San Francisco

Alan Rath, Positively, 2021, aluminum, fiberglass, custom electronics, motors, ostrich feathers, 84 × 72 × 60".

Alan Rath, Positively, 2021, aluminum, fiberglass, custom electronics, motors, ostrich feathers, 84 × 72 × 60".

Alan Rath

Kinetic and/or robotic art has been around for a century, but few of its makers have had Alan Rath’s prodigious gifts as both artist and engineer. Works in this memorial exhibition—Rath died at the age of sixty in 2020—included examples from some of the series for which he is best known: pieces incorporating digital animations of running figures, eyes, mouths, hands, and numbers; speakers that pulse rhythmically like hearts or wheezing lungs; and graceful orchestrations of oscillating feathers.

A tinkerer since childhood, Rath was interested in circuitry from the beginning, wiring his first switch when he was only eight years old. He went on to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he majored in electrical engineering but also enrolled in the school’s innovative Visible Language Workshop and its Center for Advanced Visual Studies, taking classes with Group Zero cofounder Otto Piene. After completing his bachelor’s degree in 1982, Rath almost immediately started experimenting with sculpture. He worked for a short time in Boston’s early computer-graphics industry but realized that he could more easily obtain the components he needed for his objects in California’s newly flourishing Silicon Valley. He quit his job and moved to the Bay Area.

Throughout his career, Rath’s work had a deceptively straightforward appearance, embodying a Minimal utilitarian aesthetic in which little or nothing is hidden. In early pieces, CRT monitors playing short digital animations poke up out of conduit necks, perch on tripods, or hang from hooks, cords dangling. Rath once described the Apollo 11 moon lander as the most beautiful sculpture of the twentieth century—completely purpose-built and made with no aesthetic considerations—but his own decisions seem to have been both pragmatic and scrupu-lously, elegantly formal. In 5 o’clock, 2002, the oversize red and yellow spirals that connect two of the CRTs are actually repurposed air hoses, through which Rath must have painstakingly threaded electrical connections. Later, he began using feathers for their flexibility and strength, but he soon discovered their possibilities for dynamic curves and expressive, dance-like movements, as the tender and hilarious Positively, 2012, amply demonstrates with its ten hot-pink ostrich plumes waving and wriggling, opening and closing in a hypnotic fan dance.

Rath wanted his works to be as available to a viewer as paintings, not needing to be plugged in or turned on, and he incorporated motion detectors in all of his pieces from early on. The digital animations that start up as they are approached seem at first like simple one-liners, with their running figures, gesturing hands, or opening and closing mouths and eyes that invoke sensory experience. Yet only the gallerist or collector (or ardent museumgoer) can ever experience the entirety of any of these pieces. The programs Rath wrote for them are algorithmic, cycling through an infinite number of nonnarrative possibilities. For instance, in the 2004, 2007, and 2015 examples from the series “Running Man,” 2000–18, included here, the image in each work shifts calendrically. Depending on the day of the week, the moving figures change color, speed, number, or become something entirely different: a flower, the Venus of Willendorf, or, on Friday the thirteenth, a jogging skeleton.

In a 2019 interview, Rath commented that he had only recently been able to realize some of his ideas from decades before, as technology had finally caught up to his imagination. He was aware that his engagement with sculpture (he counted Alexander Calder and David Smith among his influences) made him unusual in the increasingly virtual field of electronic art. In the context of today’s surveillance state, his creations seem prescient and at times almost creepy, in the way that some of them suggest a constrained or imprisoned consciousness. Though aware of these implications, Rath was more interested in the positive: the expanded possibilities for thinking machines. His pieces are reminders that it’s delusional to believe that we can separate ourselves from technology or from the countless technologies that watch us, guide us, and choose for us. Perhaps, his work suggests, acknowledging them as collaborators might be a better strategy.