Saturday, June 9th, 2012

Rhinestones, Goggle Eyes and Flocking: Leo Rabkin’s Visual Poems

Leo Rabkin at Luise Ross Gallery

May 10 to June 22, 2012
511 West 25th Street, Suite  307, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212-343-2468

Leo Rabkin’s enchanting retrospective, spanning five of his nine decades (he was born in 1919),  includes a range of  work, although the vision is all of a piece.  What he demonstrates – something too rarely seen – is the ingenious, thoughtful, even tender transformation of ordinary materials into marvelous inventions. And marvel the viewer does.  Rabkin’s often modestly-scaled assemblages (there are exquisite works as small as 3¾ by 5¾ inches) comprise reliefs, boxes, works on paper, and collages.  They combine all manner of media: threads, metal, string, cords, beads, buttons, tiny nacre seashells, canvas, and myriad papers.  His papers are stained, inked, plaited, folded, frayed, suspended, and flocked.   Captivating and elegant, produced with the simplest, readily available materials, his works are undergirded by a refined structural sensibility, an acute but never insistent sense of measure, proportion, and color.  Strong organizing principles notwithstanding, the magic (an overused but apt term here) of these works may have something to do with a seeming offhandedness in their ad hoc presentation.  Onlookers are also transformed as we are made to consider or reconsider what we may routinely overlook—how shapes vary; elemental differences among materials, their properties and surfaces; and the possibilities of making whole fascinating little worlds by attentively concocting, composing, and (a great American tradition) tinkering with them..

Leo Rabkin, Cats Cradle, 1983-87. Plastic, string, pencil, paint on wooden box, 11¼ x 9¾ x 3¼ inches. Courtesy of Luise Ross Gallery, New York
Leo Rabkin, Cats Cradle, 1983-87. Plastic, string, pencil, paint on wooden box, 11¼ x 9¾ x 3¼ inches. Courtesy of Luise Ross Gallery, New York

In this last respect, Rabkin’s inventive assemblages recall Alexander Calder’s objects.  They too defy conventional terms like sculpture—their ingenuity bolstered by their unpretentiousness.  Rabkin’s works are visual poems: succinct and subtle.. Part of their appeal is surely the unprepossessing nature of his chosen materials, which are neither costly nor complicated.  He reinstates what may be deemed déclassé materials—rhinestones, goggle eyes, and flocking—and excites a reappraisal and appreciation for their glitter and curiosity.  We are drawn to appreciate the stitched dashes of silken red thread on fragile, slightly yellowed paper, or, in an untitled work from around 2011, the minuscule hairy filaments of flocking, used to achieve delicately lush, textured surfaces. A series of small white tissue-thin squares of fine folded paper, dated from around 2005, float on tiny tightropes through space, and are mirrored.  Once again, the simplest of objects are artfully made, leaving the viewer to wonder at just how stupendous light, air, weightlessness, and reflections can be.

Rabkin’s works share an affinity with the American folk and outsider art that he and his late wife long collected and which captivates him still.  Like them, the objects and images demonstrate how, with unremitting resourcefulness, immensity can result from little.  Whirligigs, weather vanes, game boards, postal sorting cubbies, whittled and painted figures, and a host of other doodads demonstrate how with unremitting resourcefulness, immensity can result from little.  That is a quality that he continues to develop.  Whether reflected in things he makes or collected, Rabkin stands in opposition to the slick, highly professionalized and manufactured aesthetic that has come to appeal to the mega pocketbooks of the art world today.

Rabkin makes frequent use of small boxes.  These boxed enclosures have a family resemblance to those of Joseph Cornell–though Rabkin’s small worlds are not hermetically sealed.  Like Cornell, Rabkin, with his lyrical imagination, creates intimate cosmologies.  His quiet little treasure chests (many found and recycled), like gifts or offerings, present the prospect of discovery, surprise, and wonder.  Plain on the outside, sometimes stenciled or finished with combed or delicately striated surfaces, even mysterious when closed, these containers may be opened to display a small theater of unexpected elements.  Part of their appeal is the special aura they emit through the carefully constructed transmogrification of materials: so beads strung in channels are mimicked and continued in drawn lines and glittery small beads glued against a dark panel become a celestial firmament Their order reminds us of Georges Santayana’s ruminations about the organization of the stars in the nighttime sky.

Rabkin studied art at New York University under Tony Smith, but his training did not channel his work into a self-consciously high art mode. The Luise Ross Gallery, where he buoyantly received admirers at his opening,  had its foundations in representing artists not formally trained—Bill Traylor for example (an artist whom Rabkin collected).  For many years he taught disturbed adolescents in the New York city schools, and devoted himself to his art only in the last several decades.  It may not, however, be a stretch to understand his unremitting glorification of the most elemental objects as part of a more general appreciation of what is there, good, and not to be taken for granted.

Whirligig (American) from the collection of Leo Rabkin, on view in the exhibition under review.  Courtesy of Luise Ross Gallery, New York
click to enlarge
Leo Rabkin, Untitled, ca. 1958. Canvas, rope, 30 x 35 x 2 inches. Courtesy of Luise Ross Gallery, New York
click to enlarge