During the summer of 1953 while New York City is suffering through a record-breaking heat wave, a 55-year-old artist known for her superb drawing skills (honed during years working alongside a famed European modernist) tosses aside pencil and pen for a new technique: making ink rubbings of the city under her feet. She is aware that Max Ernst, whom she has encountered several times, invented frottage in the 1920s, but as far as she knows neither he nor any other Surrealist ever thought of venturing outside of the studio to make rubbings. What opportunities they have missed amid the chaotic encyclopedia of textures offered by urban sidewalks and streets, by manhole covers, subway gratings, gridded vault lights, and the endless expanses of cement and pavement in all their worn, cracked, rough, rippled, pebbly, pock-marked and crumbling glory. She makes her downtown rubbing excursions either late at night or very early on Sunday mornings, often accompanied by one or two friends to help her handle the large sheets of paper she favors. (She wants her transfer drawings to approach the scale of Abstract Expressionist paintings.) Her assistants include a composer who has just dared to conceive of a piece that instructs the musicians to do nothing for over 4 minutes, a young artist who entertains the ambition to paint things “the mind already knows” and a dancer whose encounter with Artaud’s “The Theater and its Double” is propelling her to radically re-imagine theater and dance.
In subsequent years the artist makes rubbings in Massachusetts from old gravestones, in Washington State from several hundred Native American petroglyphs soon to be submerged by a new dam on the Columbia River, in Hawaii from still more petroglyphs, in Kyoto from incised wall graffiti. During a 1955 visit to Los Angeles she uses her rubbing technique to document the sidewalk in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater where film stars such as Eva Gardner, Carmen Miranda and the Marx Brothers have imprinted their hands and feet (shod or bare) into wet cement. For her sculptural work she also avails herself of all the city has to offer. "Bones, lint, Styrofoam, banana skins, the squishes and squashes found on the street: nothing is so humble that it cannot be made into art," she later observes. Among her New York finds while living at the soon-to-be-demolished Sherwood Studio Building at 58 West 57th Street is a taxidermied bald eagle that she rescues from the trash pile of a deceased neighbor’s belongings. Not knowing what to do with the stuffed avian, she passes it to friend who gleefully attaches it to one of his gnarly wall reliefs.
[Sari Dienes, John Cage, Jasper Johns, Rachel Rosenthal, Robert Rauschenberg]