RAQUEL RABINOVICH with Ann McCoy
Ann McCoy met with Raquel Rabinovich at her Rhinebeck studio to view her work and archives. Rabinovich discussed her life in Argentina, a country she has had to leave twice for political reasons, her life as a world citizen in Paris, Copenhagen, Edinburgh, and New York, and her afternoons with Jorge Luis Borges. Her exhibition Gateless Gates will open at the Y Gallery at 165 Orchard Street on November 21, 2014. Alex Bacon is writing a catalog essay on her recent work, and a panel will accompany the show.
Ann McCoy (Rail): Raquel, at 85 your vitality and artistic output are amazing. Both you and Che Guevara were raised in Córdoba, Argentina and were in the same medical school class. You were also a political prisoner under the Perón regime. Like the layers of river sediment in your works, your Latin American self is a layer over your Jewish heritage. Your Russian and Romanian Jewish family were immigrants to Argentina, with an influx of relatives fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe later joining the ranks. I believe they had been Spanish-speaking for several generations, but the arriving relatives spoke only Yiddish.
Raquel Rabinovich: One of the difficulties I experienced had to do with language because these relatives who lived in our house for many years didn’t speak Spanish. I didn’t understand their language. I took refuge in the church down the street and in the silence there. Silence is a continuing refuge for me. I think that ever since, what language meant to me became very important in different settings and different aspects of my life.
Rail: The idea of the sanctuario is very important spiritually and politically, perhaps more so in the Latin world. This meditative aspect of your life is certainly reflected in your current Vipassana meditative practice and work.
Rabinovich: Yes, I agree with that.
Rail: Though you began as an artist, your parents obviously wanted you to be a doctor, so you enrolled in medical school and then left. You were educated in an atelier system, which is something that almost doesn’t exist today.
Rabinovich: Yes. I began going to the atelier of a very dear teacher from Italy named Ernesto Farina. He was an outgoing, very warm, passionate man and was extremely supportive of his students. Maybe there were four of us painting there, and he used to talk to us. So, a lot of the learning I had was not only the studio practice of actual techniques for painting and drawing, but also knowledge of art history—European traditions that came maybe from the quattrocento or the Renaissance. It was very meaningful for me to have this warm relationship that was not anonymous, distant, and impersonal. It was exactly the opposite.
Rail: Not theoretical like art education today.
Rabinovich: Right, it was a very enriching experience. I still remember nostalgically the time I spent learning in that atmosphere.
Rail: Your parents were from a European background, and you talk about Argentina as being Europeanized; different from the rest of the Americas because of the obliteration of indigenous cultures.
Rabinovich: Yes, Argentina is different from other countries in Latin America. When the Spaniards conquered Argentina they made a point of eliminating the natives, and pretty much succeeded. The natives didn’t make a mark on the culture compared to other countries like Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, etc. The ideas and the culture came from Europe. In the art world, it was mostly from Paris. The intellectuals knew French; Paris was their Mecca. There was a tremendous difference of vistas from that intellectual elite and the rest of the population. There were no indigenous and traditional influences in culture and language. Maybe, instinctively, I was looking for something that was authentic and rooted in an ancient tradition. Later in life I was unconsciously looking for that again in India, in Machu Picchu, and even eventually in France during a residency when I saw the caves in Lascaux—a contact with something very ancient that I was missing growing up.
Rail: Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who were also from Jewish backgrounds, were very interested in the indigenous culture. It’s interesting that your work seems to be looking for that primary layer. I was thinking about your trip to Machu Picchu.
Rabinovich: I took a small bus with other passengers that arrived in Machu Picchu early in the morning. The bus would wait to take everyone back in the afternoon, but I couldn’t go back. I wanted to stay overnight. The only light was the full moon, magically caressing the magnificent ruins, the gigantic stones, one by one. Before dawn Machu Picchu disappeared from view, to be very slowly revealed as the clouds lifted from the ancient city. Twenty years later I began doing large site-specific stone sculpture installations along the shores of the Hudson River titled Emergences. Like Machu Picchu, these stone sculptures also disappear from view and gradually emerge into view, only this time the stones are concealed by the river tides to be revealed at low tide.
Rail: Your mud drawings explore stratigraphy, sedimentary layers starting from very ancient levels. You said you had read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. In the book, Kublai Khan sends Marco Polo out to gather descriptions of these cities as a kind of ambassador. You got your first mud in Varanasi on the Ganges; then people started sending you river mud from around the world.
Rabinovich: Right, I see the parallel with Marco Polo being the ambassador to Kublai Khan, bringing to him his visions of those places that he couldn’t have access to personally. I didn’t have to go to Burma to get mud from the Ayeyarwady River, or go to Laos to get it from the Mekong River because I had someone sending it to me. It seems as if I’m receiving an alphabet embedded in that mud, an alphabet of a language yet to be deciphered with which I make my drawings. So in that sense, I could say the drawing is the text and the text is the drawing.
Rail: You speak of mud as a kind of alphabet. In the case of the Ganges, it contains rituals. People’s bodies are burned, and the sediment of the bodies goes into the mud. Whatever is happening within that culture—even pollution in modern day—becomes part of that mud. Unlike cuneiform writing where the text is embossed on the clay, the actual clay becomes your text. I like this as a metaphor, also how this relates to time.
Rabinovich: Well, mud accumulates in rivers layer upon layer upon layer. That is a physical accumulation. But if we examine what’s behind the physicality of the accumulation, we realize that it’s also an accumulation of time that reflects what happened over thousands of years. Usually, most of the rivers I have used are very ancient and therefore the accumulation comes as well from epochs before language, which appeared later in our evolution. Long before language existed, the accumulation still took place and all this is embedded in the mud I use. I’m sort of re-enacting the history of those places. When I work with mud, I also work in layers one upon the other. The physicality of the mud is at the same time a metaphor for those histories.
Rail: Some of your mud drawings become mud scrolls. In your current exhibition, you have hundreds of these wonderful rolled up scrolls, rather like Chinese scrolls, made of all these different muds from different rivers. The installation forms a library of scrolls. They remind me of Michelle Stuart’s mud books where you can’t really read the text because the mud glues the pages together. We were talking earlier about your relationship with Jorge Luis Borges and I am reminded of his “La biblioteca de Babel.” You met him when he was running the Biblioteca Nacional in Buenos Aires. Tell me about your meetings with Borges.
Rabinovich: Yes. During the ’50s, when I spent a lot of time in Europe, mostly in Paris, I became acquainted with some art critics and people in the art world. With one of them, in particular, I stayed in a wonderful correspondence relationship when I moved back to Buenos Aires.
Rail: Who was that person?
Rabinovich: Damián Bayón, who died some years ago. He used to write me and send me books that he thought would interest me. One was called The Dark is Light Enough, by Christopher Fry. When I received the book, I was struck by the title. I realized that the group of paintings I was completing at that moment didn’t have a title. And somehow that title The Dark is Light Enough embodied the meaning in my paintings. But, because I was in Argentina where the language is Spanish, I wanted to find a poetic translation for the title, which I couldn’t find on my own. I went to the Biblioteca Nacional in Buenos Aires. The director there was Jorge Luis Borges, and I asked him if he would translate it for me. He did, and he also translated an introductory text to that book which I used in the catalogue of my upcoming The Dark is Light Enough exhibition. We engaged in a conversation that continued every day for many months. At the end of each day when he had finished working, I would go there, we would meet, and then cross the street to a plaza across from the library. We would sit on a bench and talk. They were wonderful conversations. I cannot remember now what we talked about, but they were quite extraordinary. And when the time came for the exhibition to open, I invited him to the opening to see the exhibition. And he said, “No, I can’t. I cannot do that.” I asked “Why?” and he answered, “Because I cannot see your paintings. I’m blind.” And it’s so amazing to me that I didn’t notice he was blind at the time. I didn’t know that.
Rail: You had no idea as you were sitting with him on the bench?
Rabinovich: Sitting and talking, there was no evidence to me that he couldn’t see. And that was quite a revelation, quite amazing.
Rail: Robert Kelly wrote a poem dedicated to you about your Mississippi River mud drawings entitled “River Library with Footnotes.” It is a wonderful poetic commentary on your work.
Rabinovich: His poem, titled “Rivermaps,” in turn inspired me to do a group of drawings with mud from the Nile River, which I called River Library with Rivermaps.
Rail: So much of your work begins with this idea of darkness. Recently writers like Luce Irigaray and William Kentridge have been writing about elucidation through darkness, Plato’s cave being the reverse of heliocentric enlightenment. You mention this idea of going into dark spaces, both literally and metaphorically. Talk to me a little bit about this idea of the sanctum sanctorum, dark inner chambers, and how this came into your work.
Rabinovich: I wasn’t consciously aware of what was eventually to become so important to me as a source for all of my work. Probably it began with that series, The Dark is Light Enough, which I just mentioned—most of the paintings were very dark to begin with. There is a difference between blackness and darkness. A dark place invites one to investigate, to dig in, to know more because it is difficult to see in the dark, both literally and metaphorically. It is a way of going deeper and deeper into dark places as a source of wisdom and knowledge. This is known in mythology and the mystery religions. I did a series of drawings in 1998 in which text was embedded into the drawings, and in one of them the text was “IF ONE CAN SEE IN THE DARK, ONE CAN SEE EVERYTHING.”
Rail: Like the Eleusinian mysteries where you have Demeter and Persephone going into the underworld for half of the year?
Rabinovich: Right. It relates to other levels of perception. If I look at the surface, I know that behind the surface there is a lot more. The fascination of knowing more and more of what is beyond the appearance of things is for me everything in life and in art. With The Dark is Light Enough series of paintings I moved further in that direction. I remember what it meant for me to go to the caves in Lascaux in the South of France. All these extraordinary cave paintings were done in the dark and remain in the dark. Ironically, to be preserved, they have to remain in the dark.
Rail: You discussed a temple complex in India with seven concentric walls going into a darkened chamber, your interest in Egyptian temple architecture where you often have very long colonnades that end in a darkened room. In Jewish temples, this darkened place for the Ark of the Covenant is an inner sanctum that is inaccessible.
Rabinovich: Right. I think the journey of getting to those places is important. You mentioned the concentric walls in that temple in India. There is a time element involved in the walking from the outer wall to the actual building where the innermost is the sanctum sanctorum, which is in total darkness. It takes a long time to actually get to the sanctum sanctorum. If you don’t do it slowly, you miss this kind of incubation time that prepares you for the experience of being there.
Rail: In most of these temples—also in the caves—only a certain priest class or a certain group of people were allowed to penetrate into the furthest recesses. Even in the caves there were no middens, so people weren’t living in them. Only a few initiates penetrated into the final reaches of these caves.
Rabinovich: Absolutely right. I think that’s basically how I remember my experiences of being so drawn to those places. To discover something important that otherwise I would not discover for myself, which is what happens when I make art. I don’t know beforehand where I will arrive. When it’s completed I’m surprised of the things I have learned because of the voyage. My process of getting there as an artist could be parallel to the process of the viewer trying to get into my work.
Rail: You mentioned when you were in Nepal seeing temple precincts, Chhodrtens, with buried relics that couldn’t be entered.
Rabinovich: There were devotees, worshipers circumambulating them, so intensely present in that experience, going around and around for hours. As I observed them, I would see how they got more and more connected with something they couldn’t see. The Chhodrtens were enclosed and hermetic, and they didn’t know what was inside. I think that the connection they felt was so powerful, so wonderful, that it allowed them to have a profound spiritual experience. It’s a parallel of what happens to me in front of a work of art. I can spend hours looking at a painting and time disappears. The contemplation of art, for me, is also a very spiritual experience.
Rail: I was thinking of Ad Reinhardt’s black painting that hung in Thomas Merton’s cell. Reinhardt spent months on a painting with many layers and his blackness contained everything. The works have a tremendous aura like your works, some kind of psychic energy radiates from within the surface. I often look at abstract work by younger artists who are producing many works and I have no such experience. Alex Bacon told me some young artists produce more paintings in a year than Reinhardt did during his lifetime, there is no long incubation process. Your work and Reinhardt’s are like the relics buried within the stupa; there is a transporting energy buried in the surface that that defies literary discourse.
Rabinovich: Right, there are no words to describe it.
Rail: I think there are two aspects that some younger artists don’t understand. One is the length of the voyage through consciousness where the art becomes a kind of inner pilgrimage, also a kind of devotional process related to the work.
Rabinovich: We were discussing the scrolls before. With every river I work with I usually make extra drawings I roll into scroll configurations that I glue at the edges so you cannot open them again. You will never see the drawings, but you know they are there. The idea is that what is implied is as important as the physicality of the work itself. I will have an installation of between 100 and 200 scrolls on a table included in my exhibition at Y Gallery. Our contemporary world is very divided by wars, by rivalry, by greed. I think the idea of bringing all the scrolls together—the rivers are from all over the world—is a way of bringing the world together as one. Perhaps we can see the world as one, hopefully in the presence of that table.
Rail: The river is also a destination for pilgrimages like the Kumbh Mela in India. Trips down the Nile for the Egyptian kings also involved layers of mud. The conquest of the Nile delta was not simply a military conquest. In Egyptian mythology it has to do with a kind of unification of upper and lower. The delta as an alluvial fan deposit represents an historical culmination.
Rabinovich: Absolutely, we have the outer rivers and we have the inner rivers in our lives. Rivers don’t know any boundaries. They freely flow across the countries of the world. The idea that they come together in my work also brings the awareness that you don’t need to separate and divide. Before language came into existence there was oneness on our planet. And if you look at our planet today, it is near extinction because we intensified that segmentation, or separation. So, my desire to bring the rivers together relates too to what’s happening in real life.
Rail: Your river works with stones, mostly on the Hudson, deal with time. After you moved to Rhinebeck, you started, like a detective, searching for river sites working with everyone from river boat captains to ecologists at Bard, to stone quarrymen. You started making stone pieces that you said were inspired (20 years later) by Machu Picchu, talk about a long incubation. You had to see your stone sculpture installations in terms of the six-hour cycle of tide flow.
Rabinovich: I think the idea of life and death has been very present for me. The idea of impermanence has also been very present throughout my work. The stone sculpture installations are called Emergences—a general title that relates to their emergence with the tides. I use stones—just as they are—I don’t carve them or change them. They are from the core of the earth where they have been for ages. By using them, I’m sort of re-enacting the whole history of the planet since the stones have always been there. It’s not like a pencil or a paint that has been fabricated and used as material. It’s a material that belongs there.
Rail: Yes, and the tidal flows—
Rabinovich: The other element of the tides going up and down, covering and uncovering, revealing and concealing the pieces is that the process is very gradual—it happens in slow time. Evolution is slow and I respect that rhythm. It’s the rhythm of nature and the seasons. We cannot accelerate it, we just have to go with it. These are important elements for me, because the slowness itself helps us in the contemplation of the processes of our lives. Individually, we go through the stages of birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age, and then die. We are all born and eventually die, like Emergences. Over time, they disappear from view entirely, to eventually become an invisible presence under the waters of the river. They function as metaphors for the passage of time and the ephemeral nature of existence. Is dying being out of view though we know that the sculptures are still there? Somehow, even if you don’t see them they are still there.
Rail: I was thinking of Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty”: long after his death, when the water table finally dropped you could again see it.
Rabinovich: I think again of Borges. Because there is a story by Borges called “The Book of Sand.”
Rail: I don’t know it.
Rabinovich: In “The Book of Sand,” he describes the story of a man—maybe it’s autobiographical, I don’t know. He loves books and he loves bibles, and has an apartment filled with bibles. And one day, there is a knock on the door and a visitor offers him three or four bibles that he wants to sell. The man says to the visitor, “No, no, no, I have so many bibles; I don’t need any more bibles.” The visitor insists: “No, these are different; let me show you one.” When the bible is on the table and the character in the story begins to go through the pages and he’s fascinated and then he wants to buy it. The bible is very, very expensive, but he’s really fascinated. It costs maybe a year of his salary but he buys the bible. So, the seller leaves the apartment, and he has the bible. Then he remembers these wonderful pages that he has seen, and wants to see them again. There is no way he can do that, because every time he turns the pages of the book, a different page shows up, never again the same page. It’s very much what happens if you go to the river to see the sculptures, because you’re never going to see the same sculpture again.
Rail: Sounds like Heraclitus: “one never puts one’s foot in the same river.” I first saw your work around ’79 at the Jewish Museum.
Rabinovich: Could be right. I had a piece there for one year.
Rail: It was a large sculpture made with tinted sheets of glass in the courtyard of the Jewish Museum. I think it was called “Cloister.”
Rabinovich: Yes, “Cloister, Crossing, Passageway, 1.32.” I remember.
Rail: I remember thinking, hm, a Jewish woman doing a work called “Cloister.” [Laughs.]
Rabinovich: Yes, that’s right, yes. [Laughs.] There was a lot of controversy about the title.
Rail: As I remember there was another work near Lincoln Center at Robert Moses Plaza. Like the temples where you can’t go inside.
Rabinovich: Right, “Point/Counterpoint.” In most of them you couldn’t go inside physically. You could enter visually because of the transparency. Because of the many tinted layers of glass one could see from nothing to everything and from everything to nothing. Like the scrolls you can’t enter.
Rail: Or like the Chhodrtens!
Rabinovich: Or like the Chhodrtens, right. How we connect, yeah.
Rail: It’s interesting because here you have glass and then you have these stone monuments, but in a strange way they do some of the same things.
Rabinovich: Yes, they do.
Rail: It’s something that we’re really missing in contemporary society: this idea of passageways, or this idea of chapters in life, life passages, of going from one realm into another, and the importance of that voyage.
Rabinovich: It’s very important; so much of my work is about that.
Rail: It’s interesting to interview an 85-year-old artist like you because the art world is so obsessed with the youth cult.
Rabinovich: Could be, you know. I’m old and I have been through different stages in my own life, personally and collectively.
Rail: Political prisoner under Perón.
Rabinovich: Yes, yes. [Laughs.]
Rail: I love the idea of you, the revolutionary. That’s great.
Rabinovich: I was so young, yes. But, you know, to me looking back, it was an extraordinary experience, how you can be so young, so idealistic, and really believe you can save the world. I wanted to save the world. I wanted the world to be just, free, wonderful, and peaceful for everyone. So that’s how I began, you know.
Rail: Your relatives had escaped pogroms and anti-Semitism before World War I in Europe, Romania, and Russia. And then you were a political prisoner in Argentina and you and your husband had to emigrate, not once but twice. So you had to relocate, living in Edinburgh, Denmark, Paris. So I see you as kind of an international figure.
Rabinovich: Probably, because I never remember feeling homesick, like I missed my country of origin. I feel very comfortable, very at home, in all the many places that I lived. And I think being so open allowed me to absorb and to be connected to each particular language or culture or history in the moment. And probably all that reflects in the work I have been doing. Without belonging to anything in particular I was able to incorporate and absorb what was needed at each particular time in my own work.
Rail: Yet in a funny way I do see you coming out of the Latin American world. Maybe, because of your love for Pablo Neruda, also because of your relationship with Borges. It is a way of thinking that is quite different from American writers. I cannot think of any American writer who enters an imaginary structure in the same way Borges does. Your work is also about entering structures through artistic imagination.
Rabinovich: I like what you’re saying because I resonate with that. I think it’s a very important point. Although we have discussed all these different places and history, deep down I was also very touched by poetry and literature from Latin America, like Borges, Neruda, García Márquez, or Luisa Valenzuela, a contemporary writer, where the element of magic is very, very important. Beyond the language of the novel or the poem or the story, there is always an element that is beyond the words, in between the lines, which is not literal. And that world is, for me, a wonderful world. I love that world. I resonate with that world.
ANN MCCOY is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She teaches in the Yale School of Drama, graduate design, and was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019.