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Pairing of Polarities: The Life and Art of Sonya Rapoport

by Terri Cohn, Editor; with Afterword by Roger Malina
Heyday Books, Berkeley, CA, 2012
160 pp. Paper, $21.95
ISBN: 978-1-59714-187-1.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
Director, The Diatrope Institute
Berkeley, CA 94704 USA


Pairings of Polarities, edited by Terri Cohn, offers a penetrating look into the over 50-year career of Sonya Rapoport, a versatile artist known for her pioneering use of scientific and social science research as the basis for her conceptual practice. Trained as a painter, and among the first to recognize the potential of new media in the twentieth century, Rapoport’s oeuvre includes works on paper, paintings, interactive installations, and digital works. All of these areas are brought to life in this welcome summary of her groundbreaking work. Color reproductions accompany the 12 essays by art historians, scientists and scholars that comprise the text and help the reader more fully glimpse her accomplishments.

One of the strong points of the volume is that the collection reads more like a monograph rather than a collection of essays.  Although the various authors present their individual views of Rapoport’s work, I found little repetition.   Instead, we get a real feeling for her diverse and systemic approach to art-making, her symbolic inclinations, how she has brought interactive elements into her works, and the humor in her art.  One element that stood out is her talent in bringing topical concerns (gender, religion, politics, and the role of technology in contemporary life) into her practice. Terri Cohn’s introduction effectively places the artist conceptually and in terms of history through outlining Rapoport’s artistic genesis and shows how her original ideas were also positioned within the larger framework of contemporary art and other systemic artists (e.g., Hans Haacke).  Cohn writes:

“It is essential to recognize that Rapoport’s shift from creating autonomous objects to interactive installation work in real time and space was a consequence of her immersion in the zeitgeist of the 1970s. Her continued exploration of the world of digital media . . . underscores Rapoport’s belief that themes, objects, and events is a continuum of intellectual and artistic exploration, one which has led her from Abstract Expressionist painting to interactive webworks. Her unique attraction to pairing polarities is central to her remarkable, decades-long artistic exploration and achievement.” (p. 14)

My favorite essay was “A Throw of the Dice: Between Structure and Indeterminacy” by Richard Cándida Smith.  He met Rapoport while helping to organize an oral history project with alumni of the Department of Art at the University of California, Berkeley.  Because of the nature of his project, his interview concerned her master’s program and what she learned from her teachers. One of her professors was Erle Loran, a painter and the author of Cézanne’s Composition: Analysis of His Form and Diagrams and Photographs of his Motifs (1943).  Since this is one of my favorite expositions, I was interested to learn of the value she placed on the training even as she moved into building her own style and approach to artmaking.  Even more fascinating were the ways she incorporated several of Loran’s diagrams into her own work and narrative.

Pairing of Polarities documents a range of Rapoport’s contributions. Her early drawings and collages often used the printouts of early computer databases as a backdrop to ideas in anthropology, natural sciences, chemistry, and other fields. We learn that she has exhibited extensively throughout the Bay Area and internationally. She is not only one of the early innovators who helped establish the San Francisco Bay Area as an international locus for hybrid practices, but also that her work has extended far beyond her base.  She has been included in major art and technology exhibitions including Ars Electronica, Linz, Austria, and the 2009 Venice Biennale’s Internet Pavilion.

Perhaps the “take away” of the book is the degree to which many of Sonya’s interactive installations and computer-based works were ahead of their time.  Not only was she talking about webs before the world wide web was created, but she was also thinking systemically and intent on including interactivity in her work when static art was the norm. For example, today’s World Wide Web recalls the NETWEB that Rapoport created at 80 Langton Street in San Francisco in 1980. As she explains (to Judy Malloy):

“It was a geometric configuration of a spiderweb about 14 feet in diameter, reflected onto the floor from a slide projector attached to the ceiling. Six bisecting axes, the tick marks on each axis and the linear connections from tick to tick were projected on a star-shaped area of white contact paper. The image cards, now reminding me of today’s provocative home pages, were placed in their positions on numbered ticks along their selected theme axes: EYE, HAND, CHEST, MASKING, THREADING, and MOVING . . .  Everything was interconnected by lines crossing the axes and joining similar tick positions on other themes.” (p. 43)

I’ve always admired the formal aspects of Rapoport’s work and her drawings on computer printouts, in particular. Given that these are often long and large, I would have liked a larger book format.  That said, the reproductions were nicely done, well placed, and conveyed the size and details more effectively than is often the case in trade paperbacks.  The integration of the images and text was also effective.  For example, the essay by Sonya’s daughter conveys the integrative quality of Rapoport’s art and how her artwork and life worked in tandem. A photo of Hava Rapoport and her husband, Elias Fereres Castiel, which is one of the artifacts in the Object on My Dresser, 1979-1984, project, reinforces this point.

This ability to integrate while retaining her own voice is evident throughout her career. Indeed, many of the writers mentioned the influence of her husband’s work as she began to pioneer her approach to the art|science interface. He was a Professor of Chemistry at the University of California in Berkeley. Reading his scientific journals in the mid-1960s inspired her as she began to blaze her own path. Eventually she was appropriating computer printouts from his laboratory, bringing the periodic table of elements into her work and expanding into projects that intersect with science more generally.

Now in her eighties, it is exciting to see Rapoport's contributions receiving so much recognition. This engaging look at her career covers half a century. It will interest all who follow contemporary art and, in particular, those with an interest in the art/science/technology interface. 

Last Updated 3 July 2012

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