Billy Kluver and Andy Warhol: Silver Clouds

Featured in Collaboration Lessons
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Andy Warhol and Billy Klüver worked together to create the Silver Clouds, Installation, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, photo by Richard Stoner ©AWF

Silver Clouds continually surprises viewers’ expectations and is the result of a collaboration between artist Andy Warhol and engineer Billy Klüver. Exhibited in 1966 at the Leo Castelli Gallery, Silver Clouds created an ethereal, joyful atmosphere, and challenged traditional expectations of art by mingling with and touching the viewer. Klüver’s knowledge of technology helped bring Warhol’s vision to life. The engineer recalls that their original plan was to somehow make floating light bulbs but that when his research group at Bell Labs showed Warhol a sample of the material scotchpak—a metalized plastic film made by 3M that could be heat-sealed—he is reported to have said, “Let’s make clouds.”[1] The clouds, filled with helium and oxygen, floated through the gallery on air currents, bumping into each other and into viewers in the space. 

As an engineer at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, Klüver saw the importance of interaction between the arts and the sciences. He saw collaboration as an opportunity for engineers to apply their knowledge to a new environment where unusual and unplanned challenges could develop. In 1960, Klüver helped Jean Tinguely create his self-destructing junkyard opus Homage To New York. This collaboration led to others with many of New York City’s premiere artists of the decade, including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Yvonne Ranier, Merce Cunningham and Andy Warhol. In 1966 a series of collaborative performances between Bell Labs engineers and avant-garde artists titled, 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering formalized Klüver’s involvement with the art world.[2] In 1966 Klüver, Robert Whitman, Fred Waldhauer and Robert Rauschenberg co-foundedExperiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), which sought to bring together artists and people working with new technologies and materials to generate ambitious projects.

After seeing Silver Clouds at the Castelli exhibition, choreographer Merce Cunningham invited Warhol to adapt the work for a new dance performance. The resulting piece, Rain Forest, premiered in 1968, with choreography by Cunningham, music by David Tudor, set by Warhol and costumes by Jasper Johns.



[1] This account is based on a conversation between Klüver and George Frie, Nel Printz and S. King-Nero, May 18, 1994, Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonne, p. 207.

[2]  David Pescovitz, “1957: Billy Klüver, the father of electronic art, earns his PhD,” Univeristy of California Berkeley School of Engineering, 19 February 2004, http://www.coe.berkeley.edu/labnotes/0204/history.html.
  

 
 

 Artists and engineers are separate individuals, and if they work together, something will come out of it that neither can expect.

Billy Klüver 

Research:

  • Research the accomplishments of the engineers at Bell Labs.
  • What are some of their inventions?
  • Describe how these inventions have improved people’s lives.
 

Comprehension Questions:

  1. What materials, experience and ideas did Klüver and Warhol bring together in Silver Clouds?
  2. What kind of environment was Klüver looking to create by establishing E.A.T.?
  3. If you could work with an engineer or scientist to create something new, what would it be? Why?