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Sarah Rapson: Mad in Pursuit

by Chris McCormack
Reviews / Exhibition • 12.04.2024

On an early spring evening in Paris, without any gallery lighting, the opening preview of Mad in Pursuit by Sarah Rapson (b.1959) saw visitors chasing the last of the sun’s rays to view her largely non-pictorial surfaces made up of black ink, ash, white oil paint, layers of newspaper, printed matter and plaster. This granular, even erotic, attention that Rapson ushered to the shifts in light is indicative of a practice in which the apparently empty and void-like is filled with the detritus of art history and the traces of those who have made it.

Since the early 1990s Rapson has made spoken-word recordings, black-and-white films and paintings, often incorporating all these elements in an exhibition. Her distinctive tall and narrow canvases on hand-built frames that she roughly cuts together are the result of years of an exacting, contemplative labour at her home in Bridport, Dorset. At points, the jutting wood under the canvas or linen resembles a knucklebone or wrist; at others, the curve of a work as it pulls away from the gallery wall recalls a spine or a body stretching outwards in space FIG.1. Arranged in pairs, quartets and sometimes solitary formations, the assembled works bring to mind recurring notes in a score of music or tombstones awaiting their final inscriptions. The three largest pieces, Newhouse I FIG.2, II FIG.3 and III, are spaced across the gallery’s three rooms – the folds and white skim of paint disperse a reflective haze that is as material as it is ephemeral. The series was first presented at Cohan Leslie and Browne, New York, in 2003 and at the Lyon Biennial in 2011. On the latter occasion, a reproduction of a photograph of women constructing a gallery was affixed to Newhouse I, which has been subsequently buried under layers of oil paint, matter and plaster FIG.4.

This process is part of Rapson’s way of finding an image: she often applies additional layers of paint and reworks surfaces, found and remade, over several years. For example, in an early, formative period of her career, she worked as a studio assistant to Richard Prince (b.1949), and an offcut of one of his paintings forms the support for a work in this exhibition FIG.5. The exhibition becomes a site in which these contingencies might be momentarily fixed, one that recalls the art historian Allan Leepa’s description of Minimalism as ‘an effort to relate the observer to the thing observed at that point where human perception brings them together – in the magic of the phenomenon of experiencing itself’.1 Walking through this exhibition, the viewer can find affinities with these concepts – be it Robert Ryman’s ‘anti-narrative’ materialism or the more punkish spirit of Piero Manzoni’s Achromes, as well as the more readymade abstraction of Louise Lawler’s A Movie Will Be Shown Without the Picture (1979). Rapson manifests a resistant obliquity, similar to that which Leepa terms ‘magic’, one where the work’s surfaces flex a cognitive tension as our eyes search for either meaning or momentary rest.

In a world in which one can call up and access images with ease, Rapson wrestles with the space of documentation itself as an endless displacement and overlaying of exhibition history, applying black-and-white installation photography taken from art magazines to the walls and windows. In Monet FIG.6, for example, a photograph of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies at Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, is attached to the gallery window, and a smudge of masking tape on the wall holds an image of an ornate writing desk in sans titre FIG.7. These inclusions further capture the space between the abstract and the photographic, the speculative and the indexical – one edging into the space of the other as if joined in some libidinal art cult circuit. Additional ghosts of the art world are affixed to the walls, windows and edges of canvases. In several of her works, Rapson cuts and tapes together columns from the New York Times, which are again rendered invisible with a coat of paint. A gallery handout reveals the otherwise hidden streams of culled text, an automation of language in which the seemingly unrelated spaces of current affairs, politics and the art market collide.

The various printed texts that are glued to the edges of the paintings often comprise former and current letterheads of commercial galleries, including Galerie Buchholz, Richard Green FIG.8 and Ghislaine Hussenot FIG.9, in wildly differing fonts. The gallery names act as a trade or technical language in the work, including those that, once set up in the cultural capitals of Paris, New York or London, are now long-forgotten. Other art-related phases, such as ‘by appointment’, repeatedly appear and speak of the secretive aura of business behind closed doors, conjoining the art world to the private services of sex workers, therapists and other consultative disciplines. This sort of folkloric provenance seems to be fully ingrained in Rapson’s world, and has been described by her gallerist as a ‘romantic conceptualism’.2 It is telling that her current representative galleries of Modern Art and Essex Street, New York, do not appear. One wonders whether the gluing of other gallery names – which will be familiar to some, yet obscure to many – onto the edges of her canvases might also be read as an implicitly gendered form of imposter syndrome, a way for Rapson to search for assurance in an elusive art history. As the writer Violette Leduc (1907–72), from whom Rapson takes the title of her exhibition, ambivalently writes in her autobiography La Bâtarde: ‘my birth certificate fascinates me. Or else revolts me. Or bores me. I read it through from beginning to end whenever I feel the need’.3

The biography of the city itself is similarly coded throughout the exhibition: Rapson, in her decision to fasten or leave the gallery’s slatted window shutters temptingly ajar, muffles the sensory overload of the busy street below and obscures the view of the Eiffel Tower, as though the hum of the external world might be momentarily left behind. Nonetheless, the limited view of the city – itself a crucible of post-war thinking that turned cultural and psychoanalytic inquiry into a revolutionary act of defiance and political protest – seems to seep into the works’ references. The forays into bohemianism that Rapson, perhaps romantically, holds in her imagination in relation to the lives of artists, and which Paris itself so critically ensnares, is consciously woven into the exhibition with a certain wryness. The artist’s predilection for Parisian past dramas is particularly apparent in her interest in Lacanian psychoanalysis, and her belief that the ‘fantasy of being a painter is dead’ – it is hard not to read her use of ash as part of this burial act.4

The idea of one’s limited lifespan is embedded in the striated surfaces of these paintings, a concept that is tethered to the physical experience of looking at art: of viewing works and the labour that underpins it, slight as it may seem – such as the present author’s eyes straining in the dusk. This is brought to bear in the title of the exhibition, Mad in Pursuit, which is taken from a book by Leduc, who, despite being highly respected by her peers – most notably Simone de Beauvoir – left critics underwhelmed and was all but ignored by the public. Rapson’s ‘pursuit’ similarly joins her to this madly, romantically singular temperament and the often inexplicable task of artmaking, one that in reality is also physically exhausting. For example, in her black-and-white Super 8 film, Wishing Well (2021), which was included in Rapson’s show at Modern Art in London in 2021, we see the artist frantically scoop sand into a leather suitcase atop a dune, to the strains of the English rock band Free’s track of the same name (1973). The sense of lugging oneself along, regardless of the costs, is a metric that for Rapson appears to be mysteriously compelling. The inhabiting of lives beyond her own is not an opportunity for self-reinvention, or at least not solely, but rather a chance for the communion with those who are otherwise deemed insignificant in writing, poetry and art history. Leduc herself, who sits at the relative margins of cultural history, once observed that ‘I don’t think of myself as not understood. I think of myself as non-existent’.5

The governance of the methods of documenting and categorising art in public contexts – galleries, museums and sites of performance or presentation – has calcified into a set of predispositions that dictate what is possible in the visual field. Rapson bypasses these rigidities and returns us to the mythologies that stem from the ways in which the archives of exhibition-making are conceptualised and understood. She traces a quizzical ‘something’ glimpsed in the languages that hold the gallery system together – the blur, the tiniest clue of text that might unravel the thread – tapping at the edges of the erased, the ‘non-existent’, to see what remains, until it is painted over again.


Exhibition details

Sarah Rapson: Mad in Pursuit
Modern Art, Paris
15th March–20th April 2024 

About the author

Chris McCormack

is a writer and Associate Editor of Art Monthly.


  • A. Leepa: ‘Minimal art and primary meanings’ [1968], in G. Battcock, ed.: Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, Berkeley 1995, pp.200–08, at p.201, emphasis in original. footnote 1
  • Eleanor Crabtree, in conversation with the present author, March 2024. footnote 2
  • V. Leduc: La Bâtarde, Funks Grove IL 2023, transl. D. Coltman, p.35. footnote 3
  • Sarah Rapson, in conversation with the present author, March 2024. footnote 4
  • Violette Leduc, quoted in E. Garman: ‘Feminize your canon: Violette Leduc’, The Paris Review (9th August 2018), available at, accessed 8th April 2024. footnote 5

See also

Drawing out: speculative seriality in Richard Tuttle’s ‘Looking for the Map’

Drawing out: speculative seriality in Richard Tuttle’s ‘Looking for the Map’

Drawing out: speculative seriality in Richard Tuttle’s ‘Looking for the Map’

by Laura Lake Smith • Journal article

Interpreting the monochrome: how Li Yuan-chia, Piero Manzoni and Robert Ryman ascribe meaning to their white monochrome surfaces
Interpreting the monochrome: how Li Yuan-chia, Piero Manzoni and Robert Ryman ascribe meaning to their white monochrome surfaces

Interpreting the monochrome: how Li Yuan-chia, Piero Manzoni and Robert Ryman ascribe meaning to their white monochrome surfaces

by Maia Tacey • Journal article