Sunday, February 1st, 2004

Polychrome Profusion: Selected Art Criticism: 1990 – 2002 by Raphael Rubinstein

Art critic and poet Raphael Rubinstein began publishing art criticism in 1986, taking the position that the well worn territory of Minimalism and its offshoots was not his bailiwick. Instead, Rubinstein looked to postwar painting movements in France and their living exponents for a key to his interest in new modes of abstraction in contemporary art. His fervent investigation of this issue, through his own writing and as a senior editor at Art In America from the 1990s to the present, has significantly influenced the critical landscape. Polychrome Profusion, Rubinstein’s first collection of essays on abstract painting and sculpture, gathers into one volume articles previously published in Art In America, Arts Magazine and Art Journal as well as symposium papers and catalog essays he wrote for galleries in Europe, Canada, and Venezuela. Rubinstein notes in the preface an early appreciation of Mexican culture, thanks to family background. This detail suggests that his approach to art criticism was international at heart from the get go. Indeed, it comes as no surprise that as a young critic he sought out the company of Shirley Jaffe, Norman Bluhm, and George Sugarman, American artists who came of age in postwar Paris, and credits them with teaching him “how to look at art.” (p. 9-10)

The shape that Polychrome Profusion gives to latter 20th – early 21st abstraction unfolds through five sections entitled: Complexity and Color; Expanding the Space of Abstraction; Europa Resurgent; American Vistas, North and South; and Visual Voices. Under these headings, 35 of Rubinstein’s previously published essays are lifted from their disparate sources and points in time in order to be regrouped into fresh and unexpected, illuminating and logical sets. These essays often interweave connections between the present and the past through detailed discussions of artists and art movements. Shifting between pieces that perform close visual analyses of specific artists and articles of wider scope, Rubinstein argues for a sense of stylistic history in support of stylistic change. He becomes particularly animated in this regard during conversational assessments of significant museum exhibitions held since the 1980s. The play Rubinstein discovers between history, geography, and artistic continuity in contemporary abstraction is perhaps the most compelling feature of his criticism. “The Painting Undone: Supports/Surfaces” is truly original and revelatory.

Stylistically, Rubinstein’s critical approach is inspired by that of New York School art critics, whose independence of thought and visual analyses are legendary. The title essay on George Sugarman and the article on Shirley Jaffe, in which Rubinstein performs intricate stylistic descriptions, attest to this influence. Independence of thought can be found not only in the overall course of his work but also at close range in the personal style of his writing, which often brings free association and anecdote to bear upon his arguments. Plainspoken critiques of freshness and clarity are the result. There are 16 color plates at the back of the book, a bonus for collections of this type. Let the curious scurry off to a good art library with Polychrome Profusion in hand. They will soon confirm for themselves how inventively Rubinstein has pursued the development of contemporary abstraction through contact with living artists.

Polychrome Profusion: Selected Art Criticism: 1990 – 2002 by Raphael Rubinstein