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“We can discount everything that came before.”

This is how Joan Waltemath opens her 2003 Rail interview with David Rabinowitch. She is referring to the point they had reached in their conversation (his reply: “Yes, we begin in the middle”), apparently marking a transition to topics of more immediate interest.

But after taking in Rabinowitch’s Birth of Romanticism: New Works on Paper at Peter Blum, that statement might also bring to mind the first line of Samuel Beckett’s short story, “Enough” (1966): “All that goes before, forget.”

To the casual observer, Rabinowitch remains something of an elusive presence in New York, despite major exhibitions in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. He is perhaps best known for his Tyndale Constructions in Five Planes with West Fenestration: Sculpture for Max Imdahl (1988), five large sets of concentric circles carved into the walls of Barbara Flynn’s SoHo gallery, which was on view for seven months in 1989. The power of that haunting work, dedicated to the German art historian who died the year it was made, remains undiminished in my memory; its there-not-there, sculpture-as-geometric-void seemed to herald Minimalism’s vanishing point, revealing a spiritual predestination beneath its material determinism.

Rabinowitch, however, was never in the reductivist camp. In the Waltemath interview, he mentions conversations he had with Donald Judd, in which he was “kind of insistent…that if one went down that road [of formalism without content] one would reach the Bauhaus mighty quick,” that is, “identifying art with sophisticated forms of design.” By content, Rabinowitch means the “conditions under which a thing takes on significance.” He goes on to say, “One of the ways…to come to terms with content, or invent content within its own means, is through its relation to nature. The tragic aspect is the human being’s realizing his limits as a creature of nature.”

And so one can perceive that Rabinowitch has always been a Romantic. In fact, in the reaches beyond the pure geometry of the Tyndale Constructions, or of freestanding sculptures such as “Double Conic Constructions in 10 Masses” (1970) and drawings like “Monumental Construction of Vision” (1971), one frequently encounters a considerable expressionistic charge. This is especially true of his works on paper from the 1960s, such as his astonishing series of monotypes from carved woodblocks, completed before he was out of his teens, and the calligraphic ink-and-graphite “Fluid Sheet Construction” drawings.

Still, the wildness of Birth of Romanticism comes as a shock. While Rabinowitch’s art has often rippled with sublimated emotion and maculate tactility, these drawings suggest that its internal tensions have precipitated an irreparable rupture with its own past, eradicating its Platonic surface to expose a jarring, multi-leveled parallel world. However, once getting past the drawings’ messy complexity, we begin to notice that their hyperbolic aggregates, oily scumbles, fecal smears, and raw abrasions, counterposed by shots of cobalt, golden ochre, and cadmium yellow, red, orange, and green, are as formally composed and contained as Rabinowitch’s classically minimalist circle of hot-rolled steel, “Plane of 2 Masses, IV” (1968). Geometric shapes previously experienced as isolated figures in space have become the ground for compounded explorations of form and material (often literalized through collaged scraps of paper and linen). In their curious, fractious elegance, the drawings resemble diagrams of random thoughts, or maps charting the uncertain course of an indeterminate journey.

As eruptive as these works may seem, in a peculiar way they are actually quietly evolutionary. I would never assume they are conclusive—Rabinowitch’s oeuvre is too diverse to expect that, having made an abrupt change, he will continue in that vein indefinitely. These drawings allow us to see what has gone before through a freshened lens. Not to forget, but to recalibrate, restore, and resume.

by Thomas Micchelli

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