Friday, October 3rd, 2014

In All Their Wondrous Weirdness: Raphael Rubinstein’s Personal Revisionist Dictionary of Art

The Miraculous by Raphael Rubinstein

White Columns will host a launch party on Friday, October 3rd from 6:00 to 8:00 pm.  20 West 13th Street, between Hudson Street and West 4th Street, New York City.

Raphael Rubinstein, center, with artists Noël Dolla (the subject of #24 in The Miraculous), left, and Pierre Buraglio at a panel discussion at Canada in June 2014.  Photo © Paul Behnke
Raphael Rubinstein, center, with artists Noël Dolla (the subject of #24 in The Miraculous), left, and Pierre Buraglio at a panel discussion at Canada in June 2014. Photo © Paul Behnke

Once an artist becomes “a name,” the very fact of his or her fame can obscure a clear-sighted view of actual works, past or present. This isn’t necessarily a problem, since an acclaimed artist’s renown itself contributes to the context in which an emerging body of work will be seen and considered. And, of course, it is often productive to assess an artist’s new efforts in light of previous accomplishments. But the fantasy of the innocent eye is compelling because, in our information-glut age, becoming over-informed is always just a few clicks away.

In The Miraculous, published by Paper Monument, poet and art critic Raphael Rubinstein describes 50 artworks realized in the last few decades. The texts in this beautiful little book range from a sentence or two to a couple of pages. Many of the works in question — which are often conceptual and/or performative in nature — were in some way creative watersheds: they located the artist’s voice, pointed the way forward, raised the stakes of the ongoing imaginative investigation or (in one case) brought it to an end. And with each description, the name of the artist is nowhere to be found.

In its entirety, one of the shorter entries runs:

A successful German painter who enjoys provoking outrage buys an out-of-the-way service station in Brazil and renames it in honor of a notorious Nazi long rumored to have escaped to South America. Soon, photographs begin to circulate of a forlorn building on the façade of which have been emblazoned the words “Tankstelle Martin Bormann” (Martin Bormann Gas Station).

An index reveals all the artists’ identities; some of their stories are quite familiar, others not so much. But withholding names in this manner drives home the point: our perception of a work is distorted when we know who made it, whether that person is celebrated or obscure. Uninformed of authorship, the reader of The Miraculous confronts (through Rubinstein’s pellucid prose) the works themselves in all their wondrous weirdness, far from both the blinding glare of acclaim and the shadows of the market and its machinations.

cover of the book under review
cover of the book under review

Rubinstein describes his blog, The Silo, as “a personal, revisionist ‘dictionary’ of contemporary art.” His approach to art in The Miraculous is wholly in that spirit; disregarding received ideas about the artists’ alleged influence, significance or professional standing, the author drills down to the bedrock of all art discourse, namely, the creative activity of artists.

And that sole case of closure? Rubinstein writes: “An artist in his mid-30s decides that his next work will consist of sailing solo across the Atlantic Ocean.” The project ends badly: the tiny craft eventually disintegrated, and the artist was lost. The piece, titled In Search of the Miraculous, is probably this artist’s best-known work, yet Rubinstein’s economical account of it brings out the psychological complexities of its enactment.

Paper Monument is published by the journal n+1 and has produced a few other books, including the delightful Draw it with your eyes closed: the art of the art assignment, edited in-house. The Miraculous is touted as the first of a series of single-author books, and as such is another auspicious beginning.

Raphael Rubinstein, The Miraculous.  New York: Paper Monument, 2014. ISBN 978-0-9797575-7-0, 72 Pages, $16.00