Jim Davis: Visions of Convergence

By Robert A. Haller Film-maker Jim Davis (1901-74) was raised in West Virginia and attended college at Princeton University; save for some years of study in France, and a period in the 1930s during the Depression, when he taught in West Virginia, he spent most of his life at Princeton. He was a painter as well as a member of the art department at the University. His interest in experimentation led him, in the 1930s, to paint on glass and on plastic instead of canvas.

Early in the 1940s he made a discovery which changed the course of his life. Davis was recovering from an illness when he woke from a nap to discover "fabulous things" created by sunlight streaming through the window:

[it] hit shiny surfaces and projected wondrous patterns of reflected light on the ceiling or...passed through glass [creating slowly moving refractions of intense color]. I made three-dimensional objects out of highly polished transparent plastics...it was as though I had opened some kind of "Pandora" Box."

Davis learned how to cast these prismatic light patterns with transparent plastic mobiles, and became so adept at this that he held demonstrations of "visual chamber music" for friends and colleagues at the University. Then, in 1946, he turned to a friend to make film documents of his visual music. But Davis rapidly concluded that he could make stronger, more dynamic films if he was the film-maker himself; from 1949 he worked alone, with increasing success, including shows at Cinema 16 and the Art in Cinema series in San Francisco.

In 1952 Davis offered these observations on the impact of his films in program notes to a Cinema 16 screening:

I try to leave the imagination of the spectator as free as possible by using purely invented, abstract forms rather than representational forms. In watching these films it is not necessary to search for hidden meanings or to try to associate these invented forms with familiar objects. The spectator may simply relax and look at these films as one would listen to music in order to fully respond to them.

Most people seem to feel that these moving forms of color suggest the movements in interstellar space, the hidden depths of the sea, the growth of cells, etc. This is a very logical reaction because I myself am very conscious of the relationship between these films and the new worlds that the modern scientists are now making visible to us by means of high-powered microscopes, telescopes, and other new devices.

This vision of convergence--of like revelations from the microscope and the telescope--appears in much of his writing and speaking. In 1953, in a manifesto published in Films in Review, Davis again invoked a science-based response to his films:

As our minds become accustomed to the notion of time as the fourth dimension, to the relativism implicit in the space-time concept, and to electronically revealed glimpses of the microscopic and the macroscopic, our thoughts and our dreams alter...with what but the motion picture camera can the artist express these new perceptions and intuitions.

Four years later, in brief remarks at the Museum of Modern Art, Davis reiterated his sense of the scientific implications and intuitions of his films. The following is the complete text of those remarks:


"Prospects for the Film" - by Jim Davis "Animation and Experiment" - Nov. 4, 1957

New inventions which utilize light are revolutionizing the visual arts. Today many of the most powerful stimuli for visual experiences are provided by new tools which depend upon light as the principal means of producing forms of color. The camera--the film--television--electric signs and artificial illumination of all kinds now influence everyone, everywhere.

The static fixed forms of color produced by means of brush and pigment--and other traditional static media are being replaced by moving, changing forms of color produced by controlled light--both natural and artificial. These dynamic forms of colored light can be and are recorded only by the motion picture camera.

Like modern science--the film adds the element of time as the fourth dimension of space. Its fundamental problem is--as Panofsky says--"The dynamization of space--and the spatialization of time" its basic content is the expression of reality as a dynamic process of becoming--in contrast to the static, fixed state of being which underlies the approach in traditional static visual media. This dynamic content demands a dynamic form--and the tools and techniques must also be dynamic for its full realization.

In my own abstract films the forms of color are produced by means of intercepting light rays--sometimes natural light and sometimes artificial light-- instead of by "animation." These abstract forms are entirely artificially invented and consciously controlled by a variety of devices. Having produced these moving, changing forms of color by the use of light--they are then recorded by the motion-picture camera.

They are further controlled in the editing. In this final stage these forms are organized in sequences very similar to the way the composer organizes the artificially invented sounds of music. As in music--the intent here is to stimulate the imagination and the emotions and thereby communicate abstract ideas--rather than to present facts or to tell a story. This is a kind of music made to be looked at--or a kind of abstract dance. There is a conscious attempt to invent forms which suggest--in wholly nonscientific terms--the new and unfamiliar world which modern science is revealing.

Someone has said that every new form of communication begins first with a statement of fact--then proceeds to telling a story--and long after to the expression of abstract ideas. The film has hardly begun on this final and very important stage of its development. But whether the film-maker prefers fact--fiction--or the inventions of the abstract--it seems to me that the prospects for the film are very bright indeed. For the film is the only visual recording medium adapted to the full expression of the new world of the dynamic which we are now entering. There is everywhere to go in this very exciting direction.


Davis was not alone in his interest in convergence. At about the same time Oskar Fischinger was making paintings that refer to convergence, and Jordan Belson would explicitly declare similar personal objectives in his films.

Davis had another contemporary as a kind of model in this quest: Albert Einstein. The theoretical physicist also lived in Princeton, and was engaged in a never-completed search for a unified field theory. This theory, still elusive, would provide a single theoretical explanation for both gravitational (macrocosmic) and electro-magnetic (microcosmic) phenomena.

Davis encountered Einstein repeatedly at Princeton and made snapshots of him on more than one occasion. He understood Einstein's physics more than most laymen, and made an acute reference to Georg Reimann's geometry (and Einstein's subsequent use of it) in his Films in Review essay. Did they ever talk? What would the physicist have thought of the film-maker's work?