Juan Downey

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Juan Downey
Born (1940-05-11)May 11, 1940
Santiago, Chile
Died June 9, 1993(1993-06-09)
New York, NY
Nationality Chilean
Education Pontificia Universidad Católica of Chile
Movement Video Art, Kinetic Art

Juan Downey (May 11, 1940 – June 9, 1993) was a video artist.


Juan Downey was born in Santiago, Chile. His father David Downey V. was a distinguished architect in Chile and following in his father’s footsteps Juan Downey studied and completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in architecture at the Pontificia Universidad Católica of Chile. From a young age, he immersed himself in studying different forms of art, including painting, dance and writing. In 1961, to further his studies and develop his artistic practice, Downey traveled to Europe. He spent a few months in Barcelona and Madrid, followed by Paris where he lived for a period of three years during which he studied printmaking at Stanley William Hayter’s legendary Atelier 17. During this time, he befriended the artists Eugenio Téllez, Roberto Matta, Julio Le Parc, and Takis.

In 1965 Downey travelled to Washington DC at the invitation of The Organization of American States to have a solo show of his work. It was in Washington DC Downey would meet his wife Marilys Belt. He stayed in Washington DC for a couple of years before moving with his family to New York City in 1969 where he lived until his death in 1993. Downey taught at Pratt Institute in New York from 1970 until 1992.

He is recognized as an early adopter of video art; however, during his artistic career Downey created an extensive body of work that also includes electronic and video sculptures, photography, painting, drawing, printmaking, performance, installation and writing. Downey’s drawings are especially remarkable and remained a constant practice for the artist. All of his major works were accompanied by drawings. They not only reflect his “sureness of hand” as the curators David Ross and James Harithas noted (Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls, p. 329), but also serve as compelling documents of his ideas and visions, and reveal this sustained practice of drawing over a lifetime.


The early period of Juan Downey’s artistic practice consisted of painting, drawing, writing and printmaking. After moving to the United States in 1965, he began to experiment with numerous forms of art that included creating interactive electronic sculptures, performances, happenings, and in the late 1960s video art. He wrote, “The universe is not an assemblage of independent parts, but an overlapping, interrelated system of energy. All my work relates to this vision.” These media permitted Downey to investigate ideas about invisible energy as well as invite for active participation of the viewers with his work.

Two seminal series in Downey’s career were Video Trans Americas, begun in 1971 and The Thinking Eye, begun in mid-1970s. Video Trans Americas (V.T.A.) is often divided into two groups: the first group was developed between 1973 and 1976, and the second between 1976 and 1977. The two series stress his preoccupation with political discourse, the self, history of art, western civilization, and Latin American identity.

Solo exhibitions featuring Juan Downey’s work include Juan Downey: Audio-Kinetic Electronic Sculptures, The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC; With Energy Beyond These Walls, Howard Wise Gallery, New York, NY, (1970); Video Trans Americas, Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, TX, (1976); Juan Downey: Video Trans Americas, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, (1976); Video Trans Americas, Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY (1977); Juan Downey: New American Filmmaker Series, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY (1978); Juan Downey, Matrix/Berkeley 16, University Art Museum, Berkeley, CA (1978); Une Forêt 'Videoformes': Retrospective Juan Downey, Festival de la Création Vidéo, Clermont-Ferrand, France (1993); Juan Downey: Instalaciones, Dibujos y Videos, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago (1995), Chile; Juan Downey: Con energía más allá de estos muros, Institut Valencià d'Art Modern, Centre del Carme, Valencia, Spain (1997–98); Retrospectiva de Video Arte de Juan Downey, Museo de Arte Moderno de Chiloé, Castro, Chiloé, Chile (2000); Plateau of Humankind, Honorable Mention: “Excellence in Art Science and Technology,” 49th Venice Biennale Chilean Pavilion, Venice, Italy (2001); and Juan Downey: El ojo pensante, Sala de Arte Fundación Telefónica, Santiago, Chile (2010); Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MA, Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe, AZ, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, NY (2011-2012).

His work was included in numerous group exhibitions including Involving Technical Materials and Processes, organized by Experiments in Art and Technology, in collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum, Brookly, NY and The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (1968); New Learning Spaces & Places, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN (1974); Whitney Biennial Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY (1975, 1977, 1981, 1983, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1991); Documenta 6, Kassel, Germany, (1977); Venice Biennale, US Pavilion, Venice, Italy, (1980); Sydney Biennale, Sydney, Australia, (1982); II Bienal de La Habana, Havana, Cuba, (1986); The Thinking Eye, International Center for Photography, New York, NY, (1987); Passages de l’image, Musée national d'Art moderne- Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France, (1990); Video Art: The First 25 Years, The Museum of Modern Art, and The American Federation of Arts, New York, NY, (1995); Info Art ’95, Kwangu Biennial, Gwangju, Korea, (1995); Electronic Highways, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, (1997); and Rational/Irrational, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany, (2008-2009).

Downey’s work can be found in private collections and in the collections of major museums. Selected museum collections include Tate Modern, London, UK; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Centre Pompidou/Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, France; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago, Chile, among others.

Selected video works by Juan Downey[edit]

Fresh Air, 1971

Plato Now, 1972

Three-Way Communication by Light, 1972

Monument to the Charles River, 1973

Rewe, 1991 (video- installation)

Video Trans Americas (V.T.A) Series

Video Trans Americas video-installation comprises videos recorded with a portapak during Downey’s travels from North to Central and South America between 1973 and 1976. The first complete screening of the V.T.A video-installation was in the exhibition Landscape Studies in Video curated by David Ross at the Long Beach Museum of Art in 1975. The V.T.A video-installation in subsequent exhibitions at other museum institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art (1976) was exhibited differently. This was largely due to the spatial component entailed in the presentation of the work, a key concern for Downey, as well as his own artistic liberty to make changes or integrate other components in the installation. Therefore, there are a number of different versions in the way the V.T.A video-installation was exhibited. The following videos are included in the installation (this may vary):

Rumbo al Golfo, 1973

Zapoteca, 1973

Yucatán, 1973

Guatemala, 1973

New York/Texas I & II, 1974

Lima/Machu Picchu, 1975

Cuzco I & II, 1976

Inca I & II, 1976

Uros I & II, 1975

Nazca I & II, 1976

La Frontera I & II, 1976

Additional videos that are part of the V.T.A series:

Moving, 1974

Publicness, 1974

Central Zone, 1975

Videodances, 1975

Inca Split, 1976

Bi-Deo, 1976

In the Beginning, 1976

Guahibos, 1976

Yanomami Healing I, 1977

Yanomami Healing II, 1977

The Circle of Fires, 1978 (video installation comes in 2 versions)

More Than Two, 1978 (installation)

The Abandoned Shabono, 1978

The Laughing Alligator, 1979

Chiloe, 1981

Chicago Boys, 1982–83

About Cages, 1986 (installation)

The Motherland, 1986

The Return of the Motherland, 1989

The Thinking Eye Series

Las Meninas (Maids of Honor), 1975

Venus and Her Mirror, 1980 (video-installation)

The Looking Glass, 1981

Information Withheld, 1983

Shifters, 1984

Sinage, 1984 (video-installation)

Obelisk, 1985 (video-installation)

J.S. Bach, 1986

Bachdisc, 1988 (interactive video-disc)

Hard Times and Culture: Part One, Vienna fin-de-siecle, 1990

Selected Bibliography[edit]

Valerie Smith, ed. Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect. Leipzig: MIT List Visual Art Center & The Bronx Museum, 2011.

González, Julieta, Nicolás Guagnini, Carla Macchiavello, and Valerie Smith. Juan Downey: el ojo pensante. Santiago: Fundación Telefónica, 2010.

Arévalo, Antonio, Marilys Belt de Downey, Juan Downey, José Goñi Carrasco, and Luisa Ulibarri Lorenzini. Juan Downey: La Biennale di Venezia, 49 Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte. Milan: Rodrigo Figueroa Schirmer, 2001.

Bonet, Eugeni, Douglas Davis, Juan Downey, Nuria Enguita, Coco Fusco, Juan Guardiola, John G. Hanhardt, James Harithas, and David Ross. Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls (Con energía más allá de estos muros). Valencia: Institut Valencià d’Art Modern and Centre del Carme, 1997-98.

Hanhardt, John G., and Ann D. Hoy. Juan Downey of Dream Into Study. Santiago: Editorial Lord Cochrane, 1987.

External links[edit]