Using Photography to Elevate the Ordinary

By Lawrence Biemiller

New York -- Robert Rindler is wandering happily around the Lower East Side, taking pictures of grated windows and blind doors and foundations thickly layered with paint. He aims his camera at a circular ashtray sitting on a ledge near a circular drain, at a sky-blue basement stairwell, at a red door and a green one that stand side by side. He photographs such ordinary-looking things, in fact, that at first you wonder what he's up to. A patch in the concrete at the base of a "No Parking" sign -- that's really worth a frame of film? "Look through here," he says, handing over his camera. "Get the whole patch in the frame, and the post." Separated from its context by the lens, the patch becomes a mysterious, almost biological shape, and the signpost its hard-edged counterpoint.

As dean of the School of Art at the Cooper Union, Mr. Rindler spends his days among some of the most talented and most highly trained artists in New York. He fills his office and his Bowery loft with wonderful pieces by Cooper students, and he takes great pleasure in assembling innovative exhibitions for the school's galleries. But he is also fascinated by the possibility of making ordinary things seem beautiful by giving people a fresh look at them -- at battered ashtrays and patches in sidewalks and how bed sheets end up in the morning after you've stumbled off to make coffee.

Among the ordinary things that interest Mr. Rindler this afternoon are examples of vernacular design -- stairs painted in colors chosen by building superintendents, a long wall that graffiti artists have decorated in memory of "Tony," cluttered shop windows and stenciled warning signs and security lights bolted between the elegant scrolls of old Ionic capitals. He is constantly intrigued by "all these little decisions people make to identify their particular space," Mr. Rindler says. He is similarly fascinated by "the detritus of our society -- the cheap, dumb things that you realize someone designed, manufactured, shipped, and sold."

In fact, he is a great collector of detritus -- plastic toys, rubber stamps, little shrink-wrapped watercolor sets from dime stores -- as well as of books and ceramics and the kinds of art that you can hang on a wall. He volunteers that he is a "pack rat," which sounds innocent enough until he says, "I basically have every article of clothing I've owned since I was adult-sized." Or until he says, "I have a couple of thousand slides of yellow things," or "I have a major collection of patterns of the insides of bank envelopes." And although he takes lots of photographs, he doesn't think of himself as a photographer. He takes pictures as a way of collecting things that are too big to carry home.

There is a logic to Mr. Rindler's collecting. He says objects and images can have meanings as clear as those of words -- it's just a matter of putting the objects or images in a cetain order. "The same words are in a poem as are in a tax form," he says. "It's really context, sequence, and relationship that make the poem. The same thing is true of objects." He has mounted major, well-reviewed exhibitions of -- among other things -- prints of his shirts; selected small objects, grouped by color; 100 one-minute drawings of a woman he once lived with; and self-portraits taken every seven minutes by a camera mounted over his bed at night. More recently he has exhibited photographs of tropical architecture, of windows, and of anonymous facades.

Bringing order to chaos is a theme in Mr. Rindler's life. He was born and raised in New York City -- in Astoria, Queens. His father delivered milk and his mother assembled necklaces at home. When he was a boy, he helped his mother by sorting pearls into velvet trays according to their size. Now he deploys pens, calculators, toys, and remote controls in tidy, perfect regiments on the broad table that he uses for a desk, betraying the same compulsion for order that leads him to rake the beach behind the Cape Cod house he shares with his partner, James Connors.

"It's a big house, kind of chock-full," Mr. Rindler says. "I make James crazy because I come home with things, and he says, 'Where are we going to put that?'" Indeed, the afternoon's photo expedition detours into a shop called ModWorld that is full of unusual household items, like lamps made out of old toasters. In the back room Mr. Rindler picks up a throw pillow with neon colors and strange fringes. "I may need to have this," he says, turning it over several times. By nightfall it has a place of honor on the couch in the Bowery loft.

Mr. Rindler says he is "a total product of the New York City public-school system." He applied to Cooper Union intending to study art, but became interested in architecture instead. After he graduated, he enrolled in a master's program in environmental design at Yale University. In 1975 he joined the faculty at the University of Vermont, where he soon became the art-department chairman. Five years later he moved to the Boston Architectural Center to be dean of students, and from there he went to the Rhode Island School of Design. He came back to Cooper as dean of the art school in 1994. Now 48, he is friendly and talkative. He enjoys his job: Making it possible for others to create things can be as rewarding as creating things yourself.

Not that he has ever stopped creating, or thinking about creating. Accustomed to the New York art scene, he was surprised to find so many students and faculty members making ceramics and quilts when he first went to Vermont. "I became interested in the question, What is art? I concluded that art is about ideas, and I started doing work that didn't involve my own hand." In the years since, he has worked not only with objects and cameras but also with with color photocopiers and even with images taken from videotapes. A similar experience led him to explore variations on themes: "I went to Europe and took 20 rolls of film, and I came back and I was amazed at how boring the pictures were -- churches and towers. A friend of a friend went to Europe and took a picture of every bathroom he used -- I thought it was absolutely brilliant." Mr. Rindler started doing things like photographing his bed every morning after he got out of it.

Out of such projects came his interest in elevating the ordinary. "I can't deny that Warhol and others were doing similar things," he says, but for him the possibility of elevating the ordinary struck a particular chord. His pieces succeed in part because variations on a theme are compelling -- comparison is one of the primary ways we learn. But they also succeed because they teach you to look more closely at the world around you -- to see, as if through a camera lens, a patch in the sidewalk, or the way your own dining-room chairs stand just so against the wall.

Mr. Rindler can see the back of Robert Rauschenberg's house from the kitchen window of the loft, but he is not particularly famous himself. He admits to thinking about this sometimes. "My work has suffered in review and evaluation," he says, "because it deals in concepts that can be dismissed, like decoration or humor. Some artists struggle to up the ante on how obscure or deep the issues in their art can be, but it's always my desire to have a piece work on many levels -- to have it be accessible.

"I guess that means I'm not going to be on the cover of Artforum. Does that mean I should leave art? Not make things? Not talk about it? I don't think so. For each of us, the issue is to find your own voice in a way that makes you feel self-fulfilled. If along the way somebody taps into it and thinks you're great, so much the better."

Copyright (c) 1996 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc. Title: Using Photography to Elevate the Ordinary in New York Published: 96/09/20