David Rabinowitch: Recent Sculpture (1977)

“David Rabinowitch: Recent Sculpture,” Parachute, no. 8 (Autumn 1977), pp. 22-24.  
Reprinted in part in Raoul de Keyser, David Rabinowitch, Richard Tuttle, Philippe van Snick, Ghent: Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, 1978.

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David Rabinowitch: Recent Sculpture

David Rabinowitch’s new work questions the Minimalist assertion that sculpture cannot incorporate part-to-whole relationships. In his sculpture, Rabinowitch avoids both the unitary forms and repetition of modular units characteristic of so-called Minimal art. But in developing the relationship between the whole and the parts he is not returning to the “relational” sculpture against which the Minimalists inveighed. [1] Rabinowitch’s concern is not with compositional balance of part-to-part and part-to-whole. Nor does his work draw into itself all the relationships that existed in “relational” art but rather uses them to establish the viewer’s response to the sculpture. [2] The part-to-part and part-to-whole relationships are a function of judgement. Judgement must be discerned as to the status of “part” and “whole” under different aspects of perception. As such, the part-whole relationships enter Rabinowitch’s work as constructions that demand the questioning of vision through the conditions proper to sculpture. Rabinowitch’s originality lies in stimulating a kind of dialectic between viewer and sculpture in which judgements elicited undergo an evolution and must be consciously constructed and distinguished. In the new work this judgemental process arises mainly through distinguishing part-to-whole relationships.

The part-to-whole relationships are not the only judgements or meanings to be constructed in the new work. They supplement those of the earlier work, which are still present, and help now to extend the limits of sculpture. The recent sculpture shares characteristics with two previous series of work. In size and sheer density of mass they are similar to the 1968-1970 group. But in terms of the sophisticated constructions of cuts, boundaries, and drilled holes they relate to the 1972-1976 sculptures. Superficially the same, the two series investigated sculpture as mass. The first asserted the small mass through verticality and boundary and established a vocabulary of cuts. The concentrated mass — confirmed through boundary and cuts — criticized the volumetric form of Minimal sculpture as in Judd and early Morris while its verticality rejected the literal assertion of the floor plane as in Andre. The second series, having proclaimed itself as mass, investigated the opticality of sculpture — as a mass in space — through “perceptual perspective.” Vertical scales — that is, the drilled holes, first developed for studying perspective in sculpture — were also utilized to ground the optical surface to the mass. The internal horizontal cuts and exterior boundaries acted as perspective orthogonals. Their various orientations were different means for observation and showed the ambiguities of perception of mass in space (as well as the inherent illusionism), for example, the cuts and elliptical boundary of Three Masses.

Perspective was an early interest of Rabinowitch even in his volumetric sculptures. In the work concerned with mass, it is the boundaries (as cuts) and internal cuts — the parts after all arise due to the cuts — that focus the attention within the work and create the perceptual effects that separate his work from Minimal sculpture. Both constructions of cuts condition the role of shape. In Judd and early Morris, although the shape of the object changed from different viewpoints, the viewer knew the basic gestalt against which to apprehend it. The perspectival shape in Rabinowitch, however, constantly changes from different viewpoints. There is no “constancy of shape” against which to measure each perception; [3] meaning is freshly constructed from each viewpoint. The latest sculpture verges upon simple geometric shapes but there is a continual tendency to want to extend the four-sided figures into triangular shapes, creating a basic instability in the apprehension of shape.

The constructions in the work force an interaction with the viewer rather than with the sculpture’s surrounding space. Thus Rabinowitch’s sculpture differs from Minimal sculpture that related to space through a basic shape. Similarly differing from Minimal sculpture, it relates to the viewer through its literal verticality rather than through a scale of human or more than human dimension.

In the 1972-1976 series, Rabinowitch studied the role of perception operating within sculpture. Conceiving perception as operating within the bounds of horizontality and verticality, he aligned this to the sculptural properties of extension and depth in a mass through boundary and horizontal cuts in the former (horizontality) and through drilled holes in the latter (verticality). These operations occurred within the conditions allowed by sculpture. That is, the sculpture was constructed according to the conditions of sculpture (mass and its properties, etc.) and vision.

In the making, the “perceptual perspective” does not determine the construction “though its operations are fundamental to the constructions.” And although the relations of mass in plan are the methods of construction they are intimately tied to the conditions of observation. [4] No underlying a priori structure exists in the work. The experience is yielded through the interaction of sculpture and viewer. [5] So in the construction Rabinowitch is unconcerned with structuring the sculpture and experience through shaping, placing, stacking, scattering, etc.

In the present series, all three floor-piece sculptures, made of solid hot-rolled steel, are four-sided and constructed of small three, four, and five-sided masses abutted so that a triangular space is formed within the planar mass. The separate masses are literally “parts.” The total plane is limited in size so that it can be encompassed in the view overhead. For this reason, the horizontal cuts and vertical holes function less perspectively than in the 1972-1976 sculptures.

Noticeably different from Rabinowitch’s earlier work are the triangular spaces in the interior of the sculptures. Although the spaces function variously, even reinforcing the functions of other constructions — namely the vertical drilled holes here and in the vertical group (scalar constructions), or paraphrasing the cuts of the 1968-1970 group — they are the missing piece, so to speak, in the interpretation of the sculptures.

The idea of the centre reflecting the general shape of the border is found in Stella’s early paintings, but in Rabinowitch’s sculpture the inner space does not literally depict the outer boundary or shape it in reflection. The space in the centre of the sculptures is both space and removed mass. Previously, a mass had been cut from but still retained in place in the body of an untitled 1969 sculpture. Now, a mass has been removed, but its presence is still felt. As do the vertical holes — and the cuts of the 1968-1970 group — the space of the removed mass gives one a sense of mass qua mass in the rest of the sculpture. In these sculptures there is no question as to the inside being the same as the outside, that the mass is the same throughout the pieces. The space also signifies the introduction of a new measure of verticality, being the inner correspondent of the outer boundary. The inner boundary of the mass is the limit of both the triangular space and the surrounding masses. Nonetheless, it cannot be both within the same judgement. Depending on what the viewer perceives or decides at the time, the space is active — that is, with boundaries and, therefore, the vertical boundary is its limits — or the space is passive — that is, it comes into being through the construction of the masses and, therefore, the boundary is the limit of the masses. The former asserts space while the latter implies the removed mass.

Consistently in Rabinowitch’s sculpture, verticality and exterior boundary have been distinguished as means of conceiving sculpture as mass without volume. The space/removed mass now allows one to conceive of internal conditions in sculpture without introducing volume.

It is this internal space that seems to generate the sculpture and, indeed, to suggest the extension of the sculpture beyond its physical limits. As such, it can be used as a guide to judgement or meaning, whereas the vertical and horizontal constructions are constructed conditions of perception. Judgement was operant in deciding whether the internal space was active or passive. Likewise, judgement must be considered in discerning parts and wholes. While on one hand the viewer must consciously distinguish various kinds of judgements on the other he/she must distinguish various specific kinds of part-whole relations.

In the new work the inner triangle is the most important construction that enables the viewer to judge these relationships. The space’s triangular shape elicits parallels in the rest of the plane. For example, in Untitled #3, the two right masses are triangular, as would be the lower left mass if the interior horizontal was allowed to extend to create a triangle. The remaining mass, likewise, can form a triangle with the addition of the central removed mass to its shape. The interior space, which in one judgement can be seen as a whole — that is, as complete in itself — becomes incorporated as a part into a new whole through another judgement in the addition of the quadrangular mass. It has the status of “part” under some aspects and under other aspects as “whole.”

But this “whole” is as much a function of judgement as the status of “part.” If the removed mass functions as a presence within the interior of the sculpture, so can implied planes outside the physical boundaries of the sculpture. This is apparent when the viewer, standing as oriented in the photograph at the lower base, visually extends the left and right sides of the sculpture until they complete the mass as a triangle. (Incidentally, here is an example of one point perspective.) A separate new triangular space thus is created which is an exterior “removed mass” sharing one side with the sculpture. As the viewer acted in observing the inner space as both space and removed mass and perceiving it as completing internally one of the masses, so he/she extends this model to the exterior space of the sculpture where the extended area is similarly space and removed mass. The “whole” of the sculpture becomes “part” of another “whole” through the observation and judgement of the viewer. It is this fact that whole things “become” through judgement, parts of new wholes that Rabinowitch has contributed something original to the making of art.

The exterior “constructions” become most apparent when the viewer moves to the perpendicular orientation suggested by the bases and cuts (constructed conditions) of the sculpture. If the viewer shifted to the upper left, two other sides extended in the lower right of the photograph would construct a triangle. A wish arises to read mass as a whole in the above two parallel instances of interior and exterior additions. But when it comes to the latter, the sculpture as a whole, the judgement leads to other observations as the viewer changes position, which necessitates further judgements.

Not only do the extended planes include the viewer in the sculpture’s physical space, much as did the alternatively inclusive-exclusive horizontals of Rabinowitch’s elliptical masses such as the 1973 Three Masses, the activity is inclusive in its acceptance of the viewer in the construction of these exterior planes through a judgement. Interior horizontals of the present sculpture do not serve to include the viewer as in the earlier pieces; their extensions in the surrounding space do.

Perspectively, the suggested lines of the extended planes and their linear segments within the mass do not function as dramatically or, rather as illusionistically, as in Three Masses. Nonetheless, the interior horizontals do operate to test our perception of the extension of lines in distance. In Untitled #2, one may extend upwards the line of the left side of the isosceles triangle formed by the large mass and the removed mass so that it includes the long right quadrangle into a larger isosceles triangle. However, this line does not quite align itself to the bend in the exterior boundary of the mass, although at first one thinks it does. This insecurity of vision illustrates that a proposition/perception must be checked or confirmed by observation, which necessitates the viewer’s moving to check the perception. In other words, the mental construct accompanying the perception must be verified by the perceptual reality of the sculpture. If not verified the construct cannot function as an “adequate part” for a complete judgement or assertion.

Certainty accrues but is never definite because the process of observation opens new perspectives in the sculpture that similarly must be verified. Need for verification arose due to the tensions between perceptions and the constructed conditions or between mental constructs and the perceptions that the constructed conditions allow. The tensions are not of one order; they occur at the junction of constructions, and, thus, bind the constituent elements of the sculpture, while at the same time, make one aware of the specific nature of each separate condition. Such are the conflicting relations of surface and mass. While the scalar constructions (drilled holes) relate surface to mass, the surface “drawing” — the horizontals formed by the cuts — seems to have an existence of its own. The lines produce geometric figures and enable the viewer to convert the information of his/her perceptions into the geometric form of mental constructions and to use this as the basis for further perceptions (which must be verified). The horizontal cuts, acting as lines, optically separate from the mass and it is the function of the vertical scales, as constructed conditions, to reunite surface to mass. But it must be added that the scales can conspire to form geometric figures. In the case of Untitled #3, the vertical scales are points of a triangle that bind together on the surface the separate masses by crossing their boundaries. These tensions and separations do not withdraw the elements into separate existences as “structures of information.” The cuts do not exist finally as diagrams and thus do not need to be flat and surface-bound. [6] Rather they reassert themselves as cuts in a mass and confirm for the viewer the verticality of the mass and his/her perception of depth.

The process of separation from physical experience that an intellectual perception implies is paralleled by the separation of the optical from the literal in the sculpture. In this looking, the separation is always challenged by the observation that in experience reintroduces one to the physical source of the perception.

The gestalt that one seeks — as in the case of a horizontal not meeting the bend in the boundary of a mass — is continually denied by the subtle interior tensions and the constructed conditions. This uncertainty is fundamental to the interrelated roles of the viewer and the sculpture with its constructed conditions determining perceptions.

In reference to the 1968-1970 group of sculptures, Rabinowitch perceived the material as “mind” and the sculpture as “alive with one’s body.” One does sense the identity of the body with the mass of the present sculpture. The quality of mind is a result of the constructions that involve the judgement of the observer in different ways. We cannot deny, however, the intuitive role of the sculptor outside of any intentionality, for it is this which provokes the viewer into further perceptual and intellectual discourse with the work. It is the mark of a profoundly moving and intriguing sculpture that is receptive to these acts of the human mind and body.


1. See for example Frank Stella: “The other thing is that the European geometric painters really strive for what I call relational painting. The basis of their whole idea is balance. You do something in one corner and you balance it with something in the other corner;” and Don Judd: “But when you start relating parts, in the first place, you’re assuming you have a vague whole — the rectangle of the canvas —and definite parts, which is all screwed up, because you should have a definite whole and maybe no parts, or very few.” “Questions to Stella and Judd,” interview by Bruce Glasser, edited by Lucy R. Lippard in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: a Critical Anthology (New York: Dutton, 1968), pp. 149 and 151-154.

2. Cf. “The better new work takes relationships out of the work and makes them a function of space, light, and the viewer’s field of vision.” Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part IV in Gregory Battock, ed., Minimal Art: a Critical Anthology, p. 232.

3. Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part I,” in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: a Critical Anthology, p. 226.

4. David Rabinowitch, “Comments on the Elliptical Planes of Several Masses, and Scales,” The Carmen Lamanna Gallery at the Owens Art Gallery, 1974, n.p.

5. Cf. “But if that work [Minimal] was an art of wholes with underlying, understated structures of information, later object art became an art of parts which visible, underlined structures of information bound together.” Robert Morris, “Aligned with Nazca,” Artforum, 14:2 (Oct. 1975), p. 33. 6. Cf. “Work which projects complex operations and information systems is invariably flat, surface-bound. Whether it is on wall or floor it is basically ‘plan view,’ diagrammatic.” Ibid., p. 36.