Al Jarnow

By Edwin Rostron

celestialnavigationStill from Celestial Navigations (1985) by Al Jarnow

The films of Al Jarnow, made from the late 1960s onwards, are exquisitely crafted, playful and highly considered works of art, which have inspired and informed many subsequent animators. If you are of a certain age (like myself) its quite possible that his work might have altered your tiny, still-developing brain while you were sitting watching TV in your early years. Al’s work frequently featured on Sesame Street from the late 1970s through into the 1990s, along with the work of other experimental animators such as Karen Aqua, Sally Cruikshank and Deanna Morse. Al’s films for Sesame Street can be found alongside his outstanding personal works on a DVD entitled Celestial Navigations. The disc also contains a fascinating documentary (embedded at the end of this post) and a booklet with an essay by George Griffin – essential for anyone interested in Al’s work and the history of independent animation.

Cubits (1977) by Al Jarnow

Like many experimental animators, Al Jarnow began as a painter. His move into animation allowed him to explore his fascinations with time, perception, movement and perspective. Channelling his curiosity and thirst for knowledge into the making of his work, his films play on the great capacity of animation to visualise process – thought processes, creative processes, natural and physical processes. In his hand-drawn animations, forms are at once alive in time and space, yet simultaneously paper-flat in two dimensions. In his stop-motion work with objects such as shells, he reveals patterns and connections in ways that only animation can. Al’s work is driven by scientific and mathematical ideas, yet it frequently references his own life, his living environment, and his family. His films have been a huge inspiration to me as an animator, showing me the potential for experimentation in drawn animation, and the beauty of his own singular personal vision.

fauxCube1Faux Cube (2005), beach sculpture by Al Jarnow

Al’s work stretches far beyond animated short films, and he has focused more on software and museum exhibits in recent years. He has continued to work with animation in a series of music videos, and still makes time to create ‘ephemeral sculptures’ on the beach. I am very grateful to Al for agreeing to answer some of my questions via email.

Cosmic Clock (1979) by Al Jarnow for 3-2-1 Contact

EoF: You were a painter before you began animating. How did you get started as an artist in the first place? What kind of artists / artistic practices initially inspired you?

AJ: I started drawing and painting as a kid and got lots of positive feedback at home and in school. My father was a picture frame maker and I was surrounded by art. I suppose I always wanted to make something to fill the frames. Painting was the first thing I paid attention to and wandered the halls of museums as a young teenager, mostly alone, sometimes on dates. The Impressionists blew me away. A trip to Paris at 13 pried my young eyes open and I’ve done my best to keep them open. Then, my aunt who brought me to Paris, turned me on to a Rothko show at MOMA. And then I saw a Jean Tinguely show also in MOMA garden – my first moving art other than launching rockets in my back yard.


Lone Star (1981) oil on canvas by Al Jarnow

EoF: In the introduction to the booklet with your DVD you say that you once you started animating, “the labor-intensive process of making hundreds, sometimes thousands of drawings became an internal dialogue and the resulting forms changed.” Could you expand a bit on this? How did the process of animating affect the form and content of what you were making?

AJ: At it’s simplest, I drew faster, paid less attention to details and more to the event and motion. I decided that for me animating was about how things moved and not so much about what they looked like. I continued to paint landscapes and interiors where I could get my fill of details.

Autosong (1976) by Al Jarnow

EoF: In the documentary Asymmetric Cycles you describe your process on Celestial Navigation as “setting up an experimental environment in which I could more or less improv and riff off of different ideas to do with time, the passage of time and the passage of light.” Was this typical of how you worked with your animations? Did this kind of experimental process relate to how you worked as a painter? Was there a lot of material generated through this kind of process that didn’t make the cut?

AJ: Yes, always! In painting as in film, the process has always been a dialogue. What happens with the first stroke is a determining factor in what happens with the next. An experiment is an act in which you don’t know the outcome. It’s a learning process. You might have expectations and anticipate your results, but those can color your results. In film, a lot of snippets ended up on my cutting room floor (or at least in cans still stored in my attic). In painting, pieces ended up in re-cycling, painted over, cut in half, and again stored in my attic studio.

Celestial Navigation Tests (1984) by Al Jarnow

EoF: I’m really interested in the social/artistic context of 1970s New York in which you were working as an artist-animator (which George Griffin’s piece in the DVD booklet goes into). It seems like an optimistic and creatively fertile environment, especially for animators. Much of the experimental animation work that you and your peers produced then has been especially inspiring to me (and many others) but a lot of it is not that easy to see now, and experimental animation remains a somewhat marginalised art form. Do you have any thoughts on this area of practice, then and now?

AJ: Thanks for the kind words and I’m glad it’s been inspiring. We had expectations of fame and glory, many of us imagining our work would show in first run theaters as opening pieces (much as they used to). But it has been an evolution. Many of us avoided commercialism (advertising) and saw feature films as being too heavily invested in budgeting, compromise, and end goals. Hah! Some of my friends have gone on to make features. But much of the work we did had a strong influence on the shape of special effects and advertising design. I rode down a different path. It’s a whole lot easier to see new works these days, some great some so-so. How many millions of uncurated minutes are posted on YouTube and Vimeo each day? Many of the classic works that I search for on the net are available even in a somewhat small format.

Rotating Cubic Grid (1975) by Al Jarnow

EoF: You subsequently moved into making interactive animation, software and museum exhibits. Do you continue to employ an experimental process in your work in these forms? What do these forms offer you that making ‘regular’ animations does not?

AJ: Prior to my switch in mediums, I first began using a computer to make animations – controlling a camera, generating lines, space, and time events, layering elements, etc. And then the whole technology changed providing more immediate gratification by means other than flipping pages. And yes I continue to work experimentally. Working with software often generates completely unanticipated events which open up different paths to explore . . . sometimes by changing numbers controlling events, other times by permutations and combinations. The relatively instant feedback is a major difference between now and how I once made films. I also spend more time in my studio than I once did in production houses. And making software is a lot cheaper than filmmaking – the experimental side of which never drew much revenue.

Three Primary Colors by OK Go (2011) Video by Al Jarnow

EoF: What are you working on now? Are your days of making animations as films we sit and watch from beginning to end completely over?

AJ: I continue to make software for myself and museums that support that self. For the National Gallery, I’m making an abstract painting app extending an earlier piece. For the National Parks Service, I’m making a kiosk piece more or less about navigating at sea using stars, lighthouses, buoys, etc – in some ways a continuation of Autosong (it is an animation except that you’re driving with the scenarios and tools I provide). And for a decorative arts museum, I’m exploring symmetry patterns. And when the weather turns warmer, I’ll be on a beach building ephemeral sculptures with mostly found materials. I don’t know if those days are gone completely. I’ve done a couple of music videos for friends in the last couple of years, spurred on by my son, Jesse, who’s into “hand-made”.

Asymmetric Cycles: The Work Of Al Jarnow (2010)
A film by Zach Goheen, Kyle Obriot, Ben Poster and Michael Slaboch

Yak (1970) by Al Jarnow, for Sesame Street

Hercules by Guster (2010) Video by Al and Jesse Jarnow

More of Al’s paintings, sculptures, software, exhibits and more can be found at his website

©2016 Edwin Rostron

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