Billy Kluver

Last Name: 
First Name: 

A Swedish citizen, Billy Kluver was born Johan Wilhelm Kluver in Monaco, and grew up in Salen, Sweden. Long before graduating in electrical engineering from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, he fell in love with films, an interest that led him ultimately to art and artists. As a young adult he sewed as president of the Stockholm University Film Society, and was a co-founder of the Swedish Alliance of Film Societies. In 1952, aged 25, working for a large electronics company in France, Billy helped install a television antenna on top of the Eiffel Tower and devised an underwater TV camera for Jacques Cousteau's expeditions. Arriving in the U.S. in 1954, he received a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. There he went on, in 1957-58, to be an assistant professor. Coming east, he joined Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., as a staff scientist. It was during his 1958-68 tenure there that Billy became a kind of para-denizen of the New York art world. In 1960 he was introduced to the sculptor Jean Tinguely by Pontus Hulten, then director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Tinguely had been looking for help in designing his self-destroying machine, to be called Homage to New York (1960), intended for the garden of the Museum of Modern Art. Billy helped Tinguely scavenge dumps and junkyards in the New Jersey Meadowlands for the motors and wheels and other detritus that would compose his giant kinetic heap. Its auto-destruction eventually transpired as planned in explosions of smoke, sparks and noise over a span of 27 minutes. With another contributor to Tinguely's machine, artist Robert Rauschenberg, Billy struck up a promising friendship. Together, in 1966, they organized what would become one of the iconic moments of the tumultuous 1960s, "9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering"--a series of performances at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York uniting 10 artists in collaboration with at least 30 engineers. More than anything, besides demonstrating what artists could do with new technologies, "9 Evenings" epitomized the break down of boundaries between disciplines and the rise of intermedia that so centrally characterized the period. Four of the 10 artists, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton and Deborah Hay, were dancer/choreographers; four others, Rauschenberg, Alex Hay, Oyvind Fahlstrom and Robert Whitman, were visual artists; and two, John Cage and David Tudor, were musician/composers. In an atmosphere of artists making dances, dancers using artists as performers, and other crossovers, Billy introduced the unlikely conjunction of science and art, and became an occasional performer himself in the new employment by artists of non-artists to populate their works. Pursuing the alliance of his profession with art, he followed up "9 Evenings" later that year by co-founding, with Rauschenberg, Whitman and Fred Waldhauer, the nonprofit organization Experiments in Art and Technology; E.A.T. helped provide artists with technical information and support by matching them with engineers and scientists. On his own, Billy aided artists Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Cage and Merce Cunningham with technological apparatuses such as transmitters, differential amplifiers, electrical assists and wireless microphones, for specific works. In 1970, Billy headed up a team of more than 60 engineers and artists commissioned to design and program the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan. Another ambitious project of that period was a collaboration on Rauschenberg's Mud Muse, a massive installation containing liquid mud activated by sound. The piece appeared in the L.A. County Museum's "Art and Technology" show of 1971; along with three other Rauschenberg-Klaver collaborations, it was chronicled by Billy in these pages ["Four Difficult Pieces," July '91]. In his later years Billy was active as a writer. His book, A Day with Picasso, published in 1997 in the U.S. (as well as in France, Germany. Brazil, Japan and Korea), was based on a group of photographs taken at lunch on a sunny afternoon in Montparnasse in 1916 by Jean Cocteau, of Picasso and Modigliani and friends. (A Day first appeared as an article in this magazine [Sept. '86].) Billy's text describes an extraordinarily specific and detailed process of research into who and what the photos represent, widening into a reconstruction of the art history of a particular moment. With his wife of 20 years, Julie Martin, he co-authored Kiki's Paris (1989), a history of the art community in Montparnasse from 1880 to 1930. At the time of his death, he was working with Martin on a social history of international art communities in the U.S., Europe and Japan from 1954 to '65, as well as a history of E.A.T. In 1974, Billy received the Royal Order of Vasa from the King of Sweden; in 1998, he was given an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Parsons School of Design at the New School University; and in 2002, the French government awarded him the Order of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. Kluver died in 2004.