New York

David Rabinowitch

David Rabinowitch’s two double-tiered Box Trough Assemblages (both 1963) are part of a series of 40 pieces made during Minimalism’s heyday, but they seem more subtle—less deadpan and mechanical—than the usual Minimalist fare of the time. Though they are terse constructions of modular units, they each have a raised “edge,” which, to my mind, adds an ironic-lyrical touch or accent to the implicitly epic extension of the works. Even more crucial to their subtlety is the tension between the asymmetrical arrangement of the few units that form a top layer—Rabinowitch calls them “congruent displacements”—and the serial redundancy and uniformity of the floor units. The upper tier seems indeterminate, incomplete, and perceptually uncertain—tectonically loose—while the lower tier seems overdetermined and all too complete and comprehensible. The efficiency and tidiness of the whole is belied by the discrepancy between the layers. It is as though the upper layer emerged from the lower layer but can no longer disappear back into it. Each construction is a deliberation on the sense of difference and nonidentity that emerges within the overall sameness of self-identity, which makes each piece that much more exhilarating despite its austerity. And of course the difference between the assemblages compounds the issue of tension, which is not unlike that of Sol LeWitt’s variations on incomplete open cubes.

In explaining these constructions, which mark a turning point in his oeuvre, Rabinowitch foregrounds what he calls “the centrality of the gravitational field” in sculpture. In “Box Trough Assemblages” the gravitational field presumably “determines” the anti-architectural flatness of the piece—flatness can be conceived as a “reduction” to gravity, while the raised edges acknowledge the force by resisting it. The hot rolled steel of which they are made seems to confront us with its materiality, in a way that makes it impossible to ignore, and thus presumably primary to the pieces. He sees his work as a response to scuptural traditions—whether the lineage is an “anthropometric, totemic . . . and painterly” sculptural tendency extending from Picasso through David Smith or that of the Bauhaus tradition, “conceived in terms of pre-planned, usually closed, factory produced (and architecturally modeled) volumes”—in which gravitational force and materiality become secondary to other concerns.

But to me the flatness and steel are secondary in importance to the strictly relational character of the elements of the piece. The constructions are a sum of relationships that add up to an ambiguous whole, one made all the more transparent by the sculptures’ lack of volume. Rabinowitch’s works can be understood as part of the same attack on composed or rationalized relations that Donald Judd made at the time (against what Judd saw as Piet Mondrian’s systemic structures). In fact, Rabinowitch acknowledges that his interpretation of David Hume’s writings—“things experienced in association can never, through reason, be given justification for being associated,” in Rabinowitch’s words—profoundly influenced his making of the assemblages, which are in fact an attempt to present relationships without creating the fiction that they necessarily hold together. The modules of the floor layer are in an entropic—homogeneous—relationship, as their uniformity indicates, while those of the top are in constantly shifting, open-ended, heterogeneous relationship(s). Thus, Rabinowitch’s assemblages maintain an irresolvable, internal tension; they never degenerate into readymade geometrical patterns, as, for example, those of Carl Andre and Richard Serra did. And, in remaining true to an underlying principle of dynamic tension, that is at the least a small triumph.

Donald Kuspit