The influential Bay Area artist Alan Rath — known for unprecedented electronic sculptures — is dead at 60 years old. He died on Oct. 27 due to complications from a rare type of multiple sclerosis, according to his gallerist Dianne Dec, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.
Alan Rath, software-based kinetic sculptor, dead at 60
Rath has pioneered the niche art of kinetic sculptures guided with software since the early 1980s — using software he himself designed. Rath's robotic structures typically include computer-generated animations of disembodied human body parts — a gaping mouth or roving eye, for example — to exemplify his fascination in the relationship between human nature, machines, and systems of technology.
In Vanity (1992), for example, custom-built electronics were contained inside a mirrored cupboard, which in turn reflected an animation of a human face. In a later work called Watcher VII (2011), there are two eyes jutting out from either side of a white metal device of some kind, reports ARTnews.
"The more you study humans, the more you see that we're machines," said Rath to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001. "The more you study machines, the more you see that they evolve and are undergoing this trend of greater complexity, which seems to mimic an organic evolution to a state which eventually has to be sentient."
Alan Rath earned MIT electrical engineering degree
Born in 1959 in the city of Cincinnati, Rath graduated college in 1982 with a degree in electrical engineering — from MIT — where he studied with Otto Piene, a German kinetic artist, at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies. Piene, too, was a pioneer whose works engaged the idea of motion with light and other materials.
Other major influences of Rath's included David Smith, Alexander Calder, and Robert Moog — an engineer from the U.S. who also invented the first analog synthesizer.
Once he finished college, Rath designed electronics for computer graphics before he eventually felt pulled into the visual arts. "I wanted to go back to building my little machines," he said, reports ARTnews. He moved into the Bay Area in 1983, and was awarded a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts — and earned a feature show in the 1991 Whitney Biennial. Later, in 2019, the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art staged a retrospective on his work.
Alan Rath's work used computer graphics, software to examine human perception
As of writing, his sculptures are retained in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the San Jose Museum of Art, Berkeley Art Museum, Pacific Film Archive, and the Los Angeles Museum of Art, and many other institutions.
While computer graphics software helps professionals from several fields — from engineers to architects — plan major projects, it also opens the door to explore unexamined modes of perception that often work in the background, like silent assumptions in a vast and complex machine.
With Alan Rath's death, we've lost a pioneer of this unexplored inner-space of relating humans to machines and technology. But we've gained a foothold on how our self-perception changes as we continue to build ourselves into an increasingly advanced and virtual world that constantly reshapes who and what we are.