Isolated and rail-thin, ninety-three-year-old Leo Rabkin found his last artistic project in a box of old postcards and piles of decorative trinkets deployed over decades as signal elements in his work. Leo’s Chelsea studio, the scene of frequent dinners, community meetings and parties, used to celebrate the friendly conviviality of New York City.
That period ended when Dorothea Rabkin, his wife of fifty years, died in 2008. The following months and years were times of paring down and giving away. Leo donated their landmark collection of American folk art to two museums. He emptied the main floor of his townhouse to create a lean working environment while casting about for a new project. Stripping things down lightened his burdens and elevated his mood. He merely had his modest daybed, a small wooden desk, a laptop, a television, magazines and books, and a mini-fridge.
Attended by visiting nurses and a part-time housekeeper, Leo seldom went out and then only in the immediate neighborhood to have lunch with a friend. Sometimes he would walk slowly to the corner of 20th Street and 7th Avenue to post a letter or stop in at the bodega at the end of the street. In 2012, Leo Rabkin weathered Hurricane Sandy alone, with extended power outages, nighttime blackouts, and a shortage of food. Those of us who knew him over many years were surprised and moved by how very small his formerly expansive world had become. Yet we also witnessed the intensity of his reading on a given day.
Art magazines, several newspapers, political and scientific periodicals were always scattered about the bed and the floor. His mind was still active even as his body was quickly failing.
In early 2012, Rabkin decided to send a daily greeting to longtime friend, the painter Robert Ryman, who was convalescing from an accident. He reached for a favorite stack of postcards, some quite old, most of them bearing images of international landmarks and famous works of art. Some were collected on trips with Rabkin’s beloved late wife Dorothea in lieu of taking snapshots as they traveled the world.
Rabkin laid out an array of materials typical of his art: textured papers, rubber stamps offering directions and advice, colored string for sewing, funny rolling eyeballs in small glass discs, flocking materials made of dense fibers, shiny metal and plastic bits and dusty hand-ground pigments in a range of evocative hues. Every day, he created and sent a small work to Ryman. They were often very different from one side of the card to the other. He wanted to make something unexpected, perhaps absurd and unforgettable. Rabkin hoped for nothing more than a brief moment of surprise, bemusement or delight on the part of his old and cherished friend. In his notebooks, Leo mentions Paul Klee and Robert Rauschenberg.
As the months went by, Rabkin expanded his practice. He began sending his unique postcard-sized works to a close circle of friends within and outside the art world. The rhythm of daily practice within an ongoing format steadied his life and created a vibrant enterprise to be shared with others. Rabkin mailed them to many individuals in the later months of 2012. Each bore an identifying number. He made and sent more than 100 while retaining a smaller group to be kept in his studio. They were not matched to particular people but selected randomly to underscore the element of surprise for both the artist and his audience. In a playful conversation with his friend, the art historian and critic Avis Berman, a title WHIM emerged as the name for Rabkin’s series. It expresses his trust in the experimental process and his eagerness for his recipient to draw his or her own conclusions.
With this website, the ambitious scope of WHIM, its variety, inner coherence and extraordinary mix of iconography is again revealed. Leo Rabkin described his multi-dimensional box construction as “nugatory divagations.” Like the works of the WHIM series, Rabkin’s well-known boxes were meant to be held in the hand, opened, turned around in space, and examined privately and carefully. His works of art employ materials of no intrinsic value assembled in ways that provide a new theatrical voice. Small works can establish improbably vast spaces through abstraction and illusion. Each person receiving one of the WHIM constructions saw and experienced a piece of a much larger enterprise. No one but Leo saw the series in its entirety.
Leo Rabkin (1919–2015) was part of a generation of international artists who valued contradiction, process, and the psychologically complex. These artists were attuned to the mysteries of lived time and physical space. Rabkin long explored the spatial and linear action of shadows in works made of wire, plastic, electric lights, and other materials. He was a pioneer in the use of plastics and industrial materials to create ethereal light given form by delicately articulated grids.
The core of Leo Rabkin’s WHIM series was his desire to celebrate friendship even during a hard time of long separation and virtual isolation from one another. An old man’s heart still yearned for the joyful connection he had with many people over the years. Reaching out one last time, he used simple things to convey a timeless message. He mused to a visitor in his studio, “What could be more fun than initiating a greeting to a friend? It creates a circle. A homecoming.”
Susan C. Larsen, Ph.D. is Executive Director of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation.
A version of this article appears in the website dedicated to Rabkin’s WHIMS.