Leo Rabkin: A Tribute: 1958 - 2015by Elisa Decker
Luise Ross | September 8 - October 17, 2015
Leo Rabkin’s many-faceted pieces don’t reveal themselves all at once. Picture Rabkin enacting Marina Abramović’s performance piece The Artist is Present, only you are sitting across from Rabkin in an intimate room as he invites you to hold and discover his box constructions one by one. Oh, to have been present for such an encounter, back in 1978 at the Truman Gallery on 57th Street!
Rabkin died in February at the age of ninety-five. His inquiring mind and ever-inventive spirit were strongly felt throughout this thoughtfully selected mini-retrospective spanning more than fifty years. The gallery’s inspired groupings of the thirty works on display highlighted connections drawn between a wide variety of processes and mediums. Though the magically transformative boxes that were a constant in Rabkin’s practice comprised half of the installation, other works rounded out the inventory, ranging from luminous expressionistic watercolors, to delicately stitched, drawn, collaged, and painted abstract compositions on paper, to a more sculptural refashioning of found materials, with the boxes often incorporating some of these other approaches.
Three untitled works from 1958, and a fourth, White Swiftly Enveloping the Red, dating from the 1950s, kicked off the exhibition. Though each of these wall-hung constructions consist of pieced-together fragments that involve sewing, they differ dramatically in material composition. In White Swiftly Enveloping the Red, collaged watercolor elements form an arcing gesture across the top half of the picture, their intense red and yellow pigments, conjuring Emil Nolde, whose watercolors Rabkin admired. Above floats a strip of mauve fabric. Openings to the white paper cut through both sections. All is connected by russet-colored and black diagonal lines made of twine that weave diagonally through the paper support, mimed by painted lines, leaving the bottom half of the picture empty.
In another outstanding work from 1958, Rabkin triggers subliminal tension. The piece’s worn, soft-looking rust-colored patina and laced stitching suggest a leather saddlebag that has seen better days; in fact, it’s been fashioned from a painterly distressed sheet of copper, its ragged-edged sections laced together with unruly wires and pieces of metal. The rectangular form folds in on itself; a gaping oval negative shape, gouged out of its center, frames the cast shadows on the empty wall space behind, adding another dimension.
On a separate wall, the largest piece in the show, an all white painted canvas pulled taut and stretched irregularly around an inner frame, occupies its own wall; the canvas merely wraps the top left corner as it extends across the top and down the left side. Never reaching the other three corners, it is attached at three points on the right side and one point at the bottom. The composition evokes a sail that has been repeatedly repaired and torn asunder, some pieces seeming to pull away from out-of-control twine stitching that resembles hurriedly repaired wounds and calls to mind the work of two of Rabkin’s contemporaries, Conrad Marca-Relli’s cut and torn collaged scraps and Alberto Burri’s scavenged remnants.
Rabkin’s playful boxes, which he thought of as three-dimensional doodles, were an integral part of his oeuvre. Their visual poetry is best described by the artist himself in the catalogue for his 1970 show at Storm King Art Center:
WHY LITTLE BOXES
IN GENERAL, WHY IS MY WORK
FOR PRIVATE RATHER THAN
OFTEN A FEELING OF SOMETHING
FACETED OR IN PIECES TO BE
EXPLORED OR TIED UP?
COVERED AND SILENT IN A DRAWER,
WAITING TO BE FOUND AND ACTIVATED?
ENJOYED BY ONE AND HATED BY ANOTHER?
Mostly displayed open on white stands or plinths attached to the wall, the surprise that attends opening one was unfortunately left out of the exhibition equation, though at one point I was treated to the marvelously painted top of a box called Ice Bell (1986) that had been hidden from view until the gallerist came by and closed the sculpture. The composition referenced Will Barnet’s late abstractions. In another instance, the gallerist picked up a Plexiglas version, loosely painted with a watercolor backdrop of pink and blue squares. As she tilted it, the many small handmade paper cubes contained within shifted and changed their configuration.
One particularly striking box hung open directly against the wall. More of an open drawer whose contents would normally be concealed, its insides revealed brilliantly colored polychrome geometric compartments, each concave part painted a different solid color than the next. Changing color combinations could be seen by viewing the piece at an angle, since the sides of each concave section were also painted different colors. In contrast to the dazzling array, the attached outer box was covered in quirkily sewn together scraps of weathered denim, including a pocket with red stitching around it. Adding to the personal touch was Rabkin's linen handkerchief, which stuck out of the denim pocket.
Many of the anecdotes Rabkin told during his talk last year, on the occasion of American Abstract Artists’s tribute exhibition at Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg (he was president of that organization from 1964 - 1978), suggested how much kismet had fed his imagination as he turned nothings into somethings throughout his career. Living in SoHo in the early days, he would find gutters filled with “very appealing” detritus emptied from factories that had been forced out, and said he “made it his business to begin to hoard.” At the talk, the artist unfurled a thin sheet of translucent stained handmade paper that had come with two big kites from Thailand. Intended for use in the repair of torn kites, he would recycle the paper as his watercolor support. When Isabel Bishop had to give up her Union Square studio, Rabkin inherited one of her presses. Just as he never made two boxes that were the same, and always the contrarian, he said he never made an edition but used the press to explore embossing. Rabkin always thought in three dimensions, often beginning a pastel composition by first making an impression on his paper using an intaglio press to create a relief. For Rope, a bas-relief with pastel on paper, he used exactly that. While sinking into the work’s warm glowing tones, I caught a glimpse of the copper piece first discussed, realizing what a gift I had been given.