PRINT May 2005



In trying to navigate the complicated terrain of Rudolf Stingel’s criticality, one traverses institutional critique, stumbles over Minimalism, and unexpectedly crashes headfirst into Pop. In 1989 Stingel produced an instruction manual for creating an abstract painting, and then spent a decade making the same one—not a single work exactly but variations on the process set forth in his mini-manifesto. Stingel’s interest in developing an accessible art also informed a series of installations in which he covered the walls of museums and galleries with silver insulation board. Much to the artist’s surprise, these works provoked visitors to graffiti words and images on the shiny surfaces, and he responded by making subsequent versions even more glamorous, with wallpaper motifs layered over Mylar, their gold shades reminiscent of posh hotel rooms and gilded temples. Last summer, he rolled elegance into New York City’s grandest grimy public space by covering part of Grand Central Terminal’s floor in broad swaths of floral-patterned carpet. And for his most recent exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, Stingel went back to his roots, serving up his gallerist as a pop icon in a Photorealist painting based on an appropriated 1984 portrait of Cooper by Robert Mapplethorpe. In one bold but minimal gesture, Stingel stripped away all decoration—“erasing” the gallery floor by painting it white—and transformed his intellectual and financial backer into a deity.

Cay Sophie Rabinowitz


For some reason I was having a problem coming up with an idea for my last show at Paula's, and time was running out. In December, less than two months before the opening, I was still torturing myself over possibilities and variations using the vocabulary that I had acquired over the years. But a strange feeling of saturation took over. The situation was getting grim.

I had done several shows at the gallery already, and the scale of the space and Paula’s history always posed a problem. Everything you put there ends up looking too classic, and you find yourself fighting the aura of the place. Also, the show was going to be during the Armory fair, when all the hot merchandise was being displayed in New York, and the prospect of setting up yet another store offering collectible products didn’t appeal to me at all. Feeling caught in a corner, I remembered that the best defense is always to attack.

One of the best shows I’ve seen in the last few years was Bruce Nauman’s video installation at the Dia in Chelsea showing his empty studio: What a great way of talking about the inability of making work, of having nothing to say. The idea of making my own inability the topic of the show started to resonate in my mind. I was going to show an empty gallery, I thought; but it wasn’t just any gallery, it was Paula’s gallery. I couldn’t possibly leave her aura and charisma out of my thinking, so the idea of amplification, of turning up the volume, led to the project of painting her portrait.

In the ’70s, long before I knew what was going on in the art world, I was making a living painting portraits on commission—and maybe I could still do it. I didn’t tell Paula what I was planning, but I took several pictures of her. Yet after seeing a portrait of her by Robert Mapplethorpe in the gallery’s archive, I decided that he was a much better photographer than I am. I placed his print on a desk and rephotographed it, catching the light reflected on its surface in my photo. I was going to paint a picture of a picture.

I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to finish such a big painting on my own in time for the opening. Twelve years ago I had made my last Photorealist painting for a show in Paris with an old school friend. I called him up and asked if he would help me out. He agreed, and I went back to my studio in Italy. I really loved working on the painting because it took me back to the time when I saw a show in Vienna with a huge painting by Franz Gertsch called Medici [1971–72], picturing his friends behind a construction barrier. At that time I was obsessed with the classic Renaissance style and I had never seen Photorealism before, but the painting changed everything for me. It was the way he painted it. When you get close to a Gertsch it looks like an abstract painting by somebody who doesn’t know how to paint. But if you walk away it becomes sharp and fantastic. This kind of painting triggered my decision to become a “contemporary artist,” and it always stayed in my mind.

We would work fourteen hours a day and drink lots of wine. You make a grid and then you start at the top left and work your way down. We had 176 letter-size prints to copy, and we finished just in time. I guess that by doing it I also wanted to comment on the flood of painting that we have right now, on the mystique and all that talk of the studio, the paint, and the turpentine. After all, it’s not so difficult; basically, anyone can do it. It’s not about physically being able to make a painting, it’s about wanting to do it and what’s in the painting. The challenge was to do a show with a painting that wasn’t a painting show. By painting the floor white I shifted the attention to the space and its history: a temple of Minimalism and its high priestess.

The public reaction is often surprising. People kept talking about the floor getting dirty, but it wasn’t really about that at all. Not everything I do has to be interactive. The first time I covered a gallery with insulation board, I knew that people would walk on it and ruin the floor, but I was stunned that they would write or draw on the walls. At Paula’s opening, though, people didn’t get close to the painting. They stood at the edge of the big space and kept a distance as if out of respect. Also, lots of people couldn’t remember what the gallery floor had been like before. It reminded me of some shows of Michael Asher, another big influence on my work, where sometimes you don’t even notice that he’s done anything.

The strong response to the show makes me think you need to be representational in order to affect the greater public, but I never try to come up with some diabolical strategy to capture the public’s attention. Sometimes it just happens. I guess I go for absolutes.