Garrett Stewart. Essay for the SimsReed Catalogue

Naftali Rakuzin and the Archive d’Art

They are more than “oversized” in the librarian’s sense. Across a gallery space, these swelling folio volumes appear a little nearer to you than they really are. Or, more to the point, you to them. Though nothing like photorealist closeups, they make an exorbitant claim on the eye, oddly intimate. Rather than receding — as they would in an illusionist bookshelf — they loom large. And by their titles alone, even without releasing a given artist’s reproduced image, they speak volumes.

Naftali Rakuzin remembers the first book cover he designed as a child, for Gulliver’s Travels. Retaining something of this innocence and wonder, his later homages still convey a Lilliputian’s awe at the towering influence of the tradition he so luxuriantly revisits — and enlarges upon. Not illusions at all, his paintings offer optical allusions to the painterly archive they expand by recapitulating — in all its cultural heft, shelf by shelf. The art of the book seems diffused before our eyes to the received Book of Art.

These are not a painter’s typical reflexive still lifes: not atelier scenes, with brushes and palettes heaped on a workbench, half-finished canvases leaning against the wall. Rakuzin paints instead the source rather than the instruments of his art, but already made his own in those lateral cadences of color that orchestrate his compositions. The history of art comes before us bound for visual uptake and variation. Reversing the miniaturizing effect of photography that explained for André Malraux the origin of art history as we know it, Rakuzin’s books, beyond their inscribed titles, disclose at times an amplified catalogue image as if — by the provocations of scale alone — it were straining to break out into its original proportions, or at least its native texture, if only through another artist’s intervening stroke and pigment. Reversing as well the historical trajectory defined by Walter Benjamin, the effect is to demediate “mechanical reproduction” in a return to “aura.”




Son of a book illustrator, Rakuzin was himself trained to add images to books. By a considered reversal, now he makes secondary images of books, indeed illustrated ones. These are the art volumes he gathered around him during his travels — from Russia to Israel, New York to Paris –- in his quest for a still-life technique worthy of his heroes: Chardin, Cezanne, and Morandi. No wonder he has called his books “windows” — even when they seem curtained by the thinnest veiling or hazing of execution. Retrieving his early skills in the lettering of book covers, Rakuzin delivers up the painters’ iconic names in a masterly display of different typefaces, block or serif, perpendicular or cursive. Yet these identifying spines are far from trompe l’oeil. Rather, they trump the literalist eye, replacing an ocular glance with the overview of invested recognition. The volumes are not physically bulking so much as imaginatively engulfing in their spur to rumination: a Platonic group portrait of one artist’s private canon, where the lack of crisp or rigid definition, each treasure trove harmonically assimilated with the others, becomes in its own right definitive.

Not for holding, then, these books are just fractionally withheld by technique, as if already “read” by the adept mind’s eye: a library forever virtual. Rakuzin avoids, for the most part, the expedient photographic interface of so much postmodern work by moving to canvas via pencil sketch–deliberately in the manner of still life execution down through the centuries. One result is that the emblazoned titles of his companionable books appear softened by mental use, more acknowledged than deciphered. In their initial drawing “from the life,” they dodge photographic intervention in order to evoke exactly the still life archive that Rakuzin is already (and in the other sense) drawing from. The finished canvas, in its subsequent passage from delicate sketch to thinly applied oil, arrives as somehow trans-muted, saturated more in affect than in hue, hazed by the sfumato of the familiar.

The high-sheen print stock of art publication, whether on covers or interior plates, thus dissipates, by way of recovery, into the weave and texture of the original images now on file within such books, sketches and paintings both. Misted ever so slightly in this way, Rakuzin’s repictured prints are no sooner redrawn for us than withdrawn from us, not in the least fogged by nostalgia but blended in a palimpsest of cause and effect at once: the simultaneous background and foreground of present craft. For all the linear precision of Rakuzin’s brushwork, the relative low-fidelity of treatment comes to seem a matter of keeping faith with — as if the exposed and softening grain of the material support, paper or canvas, were the mark of the imaginatively ingrained. Tacit commentaries in their own terms, these repainted books are glossed by memory and desire rather than high-gloss mimesis. And out of their lowered resolution comes the heightened resolve of the new painter himself.


Culture Morte


Unshadowed by deathliness, the French term nature morte simply identifies the “still life” as a time-cancelling excerpt from the nonhuman world — often including books among its objects of paradoxical desire and disuse. But when the still life renders books almost exclusively, as in Rakuzin’s oeuvre, and art books at that, it is la vie of cultural transmission that is arrested in review. As representative modern artist in the still life mode, Cezanne appears either on the spine of one book after another, including on the cover of Rakuzin’s reproduced group catalogue for an exhibition on The Nature of Still Life, the wordplay of the museum’s own title commuting between the world under representation (“nature” in that sense) and the “essence” or leading features of the figure-free genre.

Another canvas, Monsieur Paul Cezanne, shows the cover not of an art book but of a documentary history of the artist in his legal status as citizen, annuitant, and taxpayer. Here Rakuzin has very loosely resketched, and then abstractly repainted, as Cezanne himself might have done, the cover’s photographic image of stacked public records. In this way the monograph designer’s own mise en abyme of reproduced documents — in reference (and deference) to the published compendium whose jacket they populate — is thrown into further regress by the book painter deciding to repicture in oil the print reproduction not of a painting but of a photographed pile of books.

No such deflection occurs in Morandi, where a precursor’s multiple impact in still-life composition is set resonating across the whole canvas. Beyond the borrowed tonal range from grey to beige to taupe to cocoa against the pale violet background, Morandi’s pervasive influence is figured not just by the multiple titles at the center but, to the left of these, by an unidentified bland monograph — or perhaps another slip-case turned to the wall this time. Or is it instead a single sculptural block as bookend? Not being able to say for sure seems half the point. The other half may be a more specific allusion to the many actual and rather enigmatic boxes in Morandi’s own tabletop compositions. These are apparent cardboard packagings for undefined commercial products that offer a rectangular contrast to his bottles and vases — containers like them and, to Rakuzin’s eye no doubt, indirect analogues as well to the book form and its equally unseen “contents.” When it comes to books about Morandi, however (and here seems the ultimate gist of Rakuzin’s treatment), every such upright vessel, or even solid block, is heavily weighted — and full to the brim — with the stuff of inspiration.

Some of Rakuzin’s works, the painter has explained in a recent interview, seem wholly achieved at the drawing stage — and don’t invite the further passage (round again) to canvas. Certainly paper rather than canvas backing seems an apter medium than canvas for the tacit wordplay of Découverte Gallimard. In that work, the couvertures of a dozen paperback books in the publisher’s “discovery” series –- all but peeled away from the volumes they advertise –- are horizontally arrayed as if the books thus dis-covered were still waiting to be shelved. But usually Rakuzin’s pictured volumes are fixed firmly in their vertical places in a more crowded textual spectrum, whether the treatment is in colored pencil or paint.

Not only do books about the geometric modernism of Piet Mondrian often appear in Rakuzin’s work, but sometimes the architectonics of the shelves themselves can approximate Mondrian-like compositions in a grid of off-center rectangles. Beyond this skewed symmetry, another effect is achieved in one of the colored pencil drawings depicting the private library of the German collector Franz Armin Morat, based in this case (rare for Rakuzin) on photographs taken by him in 2004 of these German holdings. Morat #15 is in fact framed like a photographic detail. A shelf that includes literature and nonfiction as well as art monographs, Max Weber as well as Gustav Klimt, extends left -– and down — to hint at titles we can only partially read, under volumes turned flat and backwards. Here Rakuzin’s drawing is only a selection from, a sector of, a much larger private archive: equivalent, in its way, to an excerpt from one of the books themselves, truncated in this case by ocular ellipsis. Thus, again, do we end up reading, rather than just viewing, Rakuzin’s “borrowed” library, as we do elsewhere — in more centered formats — his personal one.


Folio to Oil, Case by Case


A quintessential example is among the most imposing canvases in the show. Given the three and a half packed vertical shelves of so-called Pop Art, it may take the viewer some time to sense the titular priority of that particular catalogue, three volumes in from the top left but followed by over a hundred testaments to other art once or still equally “popular” to the general public and the connoisseur alike. Certainly, if this large realist canvas is a “portrait” of Pop Art in its particular 1960s genre, it is by no means an instance of it. The real emphasis in this 2005 painting rests closer to the center of this top shelf. Despite the favored glimpse of Pop maestro Roy Lichenstein on its spine, L’Art de 20th Siecle, already retrospective as monograph, is all the more so from Rakuzin’s vantage half a decade into the new millennium. But it is summoned here by an artist whose own technique, anything but postmodern in sensibility, has closed out the last quarter of that previous century, in almost three full decades of bookshelf pictures, by revisiting a longer tradition yet in the archive and technique of oil treatment.

In Rakuzin’s most recent work, it is the strategically selected single-cover images, brought forward from a stocked shelf behind, that display the strongest compositional verve (as well as technical craft) — and its intellectual reverb as well. For such treatment sends conceptual as well as optical echoes across his whole elided transit from commerical museum reproduction to easel performance in the predecessor medium of paint rather than photoprint. Our recognizing the paintings turned toward us, often in themselves details of larger canvases, is part of the aesthetic charge delivered by Rakuzin’s selected catalogue covers. Hammershøi I Dreyer, for instance, links by conjunction the early modernist master of nearly monochrome interiors, Danish painter Willhelm Hammershøi, with the minimalist mise en scène of later compatriot filmmaker Carl Dreyer. All that we see from the catalogue design, however, is the back of a painted head, neck, and shoulders from a canvas of the former austere image maker. Yet this is a prototypical pose that a viewer familiar with Hammershøi’s work would recognize at once as a detail from one of his numerous paintings of standing or seated women leaning away from us into unseen books or letters in the midst of underfurnished stark spaces, their reading as wholly unaccessible to Hammershøi’s spectator as are the contents of this catalogue to Rakuzin’s. Were we to lift down and open out that comparative intermedia volume on painter and moviemaker in real space, of course, our perusal would then be available from behind for another artist’s rendering of us (on film or canvas, either one) in a bent-necked posture of concentration. This isn’t a Magritte-like joke. It is the subtlest residual evocation.



Toward the Out-of-Frame: Beyond Cover and Coverage


Such gentle vertigo comes increasingly to mind as one submits, time and again, to the ingenuity of Rakuzin’s chosen jacket images. Off-frame space — the imagined zone extending forward (as much as sideways) from the canvas plane — can be played upon in other ways as well. The dramatically selected detail from Rembrandt’s renowned Anatomy Lesson on the cover of the National Gallery’s 2007 Dutch Portraits catalogue slices out entirely both the presiding surgeon and the flayed corpse on the dissecting table to forefront half a dozen isolated, rapt faces. This eye-grabbing aesthetic decision is, in Rakuzin’s hands, also a subtler reach into the space opening back from the given frame into the field of the spectator. For the removal of the anatomist, anchor of the Rembrandt original, pulls the whole scene forward instead, so that the intent faces seem staring straight off the printed page into the tacit space of the painter’s own brush (once Rembrandt’s, now Rakuzin’s) rather than at the anatomist’s busy scissors. As it happens, that cover’s visual treatment by Rakuzin also borrows most directly, of all the shelf pictures in this show, from the optical tease characteristic of the quasi-illusionist mode, with the central volume easing out just over the front edge of the shelf into spectatorial space along with the wide v-shape of the ribbon bookmark to the left. Both on and beyond the cover image, then, everything seems inching forward into studio — and ultimately gallery — space.

Choosing always so carefully what to represent, Rakuzin seems preternaturally alert to what has been chosen before him by the book designers. See the Beaux/Arts catalogue Gustave Courbet, its jacket featuring a detail from his renowned massive canvas at Musée d’Orsay, The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing up a Seven-Year Phase of My Artistic Life (1855). The iconic realist at work is surrounded by a crowd of milling figures, including at the far right his friend and supporter Baudelaire studying a large book (drawings perhaps?). But this we might or might not have in our mind’s eye at we look at how Rakuzin has redone in oil Courbet’s flamboyant reduplication of his own oil technique. For much of this famous autiobiographical canvas is removed by the close focus of the cover design: showing as stands (and as stood now before us) just the middle sector where the artist is putting a finishing touch on a large landscape, a naked model from one of his nudes looking on appreciatively at the brushwork more than the painted scene. Here the quietest idea on Rakuzin’s part — and in both senses an inviting one — may take us a second to register. In Courbet’s painting, his large internal canvas is angled just slightly back from our face-on view of the atelier. To just this degree, but in the other direction, Rakuzin has the catalogue angled toward us at its right edge — almost as if by opening it we could enter the wedge of real space between its surface and the slanted canvas it depicts: the lived space, that is, of painter and model themselves.

But that’s an incidental effect of the composition, apart from the larger decision on Rakuzin’s part to reproduce this auto-referential catalogue image in the first place — and to do so in a canvas bounded to the left, no less, by a monograph called Ateliers de la Renaissance. From the small book-lined atelier of the contemporary Paris artist, we thus enter an artificially bounded version of Courbet’s own far more spacious nineteenth-century one, concentrating on the act of pictorial execution itself. What the book designer has in mind, of course, must be the suggestive epitome of Courbet painting and Courbet’s paintings alike, all in one promotional emphasis. What Rakuzkin gives us at one remove, in his typical demediation of the photoprint, is instead the painting of a painting of a painter painting–with Courbet himself the contemporary artist’s own “nakedly” avowed model from the great tradition.

Only one other canvas in the show takes us perhaps deeper, if at a different angle, into the layers of allusion in Rakuzin’s technique. The contrast with Gustave Courbet should be clear. Already singled out, as the informed viewer is likely to remember, from the vast Studio scenario, the embedded six- foot landscape that we do see in its entirety is, of course, reduced tenfold or so for the cover detail and then approximately doubled in scale for Rakuzin’s magnified shelf “closeup.” A related focal effect (zoom out / zoom in) seems to have motivated the homage to Anselm Kiefer from 2007 as well, whose magnified catalogue cover all the more obviously miniaturizes the bulking forms of the sculptor’s tomsbstone-sized lead books shelved by the score.

Photographs of Kiefer’s vast libraries always make the muted, mottled shapes of his annealed tomes look like sketched rather than sculpted volumes, no doubt by optical association with the shadings of pencil lead (an effect that clearly extends here, in the reproduced cover photograph, even to the photographed steel mullions of the vaulted Grand Palais glass ceiling). But as oil master, Rakuzin’s further remove from the tonnage of impenetrable metallic volumes in his reprise of that exhibition cover has an enhanced thematic effect. That slate-grey inlaid photo of Kiefer’s huge drab spines produces a kind of chromatic lacuna in the green, gold, and blue tones coruscating across Rakuzin’s oversized (but now only relatively so) book edges. That gap in tonality inscribes a conceptual regress as well. It is as if the repainted museum photoprint of the Kiefer monoliths has been reduced to the actual (and otherwise invisible) pencil sketches through which the image has already passed in the meticulous stages of Rakuzin’s own sketch-to-oil craft. And more. For here is one of Rakuzin’s most decisive works, as vertiginous as the best of them. In it, on it, we have an art about sculpted books you not only can’t read but can never open — rendered in a painted art about books you can likewise neither open nor read.


The Signature Touch


In the lower right corner of Seurat appears the oil simulation of one of the pointillist’s revered charcoal sketches, at the bottom right of which we see in turn Rakuzin’s minuscule surname signed over its surface. In his own handwriting, the gesture seems indeed like the tipped hand of Rakuzin’s whole aesthetic. For the suggestion may emerge–and who could resist it? –- that Naftali Rakuzin is the real auteur of all the repainted books we see as well. This effect is not lost in the normal case, either, with the Kiefer and others, where the signature appears along one of the horizontal shelves as part of the very structure of a continually resorted library: the admitted work of painting declared as the support and condition of a whole archive revivified.

Then, too, who would be surprised to find –- among the narrow nameless publications wedged in alongside the folios and assorted bulletins (on any of Seurat’s four shelves, for instance, or elsewhere) — a thin catalogue or two from Rakuzin’s own exhibitions, maybe another copy of the one you are now reading? For this is an artist whose large-format works must submit to their own double reduction on the miniaturized page of photoprint dissemination: made smaller even than real books, let alone smaller than the aggrandized expansive volume of his privately imagined archive. In person, however, we can at last see Rakuzin’s books through his own wide-eyed gaze.


Garrett Stewart

University of Iowa