Raphael Rubinstein on Art's Past and the Future of Publishing
In his review of the New Museum’s The Last Newspaper show, a collection of works made on, with, or inspired by printed newspapers, Holland Cotter walked off with these lines: “But a genuinely ‘last newspaper’ is still nowhere in sight. And you read that here.” Yeah, I thought as I read it, here on nytimes.com.
If the New Museum show is concerned with the afterlife of tactile news materials in art, including the in-house performative creation of boutique broadsheets, why is Cotter throwing in cute lines like this as if the survival of the New York Times and other publications doesn’t have to do, 100 percent, with their transition into digital formats for downloading into e-readers?
Here’s a more forward-thinking idea (admittedly not mine, but the poet and critic Raphael Rubinstein’s): What may be happening with the advent of e-readers is that more conventional writing will start to influence what is happening on the web.
When I sat down with Rubinstein to discuss his new blog The Silo (only called a “blog” because we don’t yet have the language for what it is), it didn’t take long for me to realize that what we were discussing went beyond one writer’s thoughtful creative project into the larger subject of new uses for existing online forms. His website is one that optimizes independence and criticality from within the standardized confines of mass-produced self-publishing software.
As exhibitions like The Last Newspaper and the growth in popularity of the artist’s book as an art form provide examples of culture-makers wanting, and needing, to revisit the tactile and personal quality of old-school ways of disseminating journalistic and creative writing, The Silo subverts the ubiquitous technological takeover of the culture industry from within. It uses the web’s archival capability to display and house—potentially forever—finely written documents of historically revisionist art criticism. This is not your average hastily written, gossip-laden, ego-driven art blog. There are other websites that hold good writing that is not also printed offline on paper (a dying indicator of quality), but these are usually in the form of legitimate online magazines with multiple writers, editors, and advertisers.
“Being able to write exactly what you want, when you want, how you want it, and being able to reach, potentially, a lot of readers was just, as a writer, a temptation I couldn’t resist anymore,” Rubinstein, who was senior editor at Art in America for 13 years and has published numerous volumes of art criticism and poetry, explains. Sounds like anyone who decides to write a blog, right? Well, here’s where The Silo takes a new turn: based on the writer’s frustration with the October group’s exclusionary accounts of art history, typified by the well-known resource book Art Since 1900, the website is designed to be a cumulative reference work that will eventually reach a critical mass of entries and then just stay there, as an archive, on the web. It’s also the antidote to something like Wikipedia—here is one trusted, named source, writing with a level of finish reminiscent of book publishing (i.e. no post-post editing) on highly focused, personal interest-based subject matter. With this project, Rubinstein asks, “Is it possible and is it worthwhile to give writing this kind of attention and finish in an online context? Is it appropriate for this medium?”
Each short entry provides access to information and opinion about thought provoking international artists who never quite made the canon in this country or whose importance has been forgotten by standard art historical accounts of the last 40 years. The style of these entries is taken, in part, from a book that Rubinstein wrote several years ago, published in its entirety only in French, called In Search of the Miraculous: Fifty Episodes from the Annals of Contemporary Art. I read the few of these episodes that are available in English; they place art history somewhere between dry fact and fanciful fiction, which feels like being immersed in a world you always wanted to live in but never knew might actually exist. The book tells each artist’s story without using his/her name, except in the index; artists are pulled from history as well as literature. The entries in The Silo are more about advocacy for specific artists, so Rubinstein doesn’t delve into the same ambiguities between art criticism and fiction.
There is some crossover between the book and the blog, starting with Daniel Spoerri, a Romanian-born, half-Jewish, half-Swiss artist who was part of Fluxus and Nouveau Réalisme. From In Search of the Miraculous: “In the years to follow, his life will take him to a Greek island where, for 12 months, he will keep a detailed record of his meals, the recipes they involve and the lives of those around him as they relate to eating; he will open a restaurant in Germany where, at the end of each day, he will glue the remnants of selected meals (plates, glasses, silverware, chicken bones, cigarette butts, etc.) to the tables and sell them to an art dealer who will display the table tops, shorn of legs, on the walls of his prestigious gallery.” From The Silo: “Despite the price exacted on his family by European history, Spoerri has a strong attachment to the continent’s past: Europeans have, he says, ‘2,000 years of culture in the ass’ while Americans have only 200.” Like Spoerri, many of the artists on whom Rubinstein focuses our attention are post-war European figures. He believes there remains an ingrained (though fading) prejudice against them in the U.S.
Many artists featured are subjects, also like Spoerri, about whom Rubinstein has written in the past; they are not figures without influence or a measure of recognition. But the artists he is including first in The Silo are those that aren’t but should be, he feels, acknowledged at the highest level. Art history is often confined to what certain academics write about it. Hence, someone like Jonathan Borofsky, an American artist who was highly visible in the late 1970s and ’80s, can be forgotten today. Rubinstein chose to add him to The Silo when he realized that his M.F.A. studio art students’ work owed much to this artist, yet so few of them recognized it.
He explains as much in the profile—Rubinstein’s writing on the site is refreshingly transparent—and then continues: “These students aren’t influenced directly by Borofsky but by artists of the 1990s who, consciously or not, derived much of what seemed fresh and exciting in their work from Borofsky. I’m thinking, for instance, of Raymond Pettibon, whose vigorous comic-influenced drawing style and taste for large chunks of text, gangs of drawings push-pinned to the wall and sprawling installations closely echoes Borofsky’s late 1970s work. Ditto Karen Kilimnik’s messy theatrical installations. Yet another contemporary mode that can be traced back to Borofsky is the manic painting-sculpture confrontations that most people associate with Martin Kippenberger.”
The Silo is only collaborative in that it gets its clean, readable, black-and-white design from the sculptor Daniel Wiener, and its logo and title from the artist Elena Berriolo, who is also Rubinstein’s wife. Concerning matters of content, the writer is completely independent, which means that he need not limit his focus, as almost every kind of publication prefers writers do, to work that is currently on view. This is not a small issue: art critics, for the most part, have their agenda set by what the market and the art world happen to be looking at. Although he is not, by any means, anti-market, Rubinstein says that with this project, “I am trying to do something about my skepticism about how institutions behave.” With museums beholden to the interests of their boards of trustees, and other less-than-straightforward reasons why certain works are shown in particular places, it’s no wonder that a critic would choose not to rely solely on the subjects that these institutions offer up for consideration.
Despite this independence in his choices of artists to profile, coincidentally during the first couple of months that Rubinstein was posting entries to his blog, two Silo artists were being shown in New York. Gene Beery, a reclusive artist who has been living in the wilds of Northern California for about 40 years, had his first show in years at Mitchell Algus’s new space in the West Village. Likewise, around the same time that Rubinstein wrote about the marginalized (until recently) artist Marjorie Strider, she was featured in an article in Art in America discussing Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958–1968, a traveling exhibition currently at the Brooklyn Museum. The magazine even printed a photo of Strider’s large triptych of bikini-clad women from the early ’60s that Rubinstein discusses at length in The Silo. Of this piece he writes, “Done in a bright, flat illustrational style with a minimum of modeling, the three figures sported three-dimensional breasts (‘build-outs’ as the artist termed them) that, by literalizing the volumes of Playboy-style imagery, drew attention to and subtly critiqued what would later be called the ‘objectivizing male gaze.’”
These kinds of coincidences don’t bother Rubinstein; he says, “I know I’m not the only person that is doing this kind of rethinking of the past.” But he is the only person doing it in this particular form, born out of the problems and possibilities of publishing in the 21st century. Reading The Silo isn’t exactly the same as sitting with Rubinstein in his living room in TriBeCa, looking through old art books and obscure catalogs while he explains the work and lives of amazing artists you’ve never known. In lieu of a “moment,” it provides archival longevity—but the feel is still personal, the touch as expertly handmade as a blog can be.
Visit The Silo at http://thesilo.raphaelrubinstein.com/
PATRICIA MILDER is an art and performance writer based in Brooklyn. She was a former Managing Art Editor at the Brooklyn Rail.