A local gallery once refused to put a Randall Rosenthal box of money sculpture in its window.
To do so would have been a great come-on for the gallery, as the $100 “bills,” tied in bundles with a “rubber band” and set in a “carton,” were strikingly real-looking, but the owner feared a break in. Those fortunate enough to own a Rosenthal report similar first reactions from friends—yellow pads, baseball cards, sections of The New York Times, some pieces topped off with the Times Crossword Puzzle (filled in!)—causing viewers to think they’re seeing the real thing, but the joke’s on them, an aesthetic joke. What this talented, award-winning wood artist creates in his Springs studio and exhibits in galleries and museums all over the world may well be unique—ordinary objects carved from a single piece of Vermont pine, then inked and painted in a teasing nod to hyper-realism. In an interview in a recent issue of PoetsArtists Magazine, Rosenthal is quoted as noting that in 1994, at his first show in New York, Salvador Dali wrote “Bravo” in the guest book.
The illusion Rosenthal generates points to his great skill in producing work where process is finally seen as the essential achievement, an effect not unlike that created by Jackson Pollock’s gestural abstracts. Pollock is one of Rosenthal’s favorite artists along with Van Gogh and Saul Steinberg. Referencing painters is natural and significant for the young-looking, athletic 67-year-old.
Until he was 40, Rosenthal considered himself exclusively a painter. In the ’70s he was doing both figurative and color field canvases. In the ’80s he did square paintings of water surfaces, both figurative and abstract, and then in the ’90s he quit painting altogether when he started building architectural models. A graduate of The Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, where he majored in painting, Rosenthal went on to do carpentry work, eventually assisting Norman Jaffe as an architectural designer. Sculpting an open-page bible for the Jaffe synagogue in East Hampton, Rosenthal found himself turning increasingly to what would become his signature work. By now he and his wife, the photographer Caren Rosenthal, were living in a 100+ year-old tool shed in Springs which he built out into a home warmed by a wood-burning fire (“it does the entire house”). His nearby studio full of color-coded tools, wood, paint and toy cars, is where the magic takes place.
Trends and styles come and go, but Rosenthal sculptures only seem to get more popular. Just this past January, major articles and full-page ads in various publications—including Louis K. Meisel’s handsome book Photorealism in the Digital Age, Art News, PoetsArtists Magazine (no. 52) and rht, a premier Turkish fine arts magazine—not to mention a segment on the Today show, resulted in one million hits in a day to his website, randallrosenthal.com.
Well, the impish Rosenthal concedes, actually 998,000, but “is that cool?” He loves what he does—“it’s not about the money”—except sculpted money—and he works on similar pieces constantly: “there’s always room for improvement” and for refining technique. For example, he’s carving another in his box-of-money series and wants to smooth out an area that’s inaccessible with a regular carving tool. So he makes a tool, in this case gluing sticky sandpaper to a flexible palette knife. His studio overflows with invented, as well as standard, tools, including a power saw, though 75% of his work is handmade; “hand tools cut cleaner.” Most of the dimensions and angles are freeform. Larger pieces can take up to three to four months, smaller ones a few weeks, but the process is the same—exacting, “totally reductive” carving, much of it intuitive, from a single block of wood. He sculpts by removing material, the exact opposite of what he does when he gets to the painting part, and he paints until he is satisfied. Neither mode, he points out, leaves much room for error.
“The sculptures I create have no meaning other than trying to create a very strong visual image,” says Rosenthal. That they do.