Take Five with Phil Rabovsky ’09

Phil Rabovsky ’09 is a painter and installation artist whose practice combines classical painting with contemporary theory. After earning a B.A. in visual art, philosophy and linguistics, he lived for a time in Budapest before resettling in New York City, where he completed an M.F.A. in art practice at the School of Visual Arts in 2018. He has been a visiting artist at SVA and teaches old master-style painting at Shoestring Press in Brooklyn, where he is a founding member. His first solo show opened at Van Der Plas Gallery on the Lower East Side in 2018; he completed a residency at the Studios at MASS MoCA in 2019. In April, Rabovsky launched the podcast Capital A, which takes an unflinching look at money, art and theory in the art world of today, as well as an unapologetic stand on the art world we could have tomorrow. Listen on iTunes, Spotify, Anchor and other platforms.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I think I felt like I had something to prove. I had grown up a Russian immigrant in a series of rust belt towns upstate, and transferred to the College as a sophomore, so it took a long time to shake the feeling that I was some kind of imposter. I was self-conscious, made poor fashion choices (even earning the nickname “homeless Phil” for a few semesters) and directed more than a few bursts of alcohol-infused bravado at people who were really just minding their own business. It took me at least a year to feel comfortable — like no one was going to tap me on the shoulder to say there had been a terrible mistake at the admissions office, and could please try to avoid making a scene on my way out the door.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I lived in Shapiro and Wien. The semester in Shapiro I shared a double with a gentleman whose name I no longer recall, and all I remember about my single in Wien was that it had its own sink, presumably a relic from the building’s (rumored?) days as a mental institution.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

The science requirement forced me to reckon quite early with the fact that I had no particular aptitude for mathematics. My calculus II professor promised to pass me on the condition that I “show improvement.” I agreed, and by the end of the semester, I went from dead last in the class to second-to-last in the class. That experience disabused me of any notion that I might go into something quantitative. By contrast, I felt quite comfortable in Contemporary Civ. I had been taking philosophy classes since high school, when I would drive up to the University of Rochester for evening classes with undergraduates. For whatever reason, it had never occurred to me that the things I am naturally drawn to are probably the things I should be doing with my life. The second thing I was naturally drawn to was art — and today, my art practice combines painting and installation elements with contemporary philosophy and theory.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

The Claremont dorms, despite the fact that I never lived there. A friend had a suite there, and the parties she and her roommates threw were practically the foundation of my education. I loved my classes of course, but I really believe it’s your peer group that has the greatest impact on you both as a person and a thinker. Through her and her friends, I was introduced to many ideas I would not have otherwise engaged with, ideas that profoundly affected the course of my intellectual development. Those late-night conversations are what I miss most about life as a student, but she and I remain close friends.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

There are two classes I wish I had taken: “Set Theory” with Achille Varzi, and “Minimalism” with Brandon Joseph GS’13. I adored Varzi and Joseph from other classes I had taken with them, but at the time I had this dogmatic notion of who I was and what I was interested in. As life would have it, both subjects turned out to be things I later developed a lot of interest in, and I have deeply regretted not allowing myself to dive into them earlier with my favorite professors due to some rigid idea of what was and was not supposed to be interesting to me.

The other thing I wish I had done more of is go to parties. I actually did go to a lot of parties, but at the time I didn’t realize that those experiences were shaping my education, and that one day they would end. Good conversation is hard to come by outside the artificial ecosystem of a college campus. This is the main reason that I started my podcast, Capital A. I want it to function as a dialogue between people about things they actually care about. For the time being it’s just me talking, but my hope is that one day, it will have the same natural give and take as some of those late-night discussions in the kitchen of Claremont.