A Visit Atop the Berkeley Hills with Artist Sonya Rapoport
Photo: cica 1960 by Rondal Partridge
Sonya Rapoport is a conceptual artist whose body of work spans from the 1940’s to the present, an artist of great significance whose work is only now gaining the recognition it deserves. I confer ‘significance’ on her not only because her work has marked many evolutions, from painting to hybrid forms of media, but its width and breadth spans across modernism, abstract expressionism, feminism, post-modernism and beyond.
In December 2011, I visited Sonya at her studio…
Arriving at a cul-de-sac somewhere along the serpentine Redwoods Hills of the East Bay, a small white haired woman with bright eyes greets me at her studio door…
Her studio, luminous and generously proportioned, is simply furnished with two rectangular wooden tables along its central axis, some bare painting racks and shelves at one end and a computer desk at the other – under the large set of windows overlooking a tranquil courtyard garden stands an antique draughtsman’s filing cabinet.
The air retains a quality of recent frenetic activity, the studio itself having reached such a state of emptiness, I almost sense it breathing. Sonya smiles warmly at me, ushering me to a small table she has laid with tea and cake, rubs her back and tells me she is sorry she doesn’t have so much work to show me as it had just been sent off to Mills College (in Oakland, CA) for her major retrospective, ‘Spaces of Life: The Art of Sonya Rapoport’ – see: http://mcam.mills.edu/exhibitions/current1.php on until March 11 2012.
Mills College, erstwhile exclusive college for women, has its own interesting history – Laurie Anderson and Sofia Coppola are notable alumnae – Steve Reich, John Cage, Pauline Oliveros have lectured there.
After we drink herbal tea and talk a little about our own lives (Sonya is so personable and open minded, I find myself telling her things I’ve not discussed with anyone), Sonya digs out a square box from her antique cabinet and places it next to me on the table, opening the lid to reveal an accordioned computer printout sheet of indeterminate length (it reminds me of my early childhood in the 70’s, my father worked at IBM… I can still see piles of printouts with those tell-tale sprocket feed holes, horizontal column rows and perforated joins), she mentions the printouts came from her husband’s lab (the late internationally renowned chemist and esteemed Professor at University of California – Berkeley, Henry Rapoport).
I very carefully unfold the fragile paper until I can see a topographical landscape of words and images – systems of thought – which appear threaded together into very unusual associations and formations. Under the hand-drawn multicoloured lines in parallels and arcs, are lovingly rendered pencil sketches, some details from an engineer’s drawing (or is it part of an architect’s plan?) and obscure bits of clinical data and early programming language.
The printed words appear to me as a cryptic language system of unlikely pairings, derived from unknown sources… Are they from Medieval alchemical texts? Modern chemistry texts? Both? Though the 70’s is a relatively recent decade, this sheet is already an historical artifact with tell-tale traces of her thoughts inscribed in polyphonic penciled grooves across the surface.
I came unprepared for the visit, hoping to ‘see what happens’. We talk about all manner of things, the conversation flows easily, weaving back and forth between her work and life (not unlike the lines drawn in her work); and as time passes, I begin to perceive that so many of my questions and dilemmas as wife/mother/artist have already lived a life here and been worked through in this space.
It isn’t everyday one gets to meet someone so generous and extraordinary, an artist of uncommon intellect with several children and grandchildren, who studied with the likes of Karl Zerbe, John Dewey, Hans Hofmann and yet managed not only to keep making work but to push at the boundaries of what art is. Sonya, having traveled the world and worked with some of the brightest minds of a generation, profoundly questioned into the nature of existence over a lifetime. She’s seen it all, or nearly most of it…
Sonya’s situation has been an extra-ordinary one. Her elegant craftsman house, a classic of Berkeley architecture, allows a truly breath-taking view across the bay towards the city lights of San Francisco and Golden Gate Bridge.
‘My husband provided this house’, she says nonchalantly.
As the wife of a significant scientist , Sonya’s travels with Henry Rapoport began with the outreach and implementation of his work, taking her to ‘3rd world’ countries, where she witnessed women living according to extreme conditions most of us in the ‘West’ were happily unaware of. These often brutal experiences altered her work, directing it towards the exploration of women in relation to global cultures, science and technology.
Housed within the milieu of the University of California/Berkeley, she found herself belonging to a set of unique friends and acquaintances… World-class mathematicians, philosophers, scientists, anthropologists, etc., all sat at her table. Under her roof was a marriage of science and art worlds unlike any other. It seems natural then, but really a stroke of brilliance on her part, to move from painting towards interdisciplinary collaborations with other artists, renowned chemists (C. Michael Lederer), anthropologists (Dorothy Wasburn) and computer developers (various) alike.
A true visionary, Sonya foresaw the impact technology would have on our private and public worlds. Pioneering into interdisciplinary interactive art before these ‘inter’ titles entered popular consciousness, her installations combined the personal with the technical.
In ‘Biorhythm Participation Performance’ (1983), Sonya adopted both scientific and artistic methods of research, asking participants to ‘self-assess’ their moods by speaking into a cassette recorder and/or write it down manually. This subjective information was then individually fed into a computer, resulting in a personalized biorhythm reading for each participant to assess against their own impressions of the event. Sonya then recorded and analysed all the resulting data, creating a chart for each participant to sign. The resulting data of this work was then fed into Sonya’s research into emergent technology, and in 1987, she created ‘Digital Mudra’, one of earliest digital interactive Internet artworks ever made. See: http://users.lmi.net/sonyarap/digitalmudra/index.html
At the end of my visit, as if to refine everything down to something essential, Sonya pauses then tells me her greatest joy is not whether anyone knows about her (in fact, ‘that can be a burden’), what she loves above all else is the freedom to play around with new ideas and objects in her studio – without ever having to go anywhere or do anything else… a pure pleasure she recounts with a sparkle in her eyes. ‘I’m 88 and more and more people are inquiring about my work’, she says shrugging her shoulders. The increasing demand appears to me as a massive invisible weight on her petite person – a person which inversely houses a quicksilver ‘spirit’ extending way beyond the confines of her studio.
In a time of disembodied and perpetual information, what was truly transformative in encountering her work, was encountering the artist herself. Her life force, unique as her signature… Sonya Rapoport’s work is not the usual ‘momento-mori’, but presents to us instead a series of works as modernist networked conundrums, forever to be worked on. Contained within the body of her work, are a complex of embedded and encrypted messages, sent at the dawn of the computer age… just about to arrive at the dawn of the post-human age.
Due to be published in July 2012 is Terri Cohn’s book on Sonya Rapoport: Pairings of Polarities: The Life and Work of Sonya Rapoport, Heyday Press, 2011. https://heydaybooks.com/book/pairing-of-polarities/
Malloy, J. (ed.) (2003) Women, Art and Technology. Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press.