In formally elegant yet winsome sculptures — almost every component of which he designed, machined, and programed himself — Alan Rath explored the relationship between technology and the human body and behavior. In this exhibition, Hosfelt Gallery surveys the 35-year oeuvre of the sculptor and electronic art pioneer, who died in October of 2020 at age 60. Spanning the entirety of the artist’s career and incorporating every type of work he made, this encyclopedic show navigates the breadth of an extraordinary practice.
Beginning in 1985, Rath made work with technical materials like aluminum, steel, wires, and circuitry, in combination with cathode ray tubes displaying computer-generated video animations of body parts — roving eyes, waving hands, or lips with protruding and wagging tongues. Some pieces incorporated found elements like metal cages, wooden crates, or a photographer’s tripod. In all of these early works, their inner workings are, somewhat indecently, exposed.
By 1988, he began making sculptures with audio speakers, fascinated more by their motion than their ability to transmit sound; their movement uncannily simulates breathing as they puff, pant, vibrate, wheeze and throb. His passion for numbers led to pieces that endlessly count, or recite π, or function as calendars or clocks. He programmed his robotic works with open-ended algorithms, so the sculptures constantly modify their own choreography. A piece from 1998 successfully anticipated driverless car technology by 20 years.
Though Rath’s works are revolutionary in their masterful blend of high tech with high art, the technology is always subservient to the form or concept of the sculpture itself. The works possess a charming humility, without a hint of bravado advertising Rath’s unquestionable technical proficiency. Every material and design decision is considered and impeccable. Nothing is there just for looks, yet nothing, no matter how functional, isn’t beautiful.
“Machinery is not unnatural,” Rath said in an interview. “It’s a reflection of the people who make it.”
Alan Rath was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1959 and earned a BS in Electrical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982. While at MIT he took courses within the Architecture Machine Group – the precursor to the Media Lab – and studied with Otto Piene (a co-founder of the Zero art group) at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies. His early influences include Alexander Calder, David Smith, Robert Moog, Jimi Hendrix, and NASA. In 1983, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, which was his home until he died.
Alan Rath is on view until July 24. Make an appointment to view the exhibition at hosfeltgallery.com