Daniel Rothbart was born in Stanford, California, in 1966. He studied sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design and holds a Masters Degree from Columbia University. In 1990 he won a Fulbright grant to Italy. Rothbart’s work is represented in public and private collections including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Orsini Foundation in Milan. Recent projects include exhibitions at the Andrea Meislin Gallery and Exit Art in New York and the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill. Rothbart is the author of two books and has worked as the Contributing Associate Editor of NYArts Magazine since 1998. He has participated in numerous international artists’ residencies and was awarded a New York Foundation for the Arts grant. His Meditation/Mediation project is the subject of a forthcoming book by Carla Subrizi published by the Baruchello Foundation in Rome. A catalogue raisonné of his work, edited by Enrico Pedrini, is being published by Ulisse e Calipso in Naples. Daniel Rothbart lives and works in New York.
Daniel Rothbart and the collective memory
by Enrico Pedrini
In the work of Daniel Rothbart memory is not an easy get-out route or an intimate, autobiographical resource: for the artist, working on the memory of reality turns into the desire to delve his hands into what reality leaves behind as a sediment of identity and culture.
For Rothbart the be-all and end-all of art is not a statute or a shape, instead it is the operativity of an artistic practice that replaces representation and the simple appropriation of reality and nature. Art is reality and reality is a shared contradiction (the collective memory). This is why I like to deem this American artist’s work as belonging to an area that is very evolved in Europe too, an area which I defined in 1993 as the “utopia of possibility”, today known as “possibilism”.
The art of possibilism is constantly evolving and it appears as an opportunity to mirror not only reality, but also the knowledge of “everything” (at times everyday life and normality) in the operation planned by the artist. The artists who fall into this category do not draw direct inspiration from reality: they manipulate the knowledge as well as the perception of what is real, always and constantly giving it a place, a new and renewed context: the possibility of art. A feature of this line is that it proposes a correction, a possible evolution of the concepts of reality and nature as a resource of effectiveness and production for art.
Therefore, Daniel finds himself inside this problem of totally committing himself to the continual and obsessive will to arrive at some as yet unexplored experience. What he attempts to do is activate the possibilities of knowledge itself in order to totally replace reality with art itself. His interests do not only go so far as to simply investigate language, but range through the various possible interactions that the art system can offer the present-day cultural context.
A scholar of cultural systems and the ambits that art interacts with, Rothbart has undertaken to follow new routes, for example, to generate a new revision of the cultural foundations upon which American post-war art has been based, underlining its great singularity and difference to Europe.
Through the new formalisation of the specific multi-racial and multi-disciplinary nature of the American identity, Rothbart states the need to deal with the complexity of the artistic context of North America from a brand new point of view, by bringing to the surface unexplored symbolic principles, such as religious, social, historic and cultural values. This is why he highlights the idea of the holy, the Kabbalah and Jewish mystics; which have fully entered the collective unconscious of that context, etc.
In the book published in Italy in 1996 entitled: La Metafisica Ebraica come uno dei Fondamenti dell'Arte Americana Rothbart retraces the influences of Judaism and Jewish metaphysics on the development of American art, starting from Abstract Expressionism and finishing with 1960s Conceptual Art.
He suggests that the similarities found between the artists, critics and collectors of this culture and the new abstract art were somehow conditioned by the second commandment of the Decalogue, which prohibits the creation of idolatrous images. In this book Rothbart develops the topics, images and symbols of Jewish mysticism or “Kabbalah”, which appear directly or indirectly in the context of American art. This essay also helps us understand why many collectors of this culture have an affinity towards the languages of Cubist, Futurist and above all Dadaist art and the reasons for the astonishing welcome reserved for the great Armory Show exhibition, and its wealth of themes far from figurative representation. Indeed, in modern art Jewish metaphysics rediscovered a justification for its iconoclasm, passionately backing the ideas of historic avant-garde movements linked to Einstein’s concepts of space and time.
Rothbart’s work, not just his essay writing but also his operative and artist work, therefore opens a paradigmatic front where the concepts break away from art’s reference unto itself and becomes a cultural engine able to bring out its new potentials and functions: art becomes myth insofar as it makes a “utopia” that can give new strength and grounding to reconsidering the holy as an interactive deposit able to formalise the codes and ways of cultural contexts.
Hence the world of Kabbalah explicitly becomes a central foundation of his artistic symbology. It ends up being visualised like the ideological mythology of an autonomous hinterland, which is the point of resolution of the historical pattern accompanying the formation of new art in America.
Coming out in Rothbart’s work is the culture of the non-rational and unreal memory of the world of legend. Symbols, whether religious or lay, are seen as elements of a historical sedimentation of knowledge and life lived. His work remains outside the other contemporary culture, that is, the culture linked to the “continuum”, to the inability to reverse scientific development in its frenzied acceleration of information and communication.
"Semiotic street", a term invented by Daniel Rothbart, becomes the stage where symbolic exchanges of social and cultural events take place, the place where the signs and values of collective behaviour build up in its emotional and spiritual aspirations.
Therefore, the street becomes his field of investigation, as it is the collective place where the signs of life lived come to rest and the experiences of relationships and social relations between individuals build up.
By increasingly developing the ability of things and individuals to relate to each other as the foundation of human experience, Rothbart subsequently works on other lay myths that are an active part of cultural life, such as Cinema and Art and at present Gambling, insofar as they are allegorical components that animate the life performance. In the social imagination, they become operative and emblematic elements that can create a semiotic sphere split into cultural identities and behaviours. For years, in his travels to various countries around the world this American artist has been taking a series of twenty different-sized metal vessels with him. When he comes across a place that attracts his attention, Daniel sets out the vessels there and records the action in photographs. Thanks to the intervention of external, unexpected factors, the objects are filled with transitory meanings and open up to different signifiers and unexpected shifts in sense.
This feature of art’s transitory, uncertain nature, of nomadism and geographical and semantic uprooting is central to Daniel Rothbart’s projects.
His art becomes above all the “operativity of an artistic practice”, replacing representation and the simple appropriation of reality and nature. Indeed, on many occasions he has liked to provoke a real performance, both with the people who he has invited and with the public spontaneously taking part.
He calls this performance Mediation/Meditation. This action is led by the artist himself. He films the various actions with a video camera, both of the people he invited beforehand and the public enjoying taking part. The device that generates the action is a large aluminium bowl with a large doorknocker inside: elements constantly present on the stage of his performances. The two objects provided by the artist and the presence of the video camera therefore become the obligatory component of every performance, but at the same time provide the opportunity to free and explode the single participants’ creativity. In this device, the terms Mediation/Meditation begin to dialogue since they are reciprocally compared and highlighted.
Indeed, “meditation” is the opposite of the concept of “mediation” or pacification, and the meaning of the latter characterises the former: “meditation” takes place by means of pacification with ourselves and with the “mediation” between body and soul.
Meditation/Mediation looks into the relations between object and context and different identities, that is, the artist, the work and the public. As a result, the appearance of the overall project is unexpected, changing each time.