by David M. Roth
Alan Rath’s death on Oct. 27 from multiple sclerosis dealt a blow to all who knew and loved him. A pillar of the Bay Area art community, he was an innovator of the highest order and one of the kindest, sweetest men I’ve ever known. He was 60. Behind his unfailing graciousness and modesty lay a keen intelligence, equal parts engineering know-how, aesthetic sophistication and conceptual brio. Although precedents for Rath’s instantly recognizable digital and robotic sculptures can be found in Jean Tinguely, Nam June Paik and Rebecca Horn, I can’t think of a single artist working today whose output remotely resembles his.
My first encounter with it came in 1995 at the Palo Alto Cultural Center. The show consisted of sculptures built around small CRT screens that displayed twitchy video images of contorted faces, wagging tongues, hands and shifty eyeballs, all closely cropped: a presentation that seemed to signal psychic distress. That impression was heightened by the fact that the screens were secured by chains, tangled wires or prosthetic “arms,” oftentimes all three. Many were enclosed in bell jars. When asked whether and to what
degree the pieces were autobiographical the artist typically demurred. The sculptures were widely seen as a riposte to Silicon Valley hype and a critique of the emerging surveillance state. Voyeuristic and creepy, elegant and raw, they showcased Rath’s penchant for meticulous craftsmanship while simultaneously flouting an unspoken rule of high-tech design: that the messy details of a device’s inner workings be hidden from view. Rath delighted in exposing them. He designed and assembled the component parts of his sculptures until his illness, diagnosed in 2005, forced him to subcontract the handiwork to others.
A year later, in 1996, I met the artist and his wife, Mia, a pianist, at his Oakland studio, located in a sprawling ground-floor space that was once a laundry. Two things from that event stood out. When Rath spoke, he did so precisely, choosing his words with the same exacting attention he lavished on his sculptures. I also remember being alternately spooked and entranced by a series of sculptures made of speaker cones. Situated atop cylindrically shaped forms and stationed in wicker baskets or plywood crates, they pulsated silently, like living things.
Rath made little distinction between nature and the so-called built environment. “I’m interested in this whole idea that people put technology out there at arm’s length,” he told me. “They think it’s so external and they don’t seem to link it with the body and with us. We’re much closer to it. We like this stuff. We use this stuff. And yet we’re alienated from it.”
Rath spent the remainder of his foreshortened career creating playful, humorous works that attempted to bridge the man-machine barrier. The most recent and most memorable of these were feathery robotic sculptures whose computer-controlled motions mimic animal mating rituals.
In a 2013 review of this work at the Hosfelt Gallery, I wrote: “In their quiescent state they don’t seem capable of much; they look like exactly what they are: feathers attached to slender, flexible tubes and speaker cones, some on tripods, others wall-mounted. Yet when activated by heat and motion they flutter, pulsate, spin, sway, shake, shimmy, thrust, quaver, vibrate and twitch at unpredictable intervals — carving lines in space that make them seem animate, like what Jean Tinguely might have created had he been a digital-era artist addicted to Wild Kingdom.”
Those forms, the artist told me, were the culmination of 15 years’ worth of research, the goal of which was to extend the physical reach of the robotic sculptures he was building in the late 1990s. “It was…a way to explore the dynamics of flexing” and to examine the “contrast between man-made and nature.”
“It was one thing to build the machine with a select repertoire of gestures; it was another to figure out how it could move in a way that might be interesting. To “impose structure on these movements” Rath looked to music because “that was the one area where people had organized events in time.”
Music, as it happened, was what initially drove Rath to become an artist. As a teenager growing up in Cincinnati, he was awed by Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, The Who, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and other rock groups whose pyrotechnics relied on newfangled electronic effects. He dreamed of joining their ranks, but quickly learned he had no musical ability. Instead, he began assembling the components for a
light show, indicating that his talents lay elsewhere. From there, it was a natural move to MIT. There, he earned a degree in mechanical engineering before moving to the West Coast — not for employment, but for easier access to the electronic parts he needed to make art.
Throughout his career, music remained a strong influence. During a 2019 studio visit at which he demonstrated a self-made Moog synthesizer, we talked about the musicians he admired. Listening sessions and email exchanges soon followed. Some of what Alan liked I found grating (e.g. Buckethead); other things, from Frank Zappa and Neil Young, that I’d never before heard were revelatory.
In the end, Rath had but one overarching goal: “to make joyful things.” The overflow crowd at the opening of his 2019 San Jose ICA retrospective – reportedly the largest in that institution’s 40-year history — attested to the joy he spread.
So, too, does a just-released memorial celebration, which you can view online here. His legacy lives not only in memory, but in museum collections throughout the U.S., including SFMOMA, the Whitney Museum of American Art and many others.
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David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.