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Learning to See

Today’s post comes from Magdalena Ramos Mullane, class of 2022 and Art Center Student Docent. Raquel Rabinovich: The Reading Room was on view in the Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar College from October 25 through December 20, 2018, and was funded by the Virginia Herrick Deknatel Fund.

Raquel Rabinovich (American, b. Argentina 1929), THE DARKEST DARK ONE CAN IMAGINE, 1998, Pastel, charcoal, and manganese powder on Arches paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Libraries, at their core, are buildings held together by the pursuit of searching, looking, and squinting through shelves to find. What we don’t know, we seek, and what we can’t find, we ask for. Books are emblems of the unknown and invisible, and it’s only through our sight and understanding of language that we might begin to decipher what lies beneath their covers. In Thompson Memorial Library sandwiched in the south corridor of shelves is a wonderful selection of works of Raquel Rabinovich, who, throughout her artistic career has been reflecting on a similar meditation of the invisible and intangible (and where these words might drop their prefixes). In a range of works on paper, Rabinovich explores the notion of sight, down to the very root intricacies of language, text, and archive as they connect to the subconscious. Although as still and protected as any other collection of art, I find myself yearning for the tactile and auditory experience of handling paper, the crackle, the way the air sets and jumps as a page turns over.

The only pieces for which this yearning evaporates are the three dark sheets hanging along the far wall. There’s a strong sense of monumentality to these frames, their shades not so much black as they are devoid of light. Peering into their reflections it’s apparent that there is a running line of text, deeply and stubbornly concealed against the shadow of the paper. I stare, and it is like looking for things in a pitch-black room, forming figures from the corner of my eye. And there’s something too, a flash of a letter, that reminds me of dreaming, of the precious moments before consciousness where sleep’s narrative retains a soft clarity. Although flat against a wall, the pages in front of me present an infinite and undefined world of depth. For a moment I wholly believe that if I were to reach my arm forward it would pass completely through the space in front of me, absorbed into the black I’m searching within. It requires a dedicated seven minutes of patient studying before the phrases finally reveal themselves to me, and they do so reluctantly. Just as soon as I hook onto a letter, it disappears into dark again, and I feel as if I’m trying to pull my reflection from a stream; every form evaporates just as soon as I’ve grasped it.

Stepping, finally, away, I have to blink hard a few times. The space around me appears different than before I began to look. I am not satisfied with what I have found fully, and as I glance back I see that the phrases have, reliably, disappeared once again, text invisible. But these pieces were not made for any notion of satisfaction, and I think back to Rabinovich and her love, as she’s stated, of the “ineffable nature of things, objects, and words.” This little corner of the library shines as a testament to just that, and I am in awe to be reveling in the middle of it. Finally it hits me, as I grapple with a disappointing and wonderfully human realization: these are pages that I want to read, and perhaps that is the point. As humans, our consciousness is rooted deeply in curiosity, we crave constant and continuous absorption of knowledge. Illusive, invisible, and as intangible it may be, it is in the meditation of concentrated considering that we might begin to understand what sits before our very eyes.

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