LESTER RAPOPORT: MEDITATIONS IN AN EMERGENCY
By Peter Frank
The world is always with us, and even the purest, the most reductive, the most spiritually driven of abstract artists reflect their time, if only by speaking the particular symbolic languages of their era. The pioneer non-objective painters of the modern era, from Kandinsky and Mondrian to Hilma af Klint, very deliberately articulated their inner visions, driven as they were by a Victorian propriety and mystic faith in science. The abstract expressionists hewed to a more reactive gesture, a theatrical sweep that existentially conflated personal and public turmoil. Today, in the face of ecological doom and the loss of faith in institutional integrity, abstract art often seems empty and exhausted; but its most vital practitioners serve as exemplars not of ennui and despair but of forthrightness and rigor. The recent paintings of Lester Rapaport manifest such clarity and honesty. They come from deep inside the artist, but they speak to the world around him with both anger and charm, fright and resolution, loss and rediscovery.
By his own account, Rapaport turned from figuration to abstraction at the turn of the 1960s, absorbing the era’s tumultuous sense of experiment but never losing sight of modernist models such as Matisse and Miro. An ensuing decade of personal struggle culminated in a return to painting around 1980, and throughout that decade Rapaport engaged in an increasingly complex exploration of form and color. The discovery – or, more accurately, rediscovery – of spiritual practice, notably meditation, served to cool and simplify Rapaport’s style, until it solidified into the monumental formula(s) upon which his current and recent series are based.
The significant thing about these latter-day paintings, no matter what their political or (otherwise) symbolic resonance, is the vastness of their formal potential – not just the potential of the compositional patterning or of the palette, but of the relationship between elements. The given structure that defines any one series, firm as it appears, in fact yields to and supports broad experimentation with placement, color, and shape. Basic planar relationships may be fixed – the single orb may rest to the right of the squared-off source of dripping paint, while the double orb surrounds the square element – but the shifts in color have a visceral impact almost as intense as weather, while variations on the structural formula, no matter how small, change the entire rhythm of the overall image.
It is perhaps odd to talk of “rhythm” with regard to these pared-down, emblem-like paintings. But it’s precisely their openness that amplifies shifts in planar relationships (not to mention in hue and tone), making us aware of the “beat” that comes with every deviation from the template. In this regard, Rapaport’s recent paintings take up where the “burst” paintings of Adolph Gottlieb left off. Having refined his Action-painting gesturalism into a stylized, indeed minimized, landscape format, wherein the “sky” was embodied in an orb of some kind and the “earth” in a tangle of brushstrokes, Gottlieb devoted the last two decades of his life to this iconic contraposition. Rapaport’s focus is similarly intense, and even more reliant on the fixity and seeming interchangeability of elements (emphasis on the “seeming”). Rapaport’s other strong exterior connection in his current work is to Tantric painting, the simple high-chroma abstract designs tantric practitioners in India, Tibet, et al, focused on as visual mantras. The recurrence in Tantric art of certain kinds of forms – ovals, for instance – and on saturated color echoes in series such as “American Nightmare” and “Diogenes at the White House.”
As can be intuited from such series titles, the condition not just of the world but of the nation rests heavily on Rapaport’s mind. No meditation changes his view of matters, but changes only his resolve to effect improvement while transcending mundane conditions. For the last decade the twinned practices of painting and meditating have brought Rapaport through the trauma of loss (“Grief and After”), the process of rediscovery and reaffirmation (“A New Chapter”), and social address (as in the series named above). Rapaport does not invite us to “read” his paintings as political statements, however, so much as experience them as spiritual and emotional space. They are not commentary, they are reflection on and refinement of observation. They are bridges, or more to the point conduits, between what is seen (and known) and what is felt. They are also signals from Rapaport to us, inviting us into his realm of experience, a realm distilled into painted apparitions. Thus, the sense of urgency that hovers around Lester Rapaport’s art, offset by an equally emphatic sense of calm resolve.