New York

Rachel bas-Cohain

“Let us inquire, to what end is nature?” Not only might Rachel bas-Cohain (1937–1982) have put Ralph Waldo Emerson’s question to herself, but she must have shared Emerson’s conception of the fluid character of nature, of energy, their binding unity the confluence of forces. Hence her continuance of the kinetic tradition, particularly that part of the tradition less concerned with the machine than with the phenomena it generates. Liliane Lijn’s Liquid Reflections, 1966–67, in which drops of moisture trapped under a clear turntable move in apparently inexplicable ways, is not so different from bas-Cohain’s bubbles rising mysteriously in a cylinder (Saucer Bubble Gently Rising, 1970), or from the appearing and disappearing whirlpools of Study No.1 for Grand Vortices, 1971. The subject matter in both cases is an energy and movement almost weightless, bodiless, intangible.

Like Emerson, bas-Cohain was always search ing for an ultimate meaning in the physical, and for her as for him, the intensity of the search rendered nature transparent. Looking for the inner core, she found an air pocket. And the hollow center of the whirlpools and bubbles is matched by the insubstantiality of frost and dew—mere breath, transpiration—in pieces such as Frozen Grid, 1973, a grid of ice-covered refrigeration pipes, and Dew Point, 1973, a gathering of atmospheric moisture on a copper plate. Later, when bas-Cohain shifted to grappling with more tangible form, the commitment to weightlessness and hollowness did not abate. Sel’ah, 1978, casts of rocks from celastic wrappings, is a series of husks or shells. Then there is the lightness and transparency of the last sculptures, boxed still life arrangements constructed of gossamerlike organza hung from strings, and still, in their debt to Alexander Calder, part of the kinetic story.

However, there was decidedly a shift from science to esthetics, from observer to participant, from absolutist to relativist. The center eluding her in the objective world, bas-Cohain turned to the subjective. Again like Emerson, she seems eventually to have wondered whether “Nature enjoy a substantial existence without or is only the apocalypse of the mind.” As Sarah McFadden notes in her intelligent essay for this show, bas-Cohain’s growing distrust of language and perception created an almost post-Modern fragmentation. As a descendant of the 19th-century naturalist, she needed not only to observe but also to record. Marks made by tea stains, sculptures out of cigarette papers—as bas-Cohain begins to turn inward the records refer obliquely to the quotidian private life,and they are used to rebel against the tyranny of the grid, against the “scientific” character of the kinetic pieces. By 1973 the record becomes the phenomenon investigated. In the “Stasis” series, 1973, the record performs tricks, reshapes itself: Selections from the Copy Book Alphabet are specimens of Palmer writing stretched and warped as if seen through a fish-eye lens. From warped record to biased recorder is a short step, and at this point bas-Cohain seems close to accepting the unreliability inherent in the act of recording . In Reviews, 1974–76, however, she is still demanding absolute literal fidelity to a knowable reality. This was a collaborative effort in which artists attempted to reconstruct an artwork from the information gleaned in reviews of it.

It’s difficult to prove a clear progression from one attitude to another, since elements of both occur early on. But it is hard to shake the feeling that bas-Cohain reached a turning point with the distortions of the “Stasis” series. Before, she hid the mechanisms in her kinetic pieces, denying herself as prime mover. After came the landscape projects in which, as though still looking for the core, she penetrated hills with pipes and cement rods, and works where she manipulated the view (tying down bushes, hanging a scrim with holes to look through). And in 1981 she began the highly controlled still life objects. Partly the move to object-hood was a function of the time, partly it may have been bas-Cohains acceptance of herself as a causative agent not completely unlike those whose authoritarian power she resented. The paradox is that the silk-organza constructions, their strings and boxes suggesting puppet theaters, allude to both: control and unreliability, while the more solid, controlled entities, the cups and vessels which recall Giorgio Morandi’s, are ghostly, vacated. They seem to illustrate the transcendental knowledge that is beyond the limits of experience, independent of the material universe. But just as possibly they were for bas-Cohain simply empty again.

Jeanne Silverthorne