- Pairing of Polarities: The Life and Art of Sonya Rapoport
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 20th century, Rapoport has an oeuvre that includes works on paper, paintings, interactive installations and digital works. All 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 compose the text and help the reader more fully to glimpse her accomplishments.
One of the strong points of the volume is that the collection reads more like a monograph than a collection of essays. Although the various authors [End Page 101] 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. Not only is she one of the early innovators who helped establish the San Francisco Bay Area as an international locus for hybrid practices; 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 “takeaway” of the book is the degree to which many of Rapoport’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, she was also thinking systemically and intent on including interactivity in...