Sunday, April 1st, 2007

About Borromini: Prints and Drawings by Deborah Rosenthal

The Bowery Gallery
530 West 25th Street, 4th flr,
New York City

February 27 to March 24, 2007


Deborah Rosenthal, Frontis/Facade 2006, linocut, 10 x 8 inches
Deborah Rosenthal, Frontis/Facade 2006, linocut, 10 x 8 inches


“About Borromini,” an exhibition of prints and drawings by Deborah Rosenthal and text by Jed Perl, had an almost curative feel to it. To look at these pieces and to read the accompanying prose was like sipping some clarifying tonic. Anyone who’s seen Rosenthal’s’ work in the past will know that feeling, that fusion of free-ranging immediacy and hard-won durability. Her shapes have a playfulness to them. Yet they also feel inevitable, as if they’ve been cut into the world.

The show, which one suspects will find eventual incarnation as a book, is about the making of metaphors, about the way an artist absorbs the forms she sees around her and transforms them in her own imagination, x-rays them down to their essences. As the title suggests, Rosenthal and Perl took the Baroque architect Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) as their inspiration. The artist and writer (who are married) followed their fascination with Borromini during their walks around Rome one springtime not too long ago. As Perl writes in one of his passages, “The dream of a high modern Borromini—that’s what D and I are pursuing.” What is it about Borromini in particular that draws the two of them?

It seems to be his blend of classical firmness and idiosyncratic extravagance. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Borromini’s famous rival, once called the younger Milanese “an ignorant Goth who has corrupted architecture.” The Gothic influence which so appalled Bernini, the penchant for flights of exaggeration, is precisely what interests Rosenthal and Perl. Here’s Perl again: “Borromini is the master of a somber rococo, a luxuriant asceticism. He can be witty but marmoreal, and of what other artist can that be said?”

Diana of Ephesus 2006, drypoint and engraving, 8 x 6 inches, Courtesy of the Artist
Diana of Ephesus 2006, drypoint and engraving, 8 x 6 inches, Courtesy of the Artist

One answer to that question might be Deborah Rosenthal. Looking at her drawings and prints, you see both the sculptural immovability of the forms and the quicksilver playfulness of the artist’s mind in motion. For example, an ink drawing called “Standing Angles/Study” (2006) shows a series of  anthropomorphic forms, much like dancers bending at the hip. The formal fascination here seems to be with angles, with those vortices at which energies shift and then recoup their force. Rosenthal’s shapes recall the severe turns in Borromini’s bannisters, for example those that run along the balcony at San Carlino. But you don’t need to know Roman architecture to appreciate this work. Rosenthal has so fully absorbed these forms in her own, high modern imagination that the allusions appear as traces of inspiration, and not influence. Whatever  strands she’s taken up from Borromini, they’ve been threaded into the specifics of her own facture. There’s real pleasure, for example, in observing the subtle alternation between dry point and rouletting in “Twisted Column” (2006), or the playful tangles and swerves of the linocut, “Graffiti” (2006.)

One of the most impressive pieces in the show is “Diana of Ephesus” (2006.) Here there’s a central oval, intersected by a series of cone-like shapes. This could bring to mind the ovals that Borromini favored for his windows and domes, as well as for the escutcheons that bedeck his facades. The title points us in a different direction, toward the many-breasted Diana, an incarnation of the Greco-Roman goddess that recalls Indo-European fertility myths. But you don’t have to be an erudite classicist to appreciate “Diana of Ephesus.” These forms of Rosenthal’s are not limited to their subject matter, just as a current is not the water that flows through it at any given moment. Rosenthal’s achievement lies in her ability to create metaphors, to envision structures in which various forces fuse. She’s a literary artist, and yet her work never falls to illustration or to mere essayistic cleverness.

Her work doesn’t need explication, yet it’s a pleasure to have Perl’s accompanying text. Even if he gives some helpful background, he too has embarked here upon his own, artful investigation of his form. Perl’s prose itself ranges between an almost casual pliancy and an acute attunement. Take the first two sentences of his text. Here’s how he begins: “Stars, zig-zags, angles, ovals, edges, curls, curves, flames, flowers, shells, breaks, bursts, echoes, accents, repetitions, reversals, reunions—these are the sights and sensations, each sharply etched in the imagination, that I recall from our Borromini walks, in the streets of Rome, one spring not too long ago.” After that exuberant rush, Perl gives us this simple statement: “Borommini is the master of a somber rococo, a luxuriant asceticism.” You might say that Perl, like Borromini himself, can do both extravagance and starkness. If and when this book comes out, we’ll be treated not only to superb art but also to one of the finer prose styles of our day.

A New York poet who saw this show was heard to remark, while looking at some of Rosenthal’s lino prints, “Linoleum never had it so good!”  There’s something genuinely relevant to that humorous quip. The workaday, domestic sound of “linoleum” may seem hemispheres away form the baroque world of Borromini. And yet the ordinary and the otherworldly come together in Rosenthal’s facture, and in Perl’s sentences. The combination of skeletal simplicity and dreamworld departure is appropriate to Borromini, yet in the end it remains Rosenthal’s own imaginative intelligence that cuts into the lino blocks. The poet was right: linoleum never had it so good.