In Conversation: David Rabinowitch
The Brooklyn Rail
October 1, 2003
By Joan Waltemath
Joan Waltemath (Rail): We can discount everything that came before…
David Rabinowitch: Yes, we begin in the middle. Virgil begins in media res as Homer did.
Rail: How can you ever determine where the beginning is?
Rabinowitch: The construction of art determines itself as a beginning. It’s not dependent on sequential narrative content.
Rail: Do you see content and narrative as being the same?
Rabinowitch: No, but the notion of content has always been important to me.
Rail: How would you define content?
Rabinowitch: I don’t think it’s really possible to speak directly of a work’s content. Content in art is shown; it’s not expressible through language. But "content" usually does refer to narrative…
Rail: I don’t think so. I think content refers to the form, it has a dialectical relationship to form.
Rabinowitch: I’ve never liked the word "form." It’s always scared me.
Rail: Why is that?
Rabinowitch: Well, a whole bunch of reasons. Content is the word I generally use for conditions under which the thing takes on significance. And those things can’t be expressed as such. I could say this: that art that is adequate has tragic content.
Rail: In a note, you wrote, "A work is intelligible by virtue of its relationship to other works (formal aspect). A work expresses truth by virtue of its relationship to nature (tragic aspect)."
Rabinowitch: One of the ways I’ve always thought a work is able to come to terms with content, or invent content within its own means, is through its relation to nature. The tragic aspect is the human being’s realizing his limits as a creature of nature.
Rail: When I came to New York in the late 1970s, it was just at the end of a period when the whole issue of content was being debated. Formalism had reached a point where it was perceived as not having content. It became synonymous with the absence of content.
Rabinowitch: I had many talks with Don Judd about this in the ’70s.
Rail: How did he feel about the issue of content? Did he see his work as being content-less?
Rabinowitch: In weak moments he did, I think. But I was kind of insistent on the fact that if one went down that road one would reach the Bauhaus mighty quick. And I think he agreed with me.
Rail: And what does that mean, "to reach the Bauhaus"?
Rabinowitch: Basically, identifying art with sophisticated forms of design.
* * *
Rail: In your current survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal, there is a relatively early series of drawings and an accompanying construction entitled Pascal’s Instrumentation, which our Art Editor, Daniel Baird, thought both brilliant and somewhat unusual in your body of work.
Rabinowitch: It’s certainly essential to everything I’ve done, in terms of the so-called contents I’m involved with. It’s one of the first sculptures that brought into a definitive synthesis the perspectival plane and the gravitational field.
Rail: And that was the first appearance…
Rabinowitch: It was not the first appearance but it did that in the most conscious and literal way up until that time . The gravitational field for me has always been an issue of art, even in my time as a painter, actually. So people always thought I was somehow expressing physics through art. Just because you’re influenced by things doesn’t mean you’re "expressing" them. Since I was a teenager I’ve thought about the reality of the field of gravity and have always been deeply interested in the work of Newton and Einstein. But I never thought that any work that would come from this would be expressive of physical theory per se. I’m just saying that my own involvement has never been technical.
Rail: Gravity is fundamental phenomenon to our existence. I mean, everything that we do is conditioned by gravity.
Rail: I gave a series of lectures at Cooper Union looking at how gravity is used by different artists at different times. I was interested in how when you get out of bed in the morning you assume gravity. Gravity is the condition that we know. We don’t know non-gravity and so the minute we take away gravity a whole other world opens up that is possible to navigate. The first thing that comes into my mind is Goya’s Asmodea in the Quinta del Sordo. It was painted as a fresco in a house somewhere outside of Madrid, in the later part of his life. In the painting this group of figures is being propelled through the air against the force of gravity. This gives these figures supernatural powers. I think actually that this painting was the inspiration for the Magritte painting where he paints the floating rock with the castle. In the Goya there is a large castle like rock on the horizon that serves as the counterpoint for the flying figures.
Rabinowitch: Goya very well knew that forces could work against the field.
Rail: Yes, you can feel the tension. In the Magritte, the rock levitates.
Rabinowitch: Yes. I don’t know the Goya painting, but I would interpret that as an investigation of the field, coming to terms with it. I do know the Magritte. In that same year that I was doing the Gravitational Vehicles and the Pascal works I was also doing the Dion Chrysostom pieces. They were flat, faceted objects in a frame, galvanized iron, that were anywhere from 6 to 10 feet square. They rested on the floor and were bolted to the wall. And there was a group that made reference to that Magritte painting. The first ones made reference to Brancusi’s torsos. The group that referred to the Magritte was actually room-size, like the Pascal group and other works I was making at the time, the floor-to-ceiling Internal Measuring Rods.
Rail: Where is the title Dion Chrystostom coming from?
Rabinowitch: He was the great orator, in the second century I think. I considered these "rhetorical" constructions.
Rail: The term "rhetorical" strikes me as a very strange word to use in this context.
Rabinowitch: Well, that’s the way I thought about it. I was working with the notion that all art is, in one sense or another, a craft of persuasion. These things strongly emphasized the joining of their parts, for instance: the bolting was extravagant, very "pronounced." Identifying the means with content or significance is one reason I thought of all this as rhetorical.
Another was that they were consciously referential, as framing the object implies. Actually, the group that referred to the Magritte used two kinds of objects: the Platonic solids and the so-called Archimedean solids, like the soccer ball with its regular 5-sided and 6-sided figures.
Making something consciously in terms of somebody else’s vision is an artifice which can effect— how can I say this?— an ironic distancing from the thing itself. This was an intention of other things made in this period also, and I thought of this ironic distancing as a rhetorical function.
Rail: I’m trying to understand your use of the word rhetorical. Are you are thinking of it in terms of a visual language in dialogue? Would it move between two positions that are in a "dialogical" relationship?
Rabinowitch: Yes, but dialogic in the most general sense that reference is reciprocal. The reference is mediated by the sense of analogy— I guess you could say the syntax common to the structure of the work and the structure of the work referred to. It’s like what Wittgenstein says about the logical form shared by any statement and what it purports to describe in the world. Reference operates through this mechanism of mediation at numerous levels of awareness.
Rail: A great deal happens in an unconscious way.
Rabinowitch: And the point is you want to make these things conscious. That’s how the notion of a rhetorical construction came to me.
Rail: This leads me to thinking about, when you make conscious that relationship of having taken something in, as you’ve said, then you begin to articulate…
Rabinowitch: Absolutely. That’s it. When you make means into objects of consciousness they can be given definite operations.
Rail: So then you could say that through the creation of that context, that context could then affect your understanding of the original object?
Rabinowitch: Yes. It also affects your understanding of other things you’re doing that are not even related.
Rail: In terms of work?
Rabinowitch: Yes, it happens to me still. When I first worked on the sculpture in Sonoma and Steven Oliver said I could carve the concrete directly, I immediately knew how to proceed. I knew that the sculpture would be involved with my experience of the totem poles in Toronto. It was a delightful moment when I realized they were a necessary context. I mean, I’ve connected to those a lot of times in different ways.
Rail: The totem poles?
Rabinowitch: Yes, the Tshimshian crest poles at the Royal Ontario Museum. I began to draw them in 1960. I’ve looked at them off and on my whole life. I still think there are no greater works in the world.
Rail: I grew up looking at the Plains Indians’ work and that to me is the most beautiful art in the world. All those paintings that they did on hides, for me are really the most beautiful things. Somehow I’m always striving to emulate that particular sensibility, which I recognize as a reflection of the landscape I grew up in.
Rabinowitch: I can’t really say that I’m striving to emulate their sensibility, but there are many things that are important to me about those things.
* * *
Rail: I would like to continue the discussion we started about architecture.
Rabinowitch: Alright. I was maintaining that architecture is ultimately rooted in pattern, and that’s what makes it one of the so-called decorative arts— in fact, the universal or all-encompassing decorative art.
Rail: I would take issue with that. I was thinking about that space you created at the Flynn Gallery on Crosby Street.
Rabinowitch: You mean the sculpture. When you say "space," what do you mean?
Rail: You created a sense of interiority there, and for me that comes very close to architecture.
Rabinowitch: People used to ask me about this, when I did the first Tyndale sculpture at P.S.1. I said I am making a sculpture using elements of architecture. Architecture doesn’t work like sculpture. Catrina wrote a very good study of the Tyndale works where she discusses the difference. Let me read from it.
Rail: I think it’s a very important topic because one of the things that I’m interested in is how your work distinguishes itself from Minimalist works that have some similarity of appearance.
Rabinowitch: [Reading] "Here we come upon a chief distinction between sculpture and architecture. Sculpture is made solely for the purpose of observation. Just as the fundaments of architecture are dictated by its functions— the flow of traffic, the purposes of ritual or of living— so is it the considerations of sculpture’s raison d’être, that of being observed, which determine all elements of its construction." That’s the starting point. Then she quotes me saying, "The two arts conceive space, light, and mass differently. Sculpture perceives these things as being directly at hand to acts of perception on the part of one individual. Architecture does not see them as they might be addressed to the individual for his contemplation." For example, if you look at a great church, the general thrust of its total conception is essentially rooted in group experience.
Let me just continue. "Light and mass are conceived as a set of conditions which make up ornamental orders whose unity is comprehended in terms of pattern." This does not pertain to sculpture.
Rail: No, what I would say about architecture is that it’s not present in terms of pattern because pattern is decorative and if that’s how you see it, well, I understand why you’re calling it a decorative art, but I see it as revealing itself in terms of structure.
Rabinowitch: That’s absolutely right, but what you call "structure" is what I’m calling "pattern"— conformations resulting from the repetition of physical elements, like columns or arches, operating as modules.
Rail: That’s very hard for me to digest…
Rabinowitch: Well, all right. But I’m not using the term pejoratively. The individual units in architecture may be things of the greatest power, but they are subordinate to the general all-encompassing spatial and temporal patterns— or, to use your term, structure. Even the architects who are closest to sculpture— Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Borromini, the Greeks and the Romans— necessarily conceived of interior articulation as creating rhythms which are in the end subsumed in the general. That’s the way architecture has to work. The difference between architecture and sculpture lies in how discrete, individual things are interpreted in vision. It comes down to the distinction between the general and the particular, the sense of the whole and its parts. In architecture the pole of the specific cannot be extreme. It must always be subordinate to the general. The thrust of sculpture is toward an extreme specificity.
Rabinowitch: This is of course the final intention of all construction— the whole. But in looking at sculpture you’re involved in the whole through the particulars. And the whole here is very much a particular in its own right. And the particulars themselves are constructed intentionally as whole aspects. I would say this: in this work there are many ways of thinking the sum. What I’m suggesting is that the senses of the whole are formed differently in a work of sculpture than they are in the work of architecture. The whole in sculpture is itself sensed as a particular thing. The whole in architecture is conceived and experienced as a general condition, founded on pattern, or as you say, structure.
Rail: Structure and program.
Rabinowitch: Structure and program— where you go, how it’s put together, rhythms in space and time: these are subsumed in generality. A sculpture’s unity or wholeness is an entirely different affair. It cannot be based on structure and program.
Rail: Not at all. What’s interesting then is how you began to use an architectural vocabulary in order to create sculpture.
Rabinowitch: I made for many years, almost every day actually, while I was also making plans for sculpture, drawings called the Construction of Vision. I began these in 1969. They were independent drawings, independent of sculpture. It was kind of a potent thing for me. Up until then I could never do a truly independent drawing. Yet they came to me through considerations of sketches I had done years before for the Tuber group of sculptures.
And in 1973 I put two Construction of Vision drawings next to a window— you know, to give them some light. Seeing them next to the window was a revelation. And then a little while after, I dreamed of my granddad putting plaster on lathing. He was a mason. I thought about that a lot. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. And as it happened, I was working on this Construction of Vision drawing, and just to relax I made some little plans with rings representing the three depths in Roman plaster, and I realized that these were in fact plans for sculptures. Then a year or so later I was asked to build a work for P.S.1. So I took over this hallway and destroyed part of the plaster on the walls and carved the sections that were left.
Rail: Was that a Tyndale sculpture?
Rabinowitch: Yes, that was the first one built. But it didn’t include any fenestration. That came a little later, when I found windows to work with. Those Tyndale sculptures were all conceived in respect to given locations, and they just used architectural elements as materials. The second one, at the Clocktower, used a group of four columns. They weren’t architectural works or "installations" or "spaces." They include a space— that is, a volume.
* * *
Rail: What really interests me is the "Four-Part Concentric Ring Drawing for an Octagonal Room" that you did at the Wiesbaden Museum in 1974. It seems like the form of the work itself was relative to the site that you were working in.
Rabinowitch: I also have plans for Tyndale works that were built on this microcosmic principle. All the relations in the Wiesbaden drawing actually were derived from the other parts of the museum, but the relations were indirect. One would not be able to formulate the correspondence in experience. Somehow I’ve always been interested in the strange fact that very frequently when you’re in a building you don’t really know the whole layout or the relation of the surrounding volumes. Somehow you’re there and this particular one that you’re in is wholly present to you, yet it’s surrounded by this totally unknown system.
Rail: In your idea about architecture, that it’s not the particular but it’s always the whole that predominates, then in any singular location you should be able to achieve an awareness of the whole.
Rabinowitch: My point was that the general predominates everywhere over the particular, whereas in sculpture these are in extreme tension. The "general" is a notion different from wholeness.
Rail: Where is that?
Rabinowitch: It was invented in Burgundy. For me it is the most specific of all European architecture, and yet the general tendency still predominates. Whereas in sculpture, tensions are built up through giving equivalence to the senses of the general and of the particular.
Rail: When did the notion of the body as measure first enter into your work?
Rabinowitch: The body as a measure? Well, I think I was always interested in this.
Rail: From the beginning?
Rabinowitch: Yes, when I was a painter.
Rail: It’s not a typical notion in painting.
Rabinowitch: I would say the painter who showed me this was Jackson Pollock. His paintings had this very direct relationship to the body. Not only was there the sense of the body of the man making them, but also it seemed clear to me that one of the things he was doing was measuring or indexing the work in terms of acts of perception, and these necessarily involve the body.
Rail: I’m just reflecting on those early paintings that you were doing which seemed to be more in the tradition of cubism. I mean, a cubist painting was still an easel painting.
Rabinowitch: I’m talking about the later paintings I did that directly related to Newman and Pollock, the paintings I began about 1959.
Rail: What was the scale of this work?
Rabinowitch: The largest works were maybe four feet by six feet.
Rail: Were you conscious of this notion of the body as a measure when you were doing these paintings?
Rabinowitch: Yes, very much so. They were actually counterparts to the body.
Rail: A one-to-one relationship?
Rabinowitch: Yes, in some sense. There was a strong distinction between top and bottom. There was a strong sense of left and right. And they used what I thought of as a "nexus of events," some complex that generates sensation. These complexes all manifest gravity in some way or another. They had different densities and set up different tensions. They assume an identification of the vertical plane of the painting with the observer’s field of gravity.
* * *
Rail: I also wanted to talk about the notion of scale. I see scale as being vastly rich and expansive territory, which is something that I always have a really difficult time articulating for myself— how to define what scale is.
Rabinowitch: Yes, because it’s so all encompassing. When you experience a particular wholeness, a sense of scale is necessarily involved. Like this little sculpture here on the wall, the sculpture that my granddad made for me (Tool Handle 1965): that has a particular sense of scale that a photograph could never reflect. Scale here is essentially your bodily reality and the work grasped as one condition.
Rail: With a figure there you have some sense of the scale?
Rabinowitch: Putting the human figure there is a different thing. That’s a technical index of how large something is from a certain distance. The sense of scale in a work of art, the way I’m using the word, has almost nothing to do with any direct comparison to the human figure.
Rail: But scale is not totally unrelated to how big a work is.
Rabinowitch: It’s not totally unrelated, but the sense of something’s wholeness can’t be just derived from any one of its properties, like its size or proportion.
On the other hand, a "construction of scale," as I think of it, is a constructive mechanism that effects an ongoing regeneration of senses of a work’s wholeness, its unity, through an indexing of all its constitutive or material properties. This is something I became involved with in 1967, with the Holed Pipes, which used drilled holes as an index for the volume and length of the pipe and the mass of its wall. Then most of my sculptures after 1970 were conceived in more than one scale— using different sizes of vertically drilled units.
Rail: The sculptures didn’t have a specific scale in the drawing?
Rabinowitch: Yes, every work was a plan drawn to a specific scale, used in the traditional sense, or at times one plan was drawn to several scales. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about scale as an overall indexing of all properties and relations in the work.
Rail: What does that mean for you?
Rabinowitch: Let me demonstrate. Here in the Timaeus sculpture, which is conceived essentially in three scales, the indexing encompasses three orders of construction, and each order has a threefold variation. The order of rectilinear extension is expressed in three distinct proportions— two of plaster and one of light. The three planes of light are all the same size, while the two plaster panels each have different ratios. Light acts as the final measure: the rectilinear extensions of light serve as the common measure for the other two extensions in plaster, and light is the limiting condition for the mass. The order of material properties is also triadic— plaster, light and the lead defining the mass of the support wall.
So the rectilinear order and the conic order— the carving— act as an index for each other. The carved order— the rings— is expressed in the three depths that traditionally make up plaster, and in three diameters, at three locations and three heights. Then you see that one of the three ring systems is itself a triad— a concentric triad. I’m just saying that a sculpture like the Timaeus is a "system" made up of several total systems, each one of which can act as an index for judgments pertaining to the whole work.