Magnifying Stillness

Locating Meaning in the Work of Ephraim Rubenstein

by Sarah Sutro

Ephraim Rubenstein (b. 1956) paints the world in a clear and sensitive manner, refreshingly unanalytical, optically true. The signature of his work is a forthright awareness of light and structure, reflecting the spirit of the painter and his life. In most of his work, he presents us the world as he sees it, in a traditional, almost a classical view. Yet he has “resisted the pressure to always paint in the same genre over and over.”1 Thus his work ranges from tight realism to looser, more expressive and even Romantic painting. The most interesting artists have always made work that embodies shifts, even radical jumps, breaking through earlier stylistic habits.

Rubenstein’s paintings are meticulously planned and drawn, mapped out with mathematical precision, the canvas gridded in pencil, a convention going back to the Renaissance. After drawing the subject carefully on canvas over the grid, he begins painting where he sees contrast, with patches of color. From there, he works outward, in what is known as “color spot” painting, where “color spots…stand side by side, like pieces of mosaic. One aims to hit the final color/value right from the start, not to arrive at it slowly at the end.”2 One of his urban paintings, a scene of the back of factory buildings, seen from the perspective of a subway platform, has been left unfinished, with only the central sixth of the canvas painted in. Painted from one edge to the other in deliberate, precise detail (or from the center to the outer edges, in this case), Silver Cup Left Unfinished may inform succeeding generations that painters still painted this way in 2013. The way a painter paints and prepares to paint seems to be part of what Rubenstein’s work is about, including most paintings’ masterly finish. Rubenstein was greatly affected by his grandfather, Edward H. Freedman (1895–1972), a commercial artist and illustrator who worked for an advertising agency in the Chrysler Building and was influenced by Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth. At eight or nine years old, Rubenstein spent time in his grandfather’s studio in White Plains, learning to paint. He grew up on Eastern Parkway, across from the Brooklyn Museum, and had Francis Cunningham as an early teacher at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. Cunningham, a student of Edwin Dickinson, uses dark tones in a rich and enigmatic way that likely influenced Rubenstein’s landscapes. Rubenstein also mentions David Levine and Andy Reiss as influences, as well as other artists.3  He later attended Columbia University, but at the time, it had no fine arts major. In fact, according to Rubenstein, the school seemed almost “anti-visual arts,” though it had an excellent art history department. There he showed his portfolio to the art historian Meyer Schapiro, who suggested that Rubenstein study at the Art

Students League and the National Academy of Design. From then on, in addition to Columbia’s liberal arts courses, he attended classes evenings, weekends and summers at the two downtown schools that Schapiro had recommended. He now teaches at both, as well as having been a professor of art for twelve years at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

Over the years, three well-known galleries have represented Rubenstein: Taticheff, Tibor de Nagy and currently George Billis in Chelsea. Subjects in his paintings range from figures in landscapes, portraits, Italian ruins, buildings and cityscapes, gardens and cathedrals, to still lifes of books and artifacts. Rubenstein has been a member of the prestigious Century Association, a club founded in 1847 by William Cullen Bryant to promote interest in the fine arts and literature. Despite all the ways in which his career has been successful, he still keenly feels that realism is “largely hidden” in our society, even with the proliferation of private ateliers teaching realist painting, and of many committed artist/teachers. He rues the absence of guilds and workshops that would bring realist artists together, and speaks of a lack of a group or identifying genre among realist painters.

 

Personal History Painting

 Night Subway, 2008–10  Courtesy of the artist

In his book ArtSpeak: A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present, Robert Atkins writes: “It is important to distinguish what is new about postmodernism from what is a reaction to modernism. In the latter category is the widespread return to traditional genres such as landscape and history painting, which had been rejected by many modernists in favor of abstraction.”4 Rubenstein’s work embodies this contemporary return to realism. One might even call his work “personal history painting.” He acknowledges the work is very autobiographical, “if not directly narrative.” Atkins goes on to comment: “One distinctly new aspect of postmodernism is the dissolution of traditional categories.”5 This pluralist stance is strongly visible in contemporary realistic painting. Painters working in the Netherlands or in Renaissance Italy in the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries collected etchings or engravings after paintings to know what other artists were doing. These prints, for instance much of Albrecht Dürer’s graphic work, circulated throughout Europe as copybooks and instructional manuals. Artists also traveled to Italy and France to visit the ateliers of other artists. Today, painters study every variation of painting that exists via shows, catalogues, newspaper reviews, books and digital media. The isolation of the past cannot be reconstructed, nor figurative painting kept pure and without influence. This situation offers fascinating opportunities for painters like Rubenstein, who travel through the cultural mix of our time with open eyes, and who welcome the influences of a variety of styles and genres. In our conversation, he emphasized more than once how important it is to touch on many genres and to use a variety of materials, including oil, pastel, gouache, sanguine pencil, charcoal, graphite and powdered graphite, ink wash and silverpoint.6

Night Subway (2008–10) looks down into the nearly enclosed street scene beneath a subway overpass. Unlike other urban and bucolic subjects in Rubenstein’s paintings, which are expansive and visually placid, this one shows a kind of controlled disconnection, where figures move on individual trajectories, mostly detached from each other or their surroundings. He calls it his “bête noir,” and indeed it is a bold and difficult painting. Lines and forms intersect, as streets and buildings and the subway architecture create a kind of grid of energy. The arching support of the overhead subway line forms cathedral-like spans, and a curious vertical rectangle in the upper third of the canvas—comprising building edges, distant lights, signs and night sky— becomes a kind of keystone for the whole painting. Symptomatic of order within disorder, it suggests the golden section, the ancient painters’ geometric organizing principle, where a modular unit of precise dimension casts platonic order on a design. Here the vertical rectangle seems to reflect our contemporary reality, the dynamic, confusing, impossible times in which we live. The dualities of peacefulness/chaos and classic/modern weave through Rubenstein’s work, giving it tension and enigmatic depth.

Ripley is the ante-bellum plantation house in Ellicott City, outside of Baltimore, that Rubenstein and his wife, Sarah, bought and renovated. This is where he now lives and works when he is not in New York City. Many of his landscapes are taken from the surrounding countryside, and he paints views of both the interior and exterior of the house in the “Woodley Suite Series.” Included in the series are cropped sections of spacious rooms, orchestrated and simplified to “achieve a state of mind.” Rubenstein idealizes these images of home, which aim at a kind of meditative stillness. The Woodley Suite paintings seem to stop time in and around the house and land, conjuring the content and depth of memory. The haunting structure of the old well-built home, the arrangement of ancient dark boxwoods that frame the house, the large trees that punctuate the yard—all bring a sense of wistfulness and other-worldliness to these scenes. In Woodley Interior Sunlight 2 (2012), we see the corner of an empty room, with varnished floor and woodwork. Mullioned windows cast a geometry of sunlight onto the white walls and the floor. The walls appear violet and blue in the shadows, and the floor turns honey color in the light, which has its own distinct presence in the empty room. The dark woodwork, metal radiators, and effusion of green trees beyond the glass melt away as the light itself becomes the subject.

Beyond these pools of sunlight and silence around the old house, Rubenstein has painted landscapes of the environs, including a romantic series inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems in the Duino Elegies. Rubenstein felt jolted into consciousness after encountering Rilke’s dynamic poem “The Panther” and immersed himself in the poetry of this early-twentieth-century mystical poet who, he says, “talks to the deepest part of you.” In “The Panther,” Rilke writes:

 

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,

Has grown so weary that it cannot hold

Anything else….

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over

The movement of his powerful soft strides

Is like a ritual dance around a center

In which a mighty will stands paralyzed

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils

Lifts, quietly—. An image enters in,

Rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,

Plunges into the heart and is gone.7

 

The poem is about being “absolutely alive.” As happened to Rilke at the German art colony of Worpswede, where he was staying, poems and ideas flowed through Rubenstein’s mind as he walked the countryside, and saw in the spring trees over the James River, “a sense of weeping and gestures.” He immersed himself in Rilke’s writing, committing to “see everything and cherish everything.” His river scenes contain figures musing on the banks or couples reclining. In other places, a tree’s foliage softens and blurs, the bank in sunlight or the haze over the river blending into mist and indeterminate form. In this atmosphere, other phrases from Rilke’s poems, like “thereness,” “magnifying stillness,” “the unseen world” and “pure space”8 linger and suggest visual equivalents.

River Duran: Ebb Tide, 2006, Courtesy of the Artist

Distinctly different are Rubenstein’s studies of abandoned farm buildings from the Northern Neck, near Richmond, where he has often stayed. Many of these are painted loosely, appearing gestural and sometimes unfinished, with a touch of J.M.W. Turner’s or John Singer Sargent’s watercolor-like freshness, in contrast to his more careful and meticulously rendered subjects. These paintings of abandoned houses carry some of the more melancholy strains that weave through Rubenstein’s oeuvre, where destruction through the work of time, and the ephemeral quality of life, suggest the opposite of stable form. He describes his artworks as being “metaphors for loss and abundance…emotional poles between which I have oscillated, depending on the circumstances of my life.”9

In River Duron, Ebb Tide (2006), the lazy curve of a low-lying river zigzags back into the distance. Neatly dividing the canvas in half, the horizon assures a calm, unchallenging structure for the painting. A soft blue tidal river, with pale orange banks on one side, shifts the eye over to the left of the canvas, where the soft, grassy hill of pale ochre and green gently borders the water. The large fir trees at the back add just a hint of darkness and even danger, as does the unusually limpid expanse of the water as it gathers up those shadows of the wilder, darker background. Placid, but not totally safe, the painting reinforces the potential of mystery hidden in the ordinary expression of reality. This hovering quality that slowly emerges as one looks at a Rubenstein painting adds a distinct note of unquiet, in the midst of what should be utter calm.

Silver Cup, 2010-13, Courtesy of the Artist

Of a similar composition but a totally different subject is the large finished version of Silver Cup (2010–13), an urban landscape seen from the elevated platform of the Queensboro Plaza subway station. The pale brown diagonal of a subway railing retreats into the distance, from left to right, carrying the eye into the maze of factory fronts, signs, water towers and the distant Manhattan skyline. Boxy shapes of the two main buildings with their anonymous, mute windows seem to resist penetration visually or emotionally. Hidden behind the back of a huge billboard whose message we cannot see, is the half obscured word “Silvercup” seen backwards. Two squat water towers with triangular roofs intrude on the otherwise gridded landscape. The fragmented word “Silvercup” is like a ticket to another time or place, a story unfulfilled, an incomplete, even forgotten memory.

 

Another Way of Seeing

The consistency of Rubenstein’s gaze is what unites his works, along with the ability to draw the viewer into the state of mind he was in while painting. He is almost illustrating what Daniel Goleman, in his new book entitled Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, describes as “selective attention” and “open awareness,” the dance between the disciplined way Rubenstein paints and “the mind’s backstage,”10 where meaning reverberates. In his review of Goleman’s book in The New York Times, Nicholas Carr refers to “the mind’s reveries,” commenting that “solitude has fallen out of fashion.”11 It is the invitation to enter into the state of the creative mind that makes Rubenstein’s work compelling. This open awareness is another way of seeing. Artists move back and forth between two states, sometimes lost in that fog that precedes working, a place beyond words. It can be hard to get to that place for most people—where one can work without being aware of time.

The urban cityscapes, such as Silver Cup, resemble Edward Hopper’s choice of subject in their direct attention and optical truth, but Hopper’s paintings are desolate, almost menacing in their starkness, and almost anti-relationship. Many of Rubenstein’s works project a welcoming world where relationships take place wisely and happily. The paintings exude even-handedness and balance. There is a shyness in the way figures are presented in the larger and more complex paintings, where they are turned away or seen from the back. Charles Sheeler, with his studies of factories and urban texture, comes to mind when considering this aspect of Rubenstein’s work, though Sheeler’s work is far more abstract and contains no human reference at all, except perhaps in reference to scale. The Northern European painters Vilhelm Hammershøi and Caspar David Friedrich seem to have influenced Rubenstein’s work as well, especially in their paintings of interiors. Friedrich, the nineteenth-century German Romantic who painted brooding visions of figures, landscapes and abandoned churches, answers a question that kept recurring in my mind about the frequently centralized compositions in Rubenstein’s work. Friedrich tended to centralize trees, figures (with their backs to us) and buildings, offering doorways into his world. Similarly, Rubenstein uses the most obvious of compositions to draw us directly into the worlds he paints.

Woodley Interior Sunlight, 2, 2012, Courtesy of the ArtistHis most straightforward subjects are of the everyday, such iconic choices as animals and flowers. His drawings offer a fresh, objective look at what surrounds him. Made in classic mediums such as red chalk, charcoal, silverpoint or pencil, these images are powerfully rendered in blocks and nuances of light and shadow. Henri Fantin-Latour, Piet Mondrian and others painted and drew flowers. But the obviousness and lack of compositional subtlety of Rubenstein’s subjects sometimes pulls him into the purely illustrational world, when, in reality, his work goes beyond that. Much of it opens doors to experiences and subtleties the viewer may never have experienced. An example of exquisite rendering and composition is the drawing Sarah XX, where Rubenstein’s wife, lying in bed, is seen from the back, her torso grazed gently with light from a window, the pillows and sheet framing the horizontal of her body. Soft, muted shading describes the tones of her back, the dark wedge of her hair, the subtle folds of the bedding. In the very top corner is a graphic bare mention of a curlicue iron bed, seeming to echo the curves of Sarah’s legs. Like a quick delicate note, we are asked to see the beauty of her form and how it is like an inverted spiral. The subtlety of this comparison is so understated that we  get  lost in the lovely application of the red chalk, linking the forms, with no need to settle our mind down into an “idea.” The rendering, and appreciation of material and mark and tone, resonate. The drawing is about light and form and material. The central composition is an invitation to visually rest on one thing, in order to become lost to ourselves. We become that light and form as we gaze. Most of Rubenstein’s paintings exist in this timeless moment, offering an inner alertness and quiet, as if the artist were pausing between thoughts, to invite us to partake of the very experience of making a painting. He shares the quiet elation of light and space, of expressing a particular location and moment. In the best of the paintings, we enter into the artist’s private domain, where he immerses us in his private equilibrium, his thoughtful reverie about the world, an expression just short of emotion. The paintings seem to leave us to our own experience, as if the artist had stepped away from the easel and allowed the image to go on painting itself. In the end, his personality is nowhere to be found, just the reflection of a series of choices he made in terms of subject, light, season, perspective.

When I visited Ephraim Rubenstein’s small Queens studio, I experienced, both through my eyes and his explanation, the variety of styles that expansively resonate through his work. The willingness to deal with realism through various modes is a gamble: will the viewer trust what the artist is encouraging him/her to experience in each mode, lost to rational thread or connection; an entry into a state of reverie and musing? Rubenstein offers the viewer this experience—a passage through to another state of being, the artist’s world— if the painting works and the viewer is ready.

 

NOTES

  1. Interview with author on November 15, 2013, in Queens. Unless otherwise noted, Rubenstein’s remarks are taken from this interview.

  2. Ephraim Rubenstein, personal notes on Color Spot Painting.

  3. Others include Harvey Dinnerstein, Barney Hodes, Sherry Lord, Bruce North, Aaron Shikler, e-mail with the artist, December 26, 2013.

  4. Robert Atkins, ArtSpeak: A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present (New York: Abbeville Press, 1990), p. 132.

  5. Ibid.

  6. E-mail, December 26, 2013.

  7. Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Panther,” www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-panther.

  8. Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies (New York: W.W. Norton, 1939), pp. 47, 59, 63, 67.

  9. Ephraim Rubenstein, “Life Is a House,” The Artist’s Magazine (January/February 2014), p. 32.

  10. 10.Daniel Goleman, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (New York: Harper, 2013), p. 26.

  11. Nicholas Carr, “Attention Must be Paid: ‘Focus,’ by Daniel Goleman,” New York Times Book Review (November 1, 2013), no pagination. (www.nytimes.com/2013/11/13/ books/review/focus-by-daniel-goleman.html)

 

 American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2014, Volume 31, Number 2