The Space @ Media Triangle

A tightly focused exhibition at the Media Triangle Gallery (from November 10 through December 8, 2002) called "Begging Bowls" established Daniel Rothbart as an artist worth following. He is after something deeper than form or entertainment and, for whatever reason, seems to be able to take art historical and anti-market risks.

Although American-born (Stanford, California) and educated (Rhode Island School of Design, Columbia) he has until now mostly shown in Italy. He had a Fulbright in 1990. His small book "Jewish Metaphysics as Generative Principle in American Art," 1994 (Naples) was labeled by Jonathan Napack in the New York Observer as "the Most Obscure Yet Weirdly Fascinating Art Book". I did not find it weird or for that matter obscure, it merely clearly stakes out a kabbalistic influence on a number of American artists, throwing in the biblical the stricture against image-making. It is not really such a surprise that Barnett Newman was influenced by his readings of the work of the great Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem.

Rothbart, as a result of his search for his own Jewish cultural roots, began making references to the inverted tree of the Kabbalah (and the tree of Genesis) in his sculptures made of bronze and cast aluminum. Alchemical imagery has also played a part. In the early Nineties he began making ad hoc installations in Italian streets but also at one point, by invitation, in the courtyard of the U.S.I.A. office in Milan. Bronze bowls became an important component and in some cases the only form used. The bowls must refer to the ten "vessels" of the tree of the Kabbalah. Energy poured down from En-Sof (The Endless and Unknowable) broke these vessels; in Luriac/Safedic Kabbalah the pieces contain sparks of the divine that must now be gathered up from exile. The mending must take place before the return.

Although now a Buddhist, Rothbart's current tea-bowl shaped cast-aluminum begging bowls do not entirely escape rich Kabalistic symbolism. A belief in reincarnation is not the only thing shared by Buddhism and mystical Judaism. Be that as it may, during a residency in Cannes this year Rothbart placed and photographed 12 bowls in various situations and street environments. Most contained bright yellow apples, possible from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Or are they the Golden Apples of the Hesperides or of Asgard?

In the gallery exhibition the bowls were deployed sans apples on small Lucite shelves. The begging bowls are nicely cast, but with walls much thicker than would be customary in ceramics. They come in three sizes: 5, 6, and 10 inch diameters. The typical tea-bowl narrow base/foot lifts and balances the inverted demi-sphere. In his youth, Rothbart once dabbled in clay and made similar bowls. Also shown, but apparently not part of the Street Situation set, were three larger begging bowls which could be struck with a cast-aluminum instrument to produce a splendid ringing sound.

In and around Cannes and Nice, Rothbart carried the surprisingly heavy set of begging bowls in a large canvas duffle bag until he found the right place to create what he calls "semiotic street situations." A traveling carnival was one such situation: a hand, possibly the artist's, in the photograph holds up the bowl to an elephant. But other "situations" include an illegal immigrant lifting up one of the larger bowls to hide his face, a recreation of Manet's "Luncheon on the Grass", a beach with fishing nets. There were 31 photographed "situations" in the exhibition. The bowls are not just markers or excuses for photographs but, because of the kinds of arrangements and relationships established among them and with the street environment, they are sculptural units. The sculpture is variable, ephemeral, situational. The photographs themselves, following the tradition of early conceptual art and Streetworks, are plain and straight-forward, with little to recommend them as photo art qua photo art. Photography collectors might not understand them at all.

Rothbart's "situations" are much more benign than many of the Streetworks now remembered from the late Sixties. No one follows a stranger (Vito Acconci) or stops people to ask embarrassing questions or chalks scene-of-the-crime corpse outlines on the street. Some of Rothbart's situations mimic street vendor blanket displays. If there is a narrative, it is as artfully concealed as the spiritual symbolism. Rothbart is not photographing his begging bowls as they march into the Museum of Modern Art. I am referring to Eleanor Antin's signature "100 Boots" postcard art work. Rothbart's "Begging Bowls" are disarmingly humble, which is only the surface of their strength. I do not think he is saying that artists should be beggars now, although in some way they always are beggars at the tables of power and wealth; instead his call is for artmaking as spiritual quest.

Perreault, John, "Daniel Rothbart," Sculpture Magazine: A Publication of the International Sculpture Center, Washington D.C., May 2003, Vol. 22-4, pp. 75-76.