The following articles were written for and printed in the catalogue of the exhibition:
Dorothy Robbins, The Human Theater,
at the Janko-Dada Museaum 2009-2010.
Putting together this project has been like a treasure hunt, in which all the pieces have been left scattered about, and it has been only a matter of following one clue to the next and then fitting them all together to finally get the story in its entirety.
My Mother's house was severely damaged in the fire of Ein Hod in 1998. Her room which held the file cabinet containing all the documentation, years of compilation of photos, slides, names and addresses of people who bought her works, was turned into heaps of ash.
But true to her nature, she never looked back, and took what was left of some smoldering photos of works from before she moved to Israel, and cut the burnt edges. These precious photos provided a sequence, created a continuity for us to trace the narrative back to its beginnings… for your sculptures tell the story of your life. They are as personal and autobiographical as you can get.
Although the comprehensive documentation was destroyed, several fine wood carvings turned into smoking logs, and many works damaged and needing restoration, thankfully the fire left your studio intact and there, waiting to be retrieved, were catalogues of sculpture, poetry, diaries, and more than 300 works, ready to tell the tale of both a creative and a heroic life.
"The spirit is destined to live even
after it departed from this life."
Dorothy Elaine, was born on February 15, 1920, on a cold and snowy night, the third daughter of Ella and Benjamin Schochen, who were immigrants from Russia, both arrived in the state of Ohio, U.S.A. as babies. The name Dorothy (Dorothea) means, "gift of God".
"Little baby, gift of God,
arrived in the wee hours of morn,
began her cries from the day she was born
heard round the neighboring region."
Dottie, as she was called by her sisters and friends, grew up in Lakewood, Ohio. Being from the only Jewish family in the otherwise Catholic neighborhood, the three sisters were often stoned on their way home from school. Dottie was strong, as quick to anger as she could be to tears, and always courageous, fighting for what she believed in. She threw stones back.
The parents had a clothing store, Star Bargains, where they worked long hours. The three talented sisters were happy to have their time to themselves to play games of
"make believe". All three were to become artists: Seyril, the eldest, a playwright, Muriel, the middle one, a teacher and director of children's theatre, and Dottie, the youngest, a sculptor.
"Who are these drummer girls
demanding to be heard
to the distant horizon?"
At the age of ten Dottie sculpted her first piece of "significance", as she later called it. At the synagogue there was a soap carving contest. Dottie sculpted the head of Moshe (Rabenu) and won first prize, $1.00, which she gave to her Mother.
Dottie graduated from Ohio State University (B.A. with Distinction), was married and moved with her new husband Irv, an educator, future psychologist, and then conscripted soldier in World War Two, to live at an army base in San Antonio, Texas. At the local library she found a book which was to herald in the beginning of her professional life as an artist. The book was called: Sculpture Inside and Out, by Malvina Hoffman, and in it Cranbrook Academy of Art was mentioned as a special and excellent place to study art. Working with clothespins she put together armatures over which she modeled clay figures, idea from the many beggars they saw on their trips to Mexico." She photographed the works and was accepted to Cranbrook in 1948. Later she called her time at Cranbrook, the happiest period of her life. From that point on Dottie's sculptures became her autobiography, the outer image of her inner world.
Dottie never considered herself a feminist, and yet she dared to cross the threshold of what women and women artists were considered to be capable of doing: Dottie became one of the first women welders, welding in steel and copper in the 1950s while living in N.Y.C., and a member of
The Sculpture Center. In the same year, 1954, she had her first one-person show in The Sculpture Center, and gave birth to me. After her divorce, needing to make a living, Dottie went to Hunter College, and got a Master's Degree. Later in 1966, she was hired as the third sculpture teacher in the 24 all-male studio faculty of New Paltz StateUniversity College.
In 1971 Avraham Kamph offered Dottie a position to help start the Art Department at the University of Haifa. This was to be for her a new beginning, a new era of creation and development as she became Chairman of the Art Department for three years and as a Senior Lecturer taught sculpture there for twelve years. Dottie didn't need any label of "feminist" to be modern. She was simply herself, an idealist fighting for what she believed in.
Dottie was always innovative in her work, sensuously enjoying exploring different materials and their possibilities. She would get interested in a certain technique that she discovered, and then produce a series, the pieces being united by their style and general subject, as if creating a narrative. The figure, the person was at the center of the drama, acting out her story on the stage of her creation. Always she worked on at least two pieces at the same time, so that as one sculpture was finished she was already moving on to the next, in a continuous flow… The worst time for her was if caught after a series had finished and before a new theme presented itself. It was during this in-between period when the clay would help… Working in Terracotta was always like coming home, something to come back to, before venturing to a new phase.
Dottie was diagnosed with progressive muscular dystrophy in 1962.
The neurologist explained that it was impossible to know when the disease would become acute. Thus began a race against time. The theme of "running ever faster" became apparent in her work, as well as the themes of balance, standing erect, yearning, conflict, striving for being spiritually alive in the face of physical deterioration. All these, in addition to the previous themes of the innocent games of childhood, motherhood, the family totem,the mentor-teacher, biblical themes, mythology, and the attraction to the circus and world of freaks. In many ways Dottie felt an affinity with the deformed and suffering.
One could say that her physical condition dictated the media she chose. In the beginning, when young and strong she carved in stone, until use of the pneumatic drill became physically impossible, she then turned to wood carving, direct plaster, welding, and later to softer and more intimate methods such as working in wax and casting into bronze, the very texture of her fingerprints embedded in the bronze. Dottie's changing physical condition never limited her, but channeled and inspired her to new discoveries. She would hold her works tenderly on her lap while she sat in her rocking chair in her studio, the rocking chair enabling her to reach with rhythmic ease all the tools she needed.
During the periods of recovery from the four operations she had during the last nine years of her life, she began writing poetry. The poetry became another dimension, extension of her creativity. Creating was her life force, her life line, and she sculpted literally till the day she died, the last piece being a masked drummer, beating out his victory song.
"Protectively I guard my cause
renewing the loving force
to understand a changing reality
and maintain my reason for being."
Dottie was constantly testing the boundaries of her existence, her perceptions of both beauty and suffering, and her belief that the spirit can overcome limitations of the physical.
It is not always that children have the opportunity to resurrect the one who gave them life. But it has all been waiting for this moment – ten years since you died – to bring this project together, with the help of many wonderful people, family and friends, whom I thank with all my heart for their support.
And yes, dear Mother, to answer your question:
"Can the spirit defy the body and rise to greater heights as if it is immortal?"
The answer is a resounding "Yes!"
The artist's daughter
* The quotes throughout this text are taken from my mother's poetry in: Dorothy Robbins, Heartland Beating – Sculptures and Writings 1991-1997, and from her diaries.
Dorothy Robbins – The Human Theater
“Mine is a miniature world,
a microcosm of attempted balance,
foreboding flaws and weakness
while maintaining an even steadiness.”
This excerpt from the poem “Miniature World”1, expresses the complex world of the artist Dorothy Robbins, representing human existence through a dramatic and metaphorical perspective. The sculptures created by Dorothy Robbins express the magical world of Man through great variety of forms, materials and techniques. As she said in her poem, she created a fragile and vulnerable microcosm, maintaining a balance between the real and the imaginary, the mundane and the heroic, the grotesque and the mythological.
Dorothy Robbins paved her artistic path in New York during the fifties, a period characterized by a creative outburst which evolved into the New York School and Abstract Expressionism. The term "action painting”, coined by Harold Rosenberg in 1952, was associated with the New York School that became at the time a kind of new religion in American art. Even though there were coinciding movements in Western Europe, like the French INFORMEL and Lyrical Abstraction –that came to be known in Israel through the New Horizons group – the American movement was unique in the manner in which it opposed the figurative tradition of European Painting.A painting functioning as peep hole for the viewer was replaced by apainting which is a tangible element, combining the surface and the paint to create a unified artistic whole. American sculpture at the time did not challenge tradition with the same level of intensity as painting, and it is difficult to find any work made of metal or stone which corresponds to Jackson Pollock’s spills or to the large brush strokes of Franz Kline.
Nevertheless one can recognize change and innovation in sculptor Alexander Calder, who displayed an inventive artistic capacity, especially with his mobiles that created movement in space; and insculptor David Smith who made an artistic shift from painting to sculpture. Due to his intense passion for experimentation, he liberated his work from traditional art making by putting together totem-like elements from welded steel cubes. This technique symbolized freedom and liberation from the sculptural tradition and influenced the younger generation.
Dorothy Robbins, who was a member of the Sculpture Center in New York in those days, was influenced by the innovations of the young avant-garde artists. She was one of the first to internalize the new artistic sensibilities, creating sculptures witha welding technique and a sense of creative freedom and spontaneity. Dorothy’s period of artistic trial and error was short. She did not connect with sculptural abstraction, and gradually applied the spirit of freedom and the welding techniques to volumetric figuration. Thus, Dorothy combined her personal urge to express a narrative with free, light and airy sculptures. Despite her exposure to the creative eruption in New York during the fifties, Dorothy Robbins remained loyal to herself and her heartfelt tendencies – to the human figure and to its endless expression. In her words: "To try to find a finality, a sculptured home for the feeling inherent in the concept".
Alberto Giacometti appears to be a spiritual mentor in Dorothy’s sculptural world (along with others like Jacques Lifschitz and Henry Moore), seemingly having an absolute influence on her handling of material, size and positioning, on the preoccupation with the human form and on the search for truth. But on a deeper level, Dorothy Robbins is completely different. She has a narrative both personal and theatrical combined together with mysticism. Alberto Giacometti went through a process of searching for truth through reduction of the form to a bare minimum. His sculptures became small, slender and upright simulations of reality. They are distant metaphorical symbols for man’s loneliness. In contrast, Dorothy Robbins created a colorful and theatrical human mosaic. For her Man, although fragile, is comprised of a wide spectrum of full of life and inventions. Her small sculptures present the extraordinary, the strange and grotesque in a warm and humane light. It is no surprise that she was often involved with theater, circus, music and movement.
Inspired by Walter De la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget, and the film “Freaks” by Tod Browning (1932), Dorothy created her most important and engaging body of work–a succession of dwarfs, acrobats, rope games, dancers and mythological characters. These sculptures present the poetry of humanity according to Dorothy Robbins, with compassion, honor and love of Man. Her sculptures are personal, magical and poetic.
“Life is built with desires
gems of faith and vision
arranged in artful mosaics
lit with beams of expectation.“ *
1 Dorothy Robbins, excerpt from “Miniature World”, Beats from Heartland – Autobiographical Reflections, Dorothy Robbins, Ein Hod Artists Village, 1999, p.168. This excerpt /poem appears also in Dorothy Robbins, Heartland Beating – Sculptures and Writings 1991-1997, Dorothy Robbins, Ein Hod Artists Village, 1998, p. 30.
2 Dorothy Robbins, excerpt from “Magnet”, Beats from Heartland – Autobiographical Reflections, Dorothy Robbins, Ein Hod Artists Village, 1999, p.164.