weekdays, 12-3 Sundays. Admission is free.