Berkeley has nurtured countless visionaries: makers, thinkers, doers and seers who have expanded our understanding of the world. The late conceptual artist Sonya Rapoport — whose Final Works are on view at Krowswork gallery in Oakland through December 19 — was a path breaking and prescient member of this pantheon. Her artistic career spanned 66 years, but only recently, in the last decade of her life, has her pioneering work begun to gain the recognition it deserves. The installation projects in Final Works — Yes or No? and The Transitive Property of Equality — offer an elegiac coda to Rapoport’s lifetime of art making. Together with rarely seen videos documenting some of her most memorable interactive pieces, they present a poetic and often humorous summing up of her complex and fascinating oeuvre.
Living and making art in the south Berkeley hills until her death last June at 91, Rapoport was ahead of her time. At UC Berkeley, where she was one of the first women to earn an MA in painting (in 1947), Rapoport was a student of Cezanne scholar Erle Loran and a classmate of the celebrated artist Jay de Feo. Having won success as an Abstract Expressionist painter — with a “mid-career survey” exhibition of her paintings in 1963 at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor — Rapoport abandoned the mainstream art world to follow her own path.
Using diverse media — works on paper, computer and Internet pieces and elaborate interactive multimedia installations — Rapoport developed an experimental, critical artistic practice seasoned with humor and socio-political commentary. Her projects merged the subject matter, iconography and methods of the physical, biological and social sciences, ancient mythologies and world religions, global art history, popular culture, news and commercial media and digital technology, with Jewish mysticism and her life as a woman, daughter, wife and mother.
Rapoport intuited the Internet before there was one (she coined the term “netweb” in 1981) and foresaw how it would make all the world’s history, imagery, ideas and information available, immediately and simultaneously, to anybody searching through it. A relentless [re]searcher herself, Rapoport made art that mined this treasure trove of information via books and conversations, without benefit of Google. She created cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary, pan-historic montages of texts, codes, chemical and alchemical symbols and imagery whose juxtapositions defied conventional logic, yet made a larger kind of sense that was both personal to her and intriguing, if frequently mysterious, to others.
Rapoport discovered ingenious ways for computers to serve artistic ends. In Digital Mudra (1987), for instance (one of the earliest interactive digital art works ever made), she originated a way to animate images on computer that anticipated the animated GIF (graphic interchange format). [See a video here.]
Rapoport also envisaged the interconnectivity of Web-based social media. The interactive pieces she orchestrated — such as The Animated Soul: Gateway to Your Ka (1991) — encouraged live participants to engage, in real time and space, with the protocols of scientific experiments and digital technology, and share the results of their findings with each other, in communal, playful ways. [Watch video here.]
There was a covert dimension to Rapoport’s artistic practice, though. Constrained by her role as the decorous UC Berkeley faculty wife of a famous scientist (organic chemist Henry Rapoport, who died in 2002), she was a closet “Bad Girl:” an undercover feminist and philosophical rebel who used humor, parody, coded messages and other forms of veiled resistance to encrypt subversive meanings into her work.
While she was deeply interested in science, her target, I believe, was the dominance of rational, scientific (stereotypically male) thinking and its supposed triumph over “obsolescent” (stereotypically female) ways of knowing: the mythic, the poetic, the mystical, the emotional, the physical, the aesthetic. Her work proposed a more inclusive kind of knowledge, arrived at via personal, embodied experience and the free-ranging human imagination, perhaps rooted in the universal archetypes that Carl Jung termed the collective unconscious.
Rapoport’s art celebrated the allure of science while testing its limitations. Her works on paper were often made on scrolls of used computer printout paper (the old-fashioned pin-fed kind, with perforations along the edges) she salvaged from trash bins outside the science labs at Cal. On these she overlaid images and texts, in dialogue with the printed matter on the substrate, often reflecting her personal associations and memories. It’s hard not to see these pieces as elegant graffiti, a kind of discreet tagging: quietly insistent if oblique assertions in her voice, disruptively superimposed on the data-driven screed beneath.
It’s also hard not to see Rapoport’s elaborately structured interactive works as absurdist parodies of scientific experiments. Combining elements of arcane religious rituals with children’s games, they tested the hypothesis that people would participate enthusiastically in any process aglow with the aura of science even if its design was nonsensical, its parameters hermetic, and its “findings” unreproducible, resulting in no quantifiable data. Enmeshed in them, you felt you were moving through another person’s dream.
In 2011 and 2012, art historian Terri Cohn and curator Anuradha Vikram organized two retrospective survey exhibitions of Rapoport’s art: Sonya Rapoport: Pairings of Polarities at KALA Institute Art Gallery, Berkeley and Spaces of Life: The Art of Sonya Rapoport at Mills College Art Museum in Oakland. To accompany these shows, Cohn edited and contributed to a lavishly illustrated collection of essays — Pairing of Polarities: The Life and Art of Sonya Rapoport — published in 2012 by Berkeley’s Heyday Press.
Rapoport’s archives are now organized and housed in UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, and the Sonya Rapoport Legacy Trust (Farley Gwazda, director), in partnership with Berkeley-based Kunstworks (art historians Alla Efimova and Terri Cohn), was established and endowed by the artist “to preserve her work and broaden her critical recognition.”
As Krowsworks’ final artist-in-residence for 2015, with her affairs in order, Rapoport knew this exhibition would be her last hurrah. She was working on her installations there until two weeks before she died. The most finished piece, Yes or No? (2015), is a moving if characteristically enigmatic artistic manifesto. In a series of twelve sequential collages on pages from The New York Times, Rapoport combined texts from an essay on artist Jay DeFeo by Richard Candida Smith with reproductions of DeFeo’s paintings and images from earlier works of her own. Unfolding in an implicit narrative, these rebus-like compositions reflect her meditations on self, life, sex, death, the afterlife and the ideas that guided her artistic practice, in conversation with their backgrounds of the news of the day and commercial advertisements.
In an illuminating essay on Yes or No? to appear in a forthcoming book on the Final Works, Alla Efimova applies Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams to decode its associations of imagery, texts, objects and graphic elements. Efimova makes a persuasive case for the framework of psychoanalysis as one appropriate tool for understanding Rapoport’s work in general, and her dream-like Final Works in particular.
Anyone who had the pleasure and privilege of knowing Sonya Rapoport (who was warm, hospitable, funny and enchanting as well as brilliant) recognized that the most fascinating thing about her was the way her mind worked. Whatever shapes her art making took, her art was about her mental processes. The associations she wove among apparently disparate realms of representation were idiosyncratic, but they made a kind of deep sense. As Efimova writes, her works were her “dream factory.” In Rapoport’s Final Works, we share her final dreams.
Sonya Rapoport: Final Works is at krowswork, 480 23rd Street, Oakland (note it is a side entrance) through December 19. The gallery hours are Saturdays 1-5, sometimes Fridays 1-5, and always by appointment: 510-229-7035. . Founded in 2009 by Jasmine Moorhead, krowswork is an experimental “center for video and visionary art,” exhibiting “artists who push boundaries in all media as well as overlooked historical artists and works.”
Interactive concepts: Berkeley artist Sonya Rapoport (07.11.13)
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