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Alan Rath. Photo: Hosfelt Gallery.
Alan Rath. Photo: Hosfelt Gallery.

Alan Rath (1959–2020)

Bay Area artist Alan Rath, renowned for his groundbreaking software-based kinetic electronic sculptures, has died at the age of sixty in Oakland. The cause was complications of a rare form of multiple sclerosis, his gallerist Dianne Dec told the San Francisco Chronicle. Rath, who held an undergraduate degree in electronic engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he took courses within the fabled Architecture Machine Group and studied with Otto Piene, was one of the first to explore electronics as an art form and was the rare visual artist who designed, built, and programmed all his work himself.

Born in Cincinnati, Rath—who counted not only Alexander Calder and David Smith but NASA, Jimi Hendrix, and Robert Moog, father of the analog synthesizer, as among his influences—had musical aspirations, but discovered early on that he had no talent in this arena. “I absolutely love music, and the ideas in music really inform so much of what I do,” he told the Chronicle in a 2013 interview. “But I can’t make music, so I make these other things.”

Among “these other things” were the robotic structures he began making in the 1980s, shortly after he graduated from MIT and moved to California, that featured computer-generated animations of various human body parts—eyes, mouths, noses—that illuminated the juncture between nature and machine, and the systems of the ecological world and those of technology.

“The more you study humans, the more you see that we’re machines,” he explained to the Chronicle in 2001. “The more you study machines, the more you see that they evolve and are undergoing this trend of greater complexity, which seems to mimic an organic evolution to a state which eventually has to be sentient.” Artnews described the 1992 work Vanity as characteristic of his oeuvre, citing its custom-built electronics contained inside a mirrored cupboard, which in turn reflected an animation of a human face. A later work, Watcher VII (2011), featured two eyes protruding from either side of a white metal device. His sculptures are held in the collections of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, the Los Angeles Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the San Jose Museum of Art.

Rath continued to innovate into his last decade, adding organic material to his robotic forms, a move described as a “breakthrough” in his typically “dynamic confusion between electronics and human intimacy” in the pages of Artforum. “To be human,” he once told Metal magazine, “is to be a technological animal.”