New York

Daniel Rothbart

Lee Arthur Studio

Sculptor Daniel Rothbart is the author of a short book in which he traces the influence of Jewish metaphysics on the work of (among others) Barnett Newman, Morris Louis, Mark Rothko, and Sol LeWitt. This gives an indication of the seriousness of his concerns and the originality of his outlook. His work is untimely in the best sense, infused with nostalgia for an age (part historical, part mythical) when utilitarian objects were not just finely made but had a sacred aura.

Rothbart’s first New York show consisted of 14 gold-patinated bronze sculptures that resembled seed pods, shells, chalices, and mushrooms. Buds on long stems rose from spheres carried on slightly twisted supports, like root systems. There was a funnel emerging from a dome, a bowl supported on a tripod and containing a ring, and a writhing set of bagpipes that could also be interpreted as a plant form. And there was a long (very long) trumpet, suitable for announcing the end of time. Approximately at the center of this lustrous constellation of objects stood an uneven, segmented circle enclosing a scattering of broken branches, which, given Rothbart’s overt metaphysical leanings, must have been an allusion to the cosmic tree common to so many mythologies and mystical systems. Set in amongst the sculptures were 17 candles in the form of shallow bowls filled with crimson wax.

There is no explicit religious imagery in Rothbart’s work. What he presents is the visual aspect of an imaginary “ritual without theology” (to use his own phrase). The idea of archaeological discovery is also a central metaphor, and his sculptures often resemble the artifacts of an unknown civilization with Judaic origins and strong gnostic tendencies. At the same time they suggest the sort of objects that might turn up in one of Borges’ more esoteric fictions. It is as if they once had a meaning that has been lost to us, and can be guessed at but never fully recovered. This lends them a certain intrinsic pathos.

Rothbart’s sense of history owes a lot to the three and a half years he spent in Italy, where he likes to display his objects out-of-doors in historical settings. A piece called Staircase of Lies, 1992, for example, consists of an arrangement of gourd-shaped terra-cotta objects set in a park below the castle of Gradara. A short film of this installation, exhibited here, was accompanied by traditional Armenian duduk music, which adds another layer of historical reference, for the Armenian civilization, like the Judaic, has been the target of persecution and mass destruction. A desire to restore dead or forgotten things to life underlies all of Rothbart’s work. It is, of course, impossible to do this on anything other than an isolated, imaginative level, and this pursuit of “the impossible” brings Rothbart close to Symbolism. It was Baudelaire who perceived in nature “a forest of symbols,” and in his most recent work Rothbart has set us free to wander in just such a forest—a place where artifice and nature, reverie and ritual, meet.

John Ash