David Rabinowitch by David Carrier

BOMB 58 Winter 1997
Issue 58 058  Winter 1997

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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David Rabinowitch, Metrical Construction in 12 Masses, 1991. Collection of the artist.

When first I met David Rabinowitch, seven or eight years ago, it was immediately apparent that he was one of those very few extraordinarily self-sufficient artists whose work had almost nothing to do with the art world surrounding him. His sculptures, so obviously austere, deeply serious and very formally intelligent, came out of a different tradition than most 1980s art. Over the years that we talked, and the more I learned of his work, which has developed in highly complex ways for more than three decades, the more I realized the difficulty of finding adequate ways of responding to his body of work. The individual pieces themselves were highly demanding, and the internal logic of his development took time to understand. Art as entertainment; art as political critique or social commentary: these have never been of interest to him. Nor have the problems dealt with by postminimalist or postmodernist American art been relevant to his achievement. His sculpture and drawing have remained firmly grounded, always, in the concerns of what might be called High Modernism. From early on, Rabinowitch had taken a great interest in philosophy; and so one of my tasks, as our relationship developed, was to return to Hume, Wittgenstein, and, especially, Spinoza, to think about the ways in which the practice of an articulate sculptor might be informed by such an intellectual background. Although deeply involved in this reading, Rabinowitch emphatically is not a philosopher-sculptor, and so one important goal was to ask in what ways the practice of his art might be informed by such reading of texts which are not much concerned, in direct ways at least, with art. His intellectual concerns, and also his working ways of thinking, were influenced by texts which he encountered early on. Born in 1943, he began reading Spinoza’s Ethics in 1951; in 1959 he started to study Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason; and in 1961, he started to concentrate on David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, particularly its first section.

The first sculptures he thought worth preserving, the Box Trough Assemblages and the Fluid Sheet Constructions, were made in 1963 and 1964. The goal of his reading, he has said, “was always and completely bound up with my desire to engage in a program of construction that would expose and work directly with reality. I had no wish to study philosophy as such. To me, to study philosophy is to engage in problems of philosophy. And I never did that.” That statement may seem surprising, for would not philosophy take a sculptor away from direct concern with the reality of his medium? Rabinowitch’s fundamental philosophical concern, I believe, is with the structure of perception as a source of knowledge, and the relation of everyday visual experience to the specifically aesthetic experiences provided by art. But this claim can only be understood by looking in some detail at his individual works, and by reflecting upon his numerous written accounts, some of them published in his exhibition catalogues. Few artists so quickly do deeply innovative work or develop in as self-sufficient a way; a proper account of his work would require rethinking the history of sculpture since the 1960s.

Canadian by birth, Rabinowitch is a part-time Manhattan resident who remains much better known in Europe than in his adopted country. As the numerous catalogues published by European museums make clear, his work is extremely well regarded for its absolutely original development of the traditions of modernist sculpture. When I knew that this Fall he would be having a show of early work at the Fogg Museum at Harvard, accompanied by a new collection of essays by Whitney Davis, I thought that it was an ideal time for an interview. It began as a discussion, and what we produced in the end was a text around that discussion, tracing some of his concerns, seeking to sketch the story of his development, and, most especially, getting him to provide some sense of his relationship to the sculptural tradition within which he has worked.


David Carrier David, my introduction to your art came with the Tyndale Construction at Flynn Gallery in 1988. I had the same sense of this sculpture as Jim Ackerman gives in his catalogue essay: “This work is an interior enriched, as in medieval and Renaissance buildings, by what happens on and in its walls. I see it as a chapel, a peaceful place for meditation.” I wonder if this description of one piece gives a valid sense of the concerns developed in the total body of your sculptures?

David Rabinowitch I’m happy if a piece projects for someone a meditative sense—but I’ve never thought about the Tyndale works, or for that matter anything I’ve made, in that way.

DC The Tyndale sculptures are very much bound up with the drawing of plans. What’s your conception of the relationship between sculpture and drawing?

DR I would simply say that drawing is invention itself.

DC What significance or function did these drawings have for you?

DR Each finalized diagram “contains,” imaginatively, a total range of attributes experienced in time, and space. The plans that I preserved are each the culmination of a process.

DC This would appear to define a work as something more, or something other, than the physical object.

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David Rabinowitch, sketch for Phantom, 1967, charcoal on paper. Collection of the artist.

DR An adequate thing can never be identified solely with its physical constitution. If it is, this is a sure sign that it cannot live through its own resources, such as its viewing prospects, for example each of which may fully disclose a work’s physical constitution and be simultaneously a distinct or independent deal thing.

DC This way of speaking seems to align your concerns with those of a physical scientist, with someone who develops a theory and then tests it. Is that a fair analogy; and if so, how far would you extend it?

DR At times, I have thought of the plans as “little experiments.” Making it work does presuppose an ongoing testing, a finding out of things not previously known or the continual invention and destruction of intentions. But there is no theory being subjected to tests. The “true” and the “false” are not the same things in art as they are in science.

DC In addition to the drawings which relate to sculptures, i.e. your sketches and plans, you also make other types of drawings. Could you say something of these?

DR Some of the templates, or one-to-one drawings for sculptures, I think of in some sense as another type, a kind of hybrid—simultaneously templates for works and drawings in themselves. But of the drawings not connected to works, there are in general two kinds—those that do and those that do not have reference to externals—things of the world.

The drawings referring to external things were begun in 1967. I had the idea then that sculpture could be looked upon as a species synthetic of other arts (like music or architecture) and nature. I was interested in making public work that established links between aspects of nature and particular building. For example, the conic plane at Linz (1974–77) associated the Bruckner Hall with the Danube.

I drew works of sculpture, works of architecture, musical instruments—each thing selected as an archetype for its kind: I made drawings after Giacometti’s Cube (1967–70), of The New York Kouros (1976), of the German Romanesque churches (1972–80), of the tree in Central Park (1972–81), of the Amati cello (1967–68), or of the shells. I suppose I used this tripartite division partly as a pretext to draw things I wanted to contact.

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David Rabinowitch, Metrical Construction in 12 Masses, 1991. Collection of the artist.

DC And then there are the drawings that are abstract, the Construction of Vision drawings. These clearly are very different works.

DR These were conceived initially in some relation to sketches that I had made for the Tubers(1966). But I wanted to make drawings that had no relation to sculpture.



DC You have said that your initial way of dealing with gravity addressed the distinction between literalism and illusion. What do you mean?

DR The Painted Field Assemblages (1962–63), using as a base cedar beams resting on the ground with grooves cut to contain the painted sheets, emphasized the reality of gravity. But the contradistinction between this support and the upper surfaces of painter metal represented for me a basic necessity: sculptural work must directly involve a confrontation between sensation and matter. I wanted observers to participate in both as equally real, and I took this to be a central aim of all sculpture. But many of these painted things were not adequate for me. Their importance lies in the impetus they provided for the things I made afterward in reaction, the Floor Wall Assemblages and Box Trough Assemblages (1963). In these, sensation and matter each act as a measure for the other.

DC What you say has, I believe, far reaching critical implications, especially in respect to minimalism which emphasized the object-status of sculptural works. The approaches that you developed between 1962 and 1964 differ considerably from approaches developed by minimalists.

DR The Box Trough Assemblages in particular were conceived as a critique of some properties I saw as weaknesses in David Smith’s works. They were also critical of tendencies developed in England in the early 1960s.

DC Perhaps I can make the sense of my observation more precise by quoting Rosalind Krauss on minimalism: “Minimalist sculptors began with a procedure for declaring the externality of meaning … These artists reacted against a sculptural illusionism which converts one material into the signifier into another: stone for example, into flesh—an illusionism that withdraws the sculptural object from literal space and places it in a metaphorical one” (Passages In Modern Sculpture, 1977).

DR “Externality of meaning” I suppose could refer to a focus on material conditions considered apart from private associations. Certainly the Box Troughs and Fluid Sheet pieces emphasized non- or even anti-psychological commitments to construction. So one could say that I shared a desire with the minimalists to avoid any private meanings—whatever that means. I would have even gone so far as to claim then that the concept of meaning itself, applied to a work, is senseless. Freedom from meaning is one criterion of sufficiency.

DC One of your notes underscores that point: “We cannot settle any legitimate claims with respect to art in terms of meaning” (1963). Rosalind Krauss’s association of an anti-illusionistic or anti-metaphorical thrust with minimalism seems to support this thesis. She also, in reference to minimalist work, stated that it defeated “the notion of a rigid internal armature that could mirror the viewer’s own self.” My sense is that you might differ somewhat on these issues.

DR Any notion of a private self being mirrored in a work has no place in anything I’ve made. A difference is that minimalism presumes a substantial distinction between thought and experience. Thought is identified as something interior and prior, while experience is associated with a posteriori circumstance. The disparity becomes the the focus of attention. One result is that sculpture is treated as a species of object (of whatever type) having the status of other physical structures. In my work nothing can be made of these distinctions.

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David Rabinowitch, Sided Plane, 1968, solid hot-rolled steel. Collection of the artist and Gallery nächst St. Stephan/ Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Vienna.

DC Another of your notes is relevant here: “There can be no method to distinguish the properties of experience from an externally real foundation for them” (1963).

DR The point is that any work which operates through these distinctions tends to yield trivial experience—experience ultimately justified through meaning. That comment is directed against giving primacy to images. Image here is synonymous with meaning. A work that functions through reference to meanings uses concepts as tokens for private illumination. But this is mystification.

DC Whitney Davis seems to be addressing a similar situation when he suggests that for certain minimalists “the emergence of the subject derives essentially from external conditions and relations” whereas you avoid the “seesaw in which what is apprehensible as ‘specific’ or ’individual’—and, most important, as continuous reality—lurches from object to subject to context to object again but never establishes what we can call a ‘plane of consistency’ or in Humean terms, a coherence.”

DR The main thing is the identification of a work with a total perceptual investigation. This assumes bringing into existence what was not there before, i.e. is not procreative of any subject; and where there is no subject there can be no object.



DC Writing about Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, about the social role of sculpture, Douglas Crimp said: “Insofar as our society is fundamentally constructed upon the principle of egotism, the needs of each individual coming into conflict with those of all other individuals, Serra’s work does nothing other than present us with the truth of our social condition.”

DR The statement is right as far as it goes. Your phrase “the social role of sculpture” takes in so many complex realities that it’s impossible to discuss precisely. It’s also a slippery phrase. Certainly most sculpture in public spaces fails badly. Conscious attempts to make work for specifically social ends must generally be worthless. For any work to contribute to legitimate social purposes—and this is an obscure concept to begin with—it must simultaneously serve what are essentially non-social or even, as it were, anti-social ends. This is not contradictory if we think of society not as the social expression of a state, but as a constitution of individuals who demand “consciously” to take responsibility for their actions. Ultimately this idealization, let’s call it a perfect anarchy, must be founded upon an antagonism to accretions of power of any one group over others. Public works that embody such recognitions are inherently critical of existent political and social norms. For works of art to have any actual social relevance they must be organized so that not only are ornamental properties continually being called into question, but the very existence of the social and physical context of a piece can be regarded as a definite operation in that art, an operation that can itself be isolated to be judged.

DC Donald Judd once wrote: “The big problem is that anything that is not absolutely plain begins to have parts in some way. The thing is to be able to work and do different things and yet not break up the wholeness that a piece has.” I have sense that your view of sculpture is quite different.

DR Certainly one requires a work to be a plain thing. A work that has “parts”—if you mean by this, and Don did, elements that have less than a necessary relation to a thing—will degenerate. That a thing does different things is axiomatic. That the different things do not break up its wholeness—its power or intensity—is imperative. Don and I diverge in how we conceive of what makes an “absolutely plain thing.” The disparity here is one of strategy, not intention. Don favored building towards a reduction of elements which constitutes an object. I favor building towards a totality of properties which constitutes a particular. Both of us require that the particular thing be transparent to inspection, i.e. be absolutely plain. Another difference lies in how each of us thinks of what a whole thing is. Don identified this with a physical system. I identify it with conditions which are not primarily literal. Another distinction is how we treat the notion of a piece doing different things. I construct conditions bound up with properties of time. Don excluded these. By not breaking up a wholeness, Don meant preserving the literal integrity of a physical thing; for me it means the continuous regeneration of perception in respect to one thing.



DC In his essay on the drawings you made of the tree in Central Park (Drawings of a Tree, Düsseldorf, 1993), Dieter Schwarz quotes a wonderfully suggestive Walter Benjamin text: “The graphic line is determined by its opposition to the surface; this opposition has not only visual but also metaphysical significance for it. The graphic line is in fact coordinated with its ground. The graphic line designates the surface and thereby determines it, by coordinating it with itself as its own ground. Conversely, there is a graphic line only on this ground, so that, for example, a drawing that covered its ground entirely would cease to be a drawing.” As it stands, certainly this is a mysterious claim. How do you understand it in relation to your practice of drawing?

DR Benjamin’s idea that line is determined “generally by its opposition to surface” is to my way of thinking another way of saying that acts of drawing are one of the co-equivalent modes of the plane of drawing—the other being the unacted upon extension of the plane. This suggests to me that perception itself constitutes a necessary mode for that plane. When Benjamin says, “a drawing that covered its ground entirely would cease to be a drawing,” I believe he is obliquely affirming this.

DC One puzzle for me is why Benjamin speaks of this line as “designating” the surface. What exactly is the force of that particular verb in this context?

DR Designation connotes not only “a pointing to,” but also, more important, the establishment of something. Benjamin brings this out when he links it with the notion of the line coordinating itself with its own ground. This entails a complex reciprocity. Drawing is conceived as a dynamic, enfolding two poles of reference: ground and observer. The one attribute that Benjamin does not discuss explicitly—a work’s totality as a particular—is I think implied in his reference to the opposition having metaphysical significance.



DC I would like to turn to something that has particularly stood out for me—the way you, from the earliest to the most recent sculptures, have made frequently over short periods, in plan form or drawings, works that can be naturally classified as belonging to numerous distinct series. I’m thinking of, for example, the one-to-one scale drawings made in 1968 for the sculptures that are the first works to be conceived fully in terms of solid mass, the sculptures that will be shown in the exhibition organized by James Cuno for the Fogg Museum at Harvard. Such series of works as the Romanesque Abutments or the Sided Planes with internal welded members really do, when one examines the construction drawings, show a diversity of concerns reflected in the titles of each series.

DR Most of my things have been made along these lines. Even the drawings I made from the medical textbooks (1951–52) were loosely grouped according to organ system. But I became aware of a strong necessity to work like this only after I left off painting. It had to do with a particular sense of what sculpture is. The Origin of Species reinforced this urge to do work that naturally falls under distinct classes. I frequently, especially in earlier times, thought of this approach as mitigating against tendencies within me which could result in a general manner or style. If one is able to make distinct works within distinct groups and simultaneously maintain a strong identity with these things, then style can count for little and the actual properties of organization in particular works and groups of work will count for a lot.

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David Rabinowitch, sketch for Sided Mass Plane, 1968, charcoal on paper. Collection of the artist and Gallery nächst St. Stephan/Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Vienna.

DC Can this approach be said to form a general methodology for you?

DR Altering one property can lead to a new and independent group of works, somewhat like a mutation which under rare circumstances lends to viable species. This approach necessitates Keeping a constant lookout for these kinds of possibilities. It also includes keeping a healthy distance from one’s conscious intentions, keeping thought close to and expressive of complex changing experience, even to comprehending thought as non-existent apart from experience. Yes, in this sense it can be regarded as an extremely general methodology.



DC In an unpublished note of 1969 you wrote: “The opposition between internal and external relations in one work must be a continuously reconstituted state of direct apprehension; it is the main operation for which construction takes responsibility: the opposition being reconstituted is construction’s very content. And the form of construction, then, will be the means invented to affect reconstitutions of the opposition.” What special pertinence does this note have to the works made between 1968 and 1969?

DR This note applies to much of what I’ve done. But it is true that the template groups for the mass works of this time were pretty much exclusively concerned with these things. That a work should somehow only involve analyses and syntheses of internal and external properties and relations—as I’m using these terms, relations count also as properties—became crucial in respect to a new recognition of how mass could be treated as the basis for construction. This was analogous to the fact that inertia and weight, though entirely distinct, are measured by the same constant quantity.

DC Why was it that the distinction between internal and external properties became so decisive for you in these works? What were some of the consequences?

DR I was led to the general distinction by confronting the problematic concerning the nature of a viable work, how it was to be constituted in experience. This had a lot to do with a work’s capacity to dispel the credibility of the body-mind fantasy. To build something, the metrical properties (internal relations) of which are continuously open to an examination vis-à-vis changing circumstances of observation (external relations) and equally, where these relations of change become open to an examination vis-à-vis a work’s physical constitution, just means that a work can function as an instrument to obviate the Cartesian delusion.

DC And here again, we come back to Spinoza’s debate with Descartes—dualism. You suggested that the conception of mass you came to in 1968 was somehow analogous to the physical fact that the weight of something and also its resistance to motion, its inertia, are measured by the same constant, its quantity of substance. In what way is it analogous?

DR The analogy is twofold: a field of force acting on a thing is analogous to the totality of its external relations; the thing’s inertia is analogous to the totality of its internal properties. The measure common to both expressions, the material quantity, can therefore be identified through analogy as a condition under which both orders are total expressions of each other. Mass in this conception is the primordial possibility for a full reciprocity between internal and external properties. Complete reciprocity obtains only so far as these are constructed as total aspects of one thing.

DC You wrote in another note of this period (1970) that “the esoteric and exoteric, the intrinsic and extrinsic, the static and the mobile must be wrought as foundations for the one another, sculpture being that expression, the power of which rests on reality and appearance being co-equivalent measures.” Does this portray something similar to what you have just spoken of?

DR Yes, sculpture is an art that makes of its transitory attributes a whole within which to locate and determine stable properties, just as these form a complete index for the transitory attributes. It is a temporal expression as it is an expression against and apart from time. It can be contrived as a vehicle pitted equally against idealism and materialism and other mystifications of the world.

DC What you have called “the construction of total aspects” seems to have some connection to “the construction of scale” that came about in 1971 and that has had a role in almost all of your work subsequently. Was this development in fact influenced by your idea of total aspects?

DR A vertical plane built up through a membership of discreet drilled units distinguished in terms of classes of diameter was indeed connected to the idea of a total aspect. The “scale construction” was intended from the first as a whole counterpart to an independent of the plane of mass. The aspect’s independence allows for perceptual operations to be generated in respect to particular indices.

DC You speak of judgment in regard to the two orders of the internal and external. Do not such judgments themselves affect the status of properties and relations as to whether these are to be understood as internal or external?

DR Since the scale plane is an index for judgments of the greatest generality and at the same time is built through particular indices, a hierarchy spanning the specific and the general pervades all ranges in apprehension. In this sense the distinction between internal and external properties is ultimately bound up with type and event or, to say the same thing, with universals and particulars. This finally amounts to saying that the operation of judgment coordinated to a construction of scale is a system in continuous transition generating the realities of partial and whole states.

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David Rabinovitch, plan for Gravitational Vehicle, 1965, pencil on paper. Collection of the artist.

DC Is this perhaps one reason that in recent conversation with Susanne Anna at Chemnitz in Germany you emphasized that “within this definition of objects, fantasy plays no legitimate role. Reality is limited to perceptual acts continuously being recognized for what they are in time and in space in relation to a living individual … [A] work … is only concerned with the information of objects of judgment, their destruction, their reconstitution. Thus a work provides for itself a ground for skeptical analysis of its existence as a totality.

DR The construction of scale is the basic means for an ongoing building up of syntheses and dissolutions of these. A work thus is constituted through the processes of judgment. The only way a work can stand outside of mystification and provide at the same time a sufficient foundation for freedom of experience is by laying bare its means, providing for a skeptical stance regarding its unity. Apart from this, acceptance of the unity of a thing is tantamount to acquiescence in the face of mystery.

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His books include Artwriting (1978); Principles of Art History Writing (1991); and High Art: Charles Baudelaire and the Origins of Modernist Painting (1996).

Richard Serra by David Seidner
​Richard Serra 06
Jo Baer by Linda Boersma
Baer 02 Body

Jo Baer is the featured artist at The Artist’s Institute, where her abstract minimalism is paired with the spastic eroticism of Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven through May 22nd. Baer spoke to Linda Boersma in BOMB in Fall 1995.

R. H. Quaytman by Antonio Sergio Bessa
O Tópico, Chapter 27 01

On painting, architecture, and working in “chapters.”

Jacqueline Humphries by Cecily Brown
Humphries 01

It’s a relatively limited type of adjective that clings to recent abstract painting: intricate, quiet, lyrical, seductive, mysterious, atmospheric.

Originally published in

BOMB 58, Winter 1997

Featuring interviews with Michael Ondaatje, Billy Bob Thornton, Hilton Als, Oumou Sangare, Emmet Gowin, Donald Antrim, Stuart Hall, Marjetica Portč, Miloš Foreman, and David Rabinowitch.

Read the issue
Issue 58 058  Winter 1997