Portraits & Passages

Chapter 17

Brooklyn Conversations Barren Womb 130

Detail Faces, The Barren Womb,  1979


“Insistence on clarity at all costs is based on sheer superstition as to the mode in which human intelligence functions.”  -  Whitehead

Philip Pearlstein  “ The Barren Womb”, 1980

My relationship with Philip Pearlstein was problematic at best. We are such poles apart in our work, in our appearance, and in our being. That both of us came from  Pittsburgh and had very close ties to Robert Lepper at Carnegie Tech was something Philip immediately dismissed when I first had brought it up. Philip was  Lepper's assistant outside of school. Yet at the Andy Warhol Symposium at the Carnegie in 1989, Philip acknowledged sharing Lepper's ideas about art and technology with his then close friend Andy.

So in a sense we were branches from the same tree grafted onto other species. Certainly that would be the distinction between Philip and Andy and also apply to  Mel Bochner and Jonathan Borofsky. Unlike other school communities, the Tech crowd has always turned their backs to each other.

Philip was a full generation ahead. I met him under circumstances of desperation when I returned to school to get my masters at Brooklyn College in 1979. Philip  returned from a sabbatical the second semester so he missed my presentation of "Joseph in the Pit" as an incoming, one night presentation to the faculty. Nor was he  there at the semester's end when I presented the first state of "The Visitation" to the skeptical faculty who pronounced the work "pre-Raphaelite", clearly bothered that  the faces were so "emotional" while the narrative, inexplicable.

 I had decided on Brooklyn College because first, it was cheap, and second, because its mandate was figurative painting. I was looking to return to brush painting after more than a decade of concentrating on grattage, but I wasn't  prepared for their conservative, or rather, neo-academic orthodoxy. There were even disappointments with those of the faculty who were more open and generous.  I remember Lee Bontecou turning tail when I tried to explain to her where her sculpture influenced my grattage forms. Her piece in the 1964 Carnegie  International was the only work that interested me in the exhibition. I had not known anything about her-had never realized she was a woman. I had only looked  at the art. Although I did not mean to invade her person, only pay my respects, I did not realize she was fragile.

I believe Philip at that moment was aesthetically at the high point of his career, or at least, in some individual works, produced some almost luminous pieces where flat  painting breathed some quality of special atmosphere, as of yet, uncluttered except for essential elements. I even told him after knowing him for a while: "Philip, you  better watch it. Some of your people look alive." But that was long after our initial encounters as the autumn of 1979 turned into winter.

"The Visitation," which was left in the graduate open studio, had been painted in traditional brush. It also had used as its format the frontal figures of medieval fertility  tapestries celebrating marriages, one of which was at the Metropolitan Museum. I made both figures female as in the New Testament story of St. Ann visiting Mary. I  also in the back of my mind was playing with gender roles between two women, who could be construed to be lovers in this hierarchal format celebrating union and  fruitfulness: where in the traditional background, usually from above the male, a small figure climbs across to the tree above the female to pick her fruit. But as  nothing would be generated in this instance, the caress from the hand of one turns into the suggestion of a slap, and the title shifts from "The Visitation" into "The Barren Womb."

I decided that the painting's surface needed to be more like tapestry. I started my scraping away down to the weave and removing to only a suggestion the contours  defining the women's robes. Well no one in the faculty understood the attraction I had for erasure. First of all, I didn't see it as a negative action, but through  reduction one aiming at a type of minimalism not associated with figurative painting. Second, without ever having concerned myself with deconstructive theory, I had  developed skepticism towards the authority of the completely finished painted image as "picture". I didn't believe it as one hardly ever believes a Rubens. Third, I  am attracted to the process of erosion and defacement and the other actions of time, mischief and chance.

As in my abstracted grattage works, first there is the process of building up layers, and then, the purposeful reforming the image by "erasure" and "exposure" which  leads the attention to be absorbed down to the weave itself. The surface of the painting actually recedes as in relieve sculpture, and in remarking on two nudes in grattage that I was doing then, some of the faculty thought what I really should and  wanted to do was sculpture. They had, I suppose, never considered painting in this manner, just as no one expected Julian Schnabel's plates.


Red Torso, 1979

So they were at best bewildered by me, and I should have dropped them and gone back to the East Village, but I stayed on for the master’s degree. Of course, that  was probably the worst thing I could have done in retrospect. Just as the work I had been doing might have fit in, I became a "student" in a hostile environment at  Brooklyn College where they treated my erasure of much of "The Visitation" as a sign of indecisiveness.

When I brought Philip a new work, "The Embrace" he was forthright in his diagnosis of my inability to commit myself to strongly defined images:

"Your work is full of ambiguity, but it is not clear what it is about. It's all too ambiguous. If you are going to use ambiguity, then, ambiguity must become the  subject of your work. It must be read as such.  It's obvious that you can't make up your mind. That is what separates New York artists form all the others. They make  the hard decisions. It's hard, but you must make them. There are people out there, dealers and collectors who will buy and show and promote your work, but they're  looking for one thing that's clearly there. They'll come to your studio, and they'll only give you one second. If it's not there, they'll turn around and walk out the door."

Embrace, 1981


The Barren Womb 

           As Seen through the Looking Glass

The anomalous space of The Barren Womb, reminiscent of the dream sequences in Persian miniatures, anticipates by three decades the recasting of subjectivity in state of the art cinema where hybrid, hyper-managed images of actors in live performance are disembodied and reassembled in an immersion of digitally reconstituted 3-D space as theatrically artificial as any spot-lit face or body emerging from a darkened stage but in daylight as though through the looking glass of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. The faces of Rappaport’s women protagonists hold our gaze despite the hallucinatory screen of timelessness embedding them within the scraped-down, flattened, faded fresco-like soft-focus consuming the distinction of foreground, middle, or background; just as reliance on our saturated photo-generated and mediated world has changed expectation in the veracity of the real and makes all our experiences illusionary.

What bothers Philip Pearlstein, aside from his criticism of the lack of structural complexity of Rappaport’s figures, is the artist’s dislodging them from the usual Renaissance perspective of delineating rooms and platforms that, as an example, Francis Bacon employs to assure his figures a touchstone of credibility.

Such dependence on the conventional graphically constructed site, although stabilizing, is rejected as shopworn. And in lieu of that perspective, a shallow depth of field has been fashioned in keeping with Rappaport’s previous grattage paintings: Muktananda 1978, The White Sisters finished right before returning to brush painting in The Barren Womb and the much  earlier canopy overlaid Joseph Accused, Joseph in the Pit, and Jacob in Mourning of 1971 - a body of images scraped down to the threads that flatten spacial reference to an illusionary veil both materially sumptuous and porous and pictorially insubstantial and transparent - the very essence of the painted canvas which now can be understood as much more responsive to the potential inherent in film - one that acknowledges that our experience of reality has been altered drastically by our experience of the wide aperture of photographic receptivity of which not all reflections emphasize a clear accounting of every piece of minutia as if specimens in a scientific reliquary but suggest slippage at variance to an absolute model  – one that is comfortable at being lost from what we once understood as verisimilitude.

And it is here where we fall down the rabbit hole to another “aesthesis” which operates within a vastly different landscape of the imagination than the one Pearlstein resides. As such The Barren Womb like Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is unabashedly a fiction, as are all models of reality, but here pushing the parameters of our perception of being towards a media induced sensation of floating in an omnipresent whirl of partially defined phenomenology – an unlocatable slipstream of indeterminate passage within the psychic density radiating around us.  

And so the actresses in The Barren Womb’s Pre-Raphaelite garden-party, separated by the enigmatic, scraped-out face of the Cheshire Cat, can finally be seen as the premonition heralding the evanescent blanket trajectory of media saturating the bedrock of the Renaissance model of the real of which we once depended, and so be the dream ushering in the impenetrable labyrinth of virtual space - the new wilderness of our self-discovery that once was that of Nature herself.

If Pearlstein’s trope of the new realism of the sixties must pass muster before this revolution of digital cinematic realism or forever after be locked into its art historical box; perhaps Rappaport’s vision in The Barren Womb, along with its other dream-like older siblings from the mid-sixties: Six Characters in Search, The Jewess Accused, and We are All Somnambulists, may yet find an accord in the future to finally be seen as the prelude to this brave new world.



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