One of the handful of young artists who really inspired me back when I was still haunting the streets of New York was Jeremy Blake, who died this July.

I think I first heard about him through Lytle Shaw, who is much more on the scene than I am (or was). I know that the first piece I saw of Blake’s was at a group show — a single panel video on a huge, wide flatscreen that moved very slowly and could have been mistaken for some terribly gaudy if baroque piece of teak furniture collecting dust in the corner, though opening and closing its doors as if by a poltergeist. It was the most beautiful thing there — a fetish object that was really just a television set — and I was intrigued.

The second was at the Whitney Biennial around the same time. This one involved three flatscreens, two on one wall, one on the other, and resembled a very slow moving anime film, but without any characters (we call them “figures”). There seemed to be some story being told between the three uncoordinated panels having to do with trains, mysterious doors (like the numbered doors on the Price is Right) and toxic gasses that killed off entire (unseen) populations. The colors were bright, sharp, almost fluorescent, the mood haunting and apocalyptic. I spent a lot of time gazing at this one, wondering how the three panels interacted, trying to suss out the narrative if any, confused about whether the images were digitally created or drawn with pastels, and really wondering if I was seeing a brand new form of art being born.

[Addendum: I remembered last night, just before falling asleep — fittingly — that I had seen a Blake piece even earlier at P.S. 1 in a basement room with my friend Melanie Rios. It was a single screen projection, and involved a section that seemed to be snowflakes falling, followed by sections of colored boxes fading into place. We sat and stared at it for a long time, really not knowing what we were witnessing or why it was so engaging. I remember thinking it was trivial at first, a little too passive, but it managed to be kind of aggressively controlling as well. Anyway, you’ll notice I have no memories for the names of these projects, I’m bad with that — I just hope my descriptions are accurate.]

Blake “started as a painter” — such a cliche these days to “sex up” the resume of a digital artist, but in his case very relevant given his prodigious visual vocabulary — but his work eventually ended up in a space all his own between photography, illustration and film (surely some of the slowest moving cinema since Warhol, possibly the slowest moving animation ever, and moving in the opposite direction from many videographers after they get their hands on Final Cut).

Blake might be best known to the world as the person who did the transition scenes for the movie Punch Drunk Love with Adam Sandler and Emily Watson. Another flirtation with pop success was being asked to do a video for Beck:

What is really strange (and I won’t dwell on it, there are obituaries all over the web) is how he died. After his partner, the new media artist Theresa Duncan, died on July 10 — some suspect a suicide, though she overdosed on Tylenol PM and bourbon, which seems an odd choice for me — Blake simply walked into the ocean and drowned. This is from Wikipedia:

On July 17, 2007, Blake was reported missing off New York’s Rockaway Beach. According to news accounts, a woman called 911 to report that she saw a man swimming out to sea. Blake’s clothes and wallet were reportedly found under the boardwalk at Rockaway’s 122nd Street Beach, along with a suicide note that referred to Duncan.

On the morning of Sunday, July 22, 2007, a body thought to be that of Jeremy Blake was discovered 4.5 miles off the coast of Sea Girt, New Jersey (which is 35 miles south of Rockaway Beach). Police announced on July 31, 2007 that they had identified his body.

In addition, both Duncan and Blake had thought they were being pursued and harassed and by Scientologists — Beck is a Scientologist, and both thought Blake had somehow troubled the waters enough to get them on the Scientologist black list, like an informal Jihad of some nature. Of course, the Scientologists deny any such thing, but Blake had prepared a 27-page “chronicle” in preparation for a lawsuit that he was planning to file, so he clearly took it quite seriously — it was no passing paranoia, and they both shared this fear. Blake had just gotten a hot job at Rockstar Games — maker of the Grand Theft Auto video game series — so he was hardly down on his luck. The couple had just moved back to New York from Los Angeles.

In any case, I was really hurt by the news of his death. I really felt that he was part of “my generation” and someone whose work I could look forward to for many years in the future as a sort of guide, someone to goad me on by producing work I could only struggle to understand. Another artist I really admire, even cling to in a way, is Paul Chan, and both Blake and Chan are similar in that they conceived — and coolly, charismatically completed — ambitious digital art projects that really go against the grain of what it means to do “digital” work.

That is. both artists choose craft over pressing all the buttons and rushing a work out to the periphery of the technologically possible, and prefer conceptual simplicity and meditative registers over intellectual showboating and machismo, and yet neither are less than provocative and have some complex “message” to convey. Some of Chan’s most impressive Flash work uses only black and white pseudo-silhouette images — the only video art I’ve seen in Philadelphia was a Chan piece that depicts figures of all natures falling either downward or upward like a nightmare from 9/11, projected diagonally across a floor — or images based on the drawings of Henry Darger and the writing of Fourier.

The Beck video is not really representative of Blake’s work, at least not the stuff I’ve seen, and I think the inclusion of Beck’s face in the video was probably a record company decision (like the overlays of Morrissey’s face on the original “Ask” video, directed by Derek Jarman). It does share with his other work the basic premise of long, slow fades between colorful images with certain colors lingering longer than others so that, between images, a sort of “interstitial” composite is created. It takes the idea of the afterimage on the retina — stare at something red long enough and you’ll see blue — and makes it tactile, forcing a different state of perception on the viewer, slowed by the pace yet never at rest.

By the way, do any of you thirty-somethings remember the first version of the video for U2’s “One,” created by David Wojnarowicz? It was rejected by the record company as too uncommercial after appearing on MTV for about a week — there was a world premiere and everything. It was finally pulled and replaced by two other versions, one a bleeding-heart-Bono quickie like every other U2 video, and another directed by the celebrity photographer Anton Corbijn of the band in drag (probably a result of bad conscience, as Wojnarowicz died of AIDS soon after the first video premiered). Since I’m high on the YouTube stuff recently, here’s the original “Buffalo” version of “One,” AIDS allegory and all:

I found that Derek Jarman Smiths video on YouTube as well… oh the glory. The video was made spontaneously by Jarman, who is best known for the punk rock movie Jubilee and who eventually also died of AIDS. When the record company decided to use his film for promotion, they demanded Morrissey’s face appear at regular intervals to keep the kiddies engaged:

In any case, check out Jeremy Blake’s installations if they come to town since I doubt they work as at-home video watching. I’m sure there will be retrospectives and other sorts of appraisals and encomiums to come, though I’m surprised that it took me so long to find out about his death — I had just happened to check out the Philly artblog a few days ago and read about it. And don’t take anything, or anyone, for granted, given the fickle, recalcitrant nature of death. Bergman and Antonioni in the same week? But they both lived a long time.