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Rabinovitch in a 
T-37, ca 1959

Red Bath II

The Garden

Yellow Angel


Pulp Fiction

Red Horse


Chinese Lady


Aboriginal Ritual


Aboriginal Ritual

how being a jet 
pilot prepared 
me for a life 
in art 

by Bill Rabinovitch

You may know me as a SoHo artist, with 

paintings at local restaurants and with my 

own biweekly TV show, Art Seen, featuring 

gallery visits, artist interviews and plays
and performance pieces.

But you might not know that many years ago
I trained to become a jet pilot. From
childhood I had an unquenchable dream to 

fly. I was always interested in flight, the 

space age, the discoveries of deep space 

research and knowing that somehow I had to 

become part of it.

I had gone to prep school in Worcester, 

Mass., and graduated in 1958 with a B.S. 

degree in mechanical engineering from 

Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a leading 

engineering school. I had thought I would 

be an engineer, like Leonardo. Then I 

decided I wanted to be a test pilot--I was 

perfect for it, small and light--and 

eventually an astronaut.

I applied to Air Force flight training 

school, first in Lackland, Tex., where I 

received basic military training and a 

little flight training in the Aviation 

Cadet Program. I took my real flight 

training stationed in Bainbridge, Ga. This 

was in 1959-60, and was the toughest thing 

I ever did, major physical training, 24 

hours a day. We started with Cessna T-34s, 

a single-engine prop plane, and graduated 

to the Cessna T-37 twin jet, a very compact 

and powerful low-wing plane. Though it 

wasn't supersonic, it was still very fast, 

400-500 knots. We soloed after 10 hours. 

The first flight was very scary; it was 

almost the last flight.

Jet pilot training was tough. The Tom 

Cruise thing, like in the movie Top Gun, 

was real. Only a high state of exuberant 

gung-ho togetherness could get you past the 

physical training and the rigors of flight 

school. But of course at the same time it 

was also an incredibly individualistic 

challenging thing and you were pretty much 

pushed to the limit the whole while. In a 

sense a team sport with a shared 

camaraderie for the ideal we were striving 

for, which was to become jet pilots.

And it was exciting, pulling negative gee's 

in million-dollar aircraft, or going 

straight up like a missile. Yeah, 

head-wrenching, adrenalin-squrting, 

galloping horses kind of excitement. We 

were free in a new element called sky. And 

every day someone would be booted out of 

the program for some reason. More then half 

the class didn't make it and they were 

already all hand-picked. I was being pushed 

through a narrow tube at very high 

pressure. Definitely a birth experience. 

Kind of like participating in a mythic 

higher dimension. Even my assigned call 

sign was unusual--"Seminole 62."

The biggest, toughest part of the training 

was gaining the agility and confidence to 

become responsive to that sleek aircraft 

that would launch me into the 3-D skies at 

fantastic speeds, while feeling only this 

slight vibration and muffled roar. The 

plane responded to the slightest touch of 

the controls. We became bonded together in 

an intimate way. You could feel it, and it 

you, with great sensitivity. A true 

wedding of man and machine into one really 

cool thing. Virtual reality, eat your heart 


Some of my memories are about skimming 

really fast just over the tops of smooth 

grey stratus clouds that stretched out flat 

as giant billiard tables all the way to the 

infinite horizon while doing precise slow 

rolls where just my wing tips would duck 

into the cloud surface as I would turn over 

and over upside down.

Or singling out some especially beautiful 

cumulous cloud that existed like a mighty 

rounded cathedral, pure bright white 

against the sharp cerulean blue sky and 

moving in real close and using the jet's 

acrobatic abilities to smoothly trace its 

slowly changing gargantuan architecture as 

if feeling some beautiful Rodin sculpture 

from all sides before entering the 

impenetrable grey stillness of its 


Today my artist friends say I have a 

terminal case of curiosity.

It was life and death all balanced on 

split-second reflexes and decisions. A 

little lack of attention and it all could 

unravel real fast, possibly putting you in 

the position of having to eject--and no 

one, I mean no one, wanted to go through 

that. So there was a element of risk-taking 

and danger that I grew to like. I was 

dealing with nature and technology in a 

really direct, first-hand way.

I wrote a little piece for Paul & Melissa's 

EIDIA book,Food Sex Art, a few years back. 


I use a cooking simmering process as part 

of my working, new

images are established over old, retouched, 

rethought, new

ingredients added, different colors, new 

textures, spots of

glitter. I try to keep it all moving and be 

really engaged

in the process. Sometimes of course it 

stops, it stumbles,

looks bad and gets worse, the taste goes 

flat, my friends

look away. So I let it simmer...then one 

day it's working,

it's moving, it's coming to life. The main 


really pops out, the figures become 

engaged, other stuff is

taken out or pared down. Now it really 

starts cooking. I add

the spices, and as I did when flying jets, 

kick in the

afterburners, climbing into the red line in 

the statosphere

doing beautiful slow rolls.

Flying, at least the part of flying when 

there was time for contemplation and 

exploration, gave me a certain unusual 

perspective. The sky is a big place and 

often incredibly beautiful. And in a 

screaming jet rising up into the air very 

quick like some fabulous angel the 

exhilaration of flying became a raw 

adrenaline rush. It was perfect--for me it 

was totally unrelated to the classical 

ideas of flight like those in Renaissance 

paintings where Christ or some other saint 

is levitating or to some sort of da Vinci 

wooden flying machine. It was more like a 

Lindbergh, or the Spitfires over England, 

or the Harrier jets in Iraq or the Phantoms 

in Israel. Definitely a romantic 

expressionism type of thing for me.

I clearly remember the scuttlebutt the day 

before graduation in 1961. We were all 

being sent to jet bomber school, the entire 

class. I was in shock, this was a kick in 

the stomach. Here I was, my dream about to 

be fulfilled about being becoming a test 

pilot and then wham! I can see it all going 

down the tubes based on some Air Force 

decision that I just couldn't go along 

with. They just spent untold millions on us 

but there was no way I was going to be 

forced to become a bomber pilot. Dropping 

hydrogen bombs and vaporizing whole cities 

is definitely not what my life was going to 

be about. 

So on graduation morning--the last chance 

to back out--I said I QUIT! A SIE--self-

induced elimination. I can tell you they 

were flabbergasted. No one had ever gone 

through this program and walked out on them 

before. The next day I was cutting golf 

courses, and I've been into trouble from 

this point out.

My second career was as a scientist. I got 

a job as project planner for General 

Dynamics in Groton, Conn., working on 

atomic submarine projects. I was about 23 

years old. But I started getting upset 

again--they turned out to be ballistic 

missile subs. Another project involved a 

600-foot radio telescope, The Big Dish, on 

the side of a mountain in West Virginia. I 

discovered an engineering mistake that 

eventually caused the cancellation of the 

entire $30-million project. Then I left and 

went to Cambridge, where I worked in RCA's 

space electronics division. It was total 

Sci-Fi--horrifying, actually, it was all 

military applications. 

Finally I went to MIT, where I worked as 

right-hand-man to the visionary scientist 

who headed American Science & Engineering, 

this far-out deep-space research company. 

At the time ASE had just discovered quasars 

and neutron stars for the very first time. 

It was headline stuff and a major job for 

me after the Air Force. Well, it looked 

like my life was all set up; my beautiful 

white Porsche 1600 Super, my job as project 

scientist working on the furthest out, 

cuttingest-edge, deepest-space research 

ever known to mankind. 

I was 25 or 26, living in Arlington, 

working at MIT. Dr. Ricardo Giacconi, my 

visionary boss (who later became the 

project manager of the Hubble Space 

Telescope), wanted to turn me into a 

scientist. But it didn't turn out quite 

that way. I was getting more and more 

interested in painting. I started taking 

courses in my spare time at the Boston 

Museum School. Harvey Quaytman was one of 

my first teachers. Everything began to 

unravel once I started painting. There was 

somehow this drive in me to become a 

serious full-time artist. 

When talk at the company turned to 

supporting atmospheric Hydrogen Bomb 

testing, which we would do instrumentation 

for, for the money, I was very upset. The 

military insinuated itself into everything. 

I wanted a new career and I decided to be 

an artist.

I sold the Porsche, bought a VW camper and 

put everything I owned into it and moved to 

the West Coast to start my new career in 


I ended up in San Francisco, on Haight-

Ashbury, in 1964, just before the whole 

thing ignited. I took courses at the San 

Francisco Art Institute with Tom Holland 

and Fred Martin. I moved to Monterey to 

escape the Haight-Ashbury craziness and 

worked on the then almost-deserted Cannery 

Row, in an entire cannery for $150 a month, 

just two doors down from where Steinbeck 

placed Doc Rickets lab. I met my wife, 

Diane, a musician, piano and organ player 

and a singer. People would be driving up 

the coast at night, see our lights and drop 

in and buy a painting. That's how I 

survived. My wife was giving piano lessons. 

So you could say that my flying skills were 

related to freedom of expression and 

spontaneity as well as control and this 

later gave me a desire to have an 

adventurous edge in my painting. The art 

had to be done well and have rhythm and 

grace and great color and also be 

beautiful. Perhaps it's why my favorite 

subject matter in painting continues to be 

women. I'm in love with the idea of 

painting and all that it means, and 

especially the spiritual and mythological 

elements that I value so much.

To make a long story short, around 1971 my 

wife and I divorced and I came to New York 

in 1973 to attend the Whitney Museum's 

Independent Study Program. From 1973 to 

`75, with California artist Art Guerra (who 

now runs Guerra Paint on East 13th Street), 

I had a gallery at 63 Crosby (later home to 

the cooperative woman's gallery A.I.R.). 

From 1975 to `81 I ran a studio-gallery at 

74 Grand (now site of Paul Kasmin). It was 

a wild place that in many ways prefigured 

the East Village art scene. We showed our 

own work and members of the Rhino Horn 

group and others. There were incredibly 

colorful and wild parties, many sponsored 

by liquor companies as promotions.

The sense of adventure from my flying days 

also carried over to my choice of 

materials. Occasionally I have been able to 

invent new techniques: I believe I was the 

very first to combine layered epoxy resins 

with acrylic paints and combed gels in 

easel paintings. My process was inspired by 

Vermeer's incredibly mysterious jewel-like 

surfaces of great visual depth. Perhaps he 

applied paint with an eye dropper and then 

somehow fused the tiny beads together. 

Anyway, the epoxy resin's incredible 

translucency has become my modern way to 

achieve this sense of depth and brilliance.

Flying definitely prepared me for my life 

in the New York art world. The important 

thing is to keep to your own course. Once 

you lose yourself in trying to satisfy our 

fickle, wildly commercialized art system 

you are lost forever. Any deeper spiritual 

drive you have gets covered over with 

layers of intellectual bullshit that soon 

get hardwired into the brain and are almost 

impossible to dislodge. 

It's been an important part of my career to 

be involved in publicly challenging the 

forces that define the art world. Some of 

these have actions have received wide media 

attention. In 1977 (and also in 1979, '81 

and '83) I initiated the Whitney 

Counterweight exhibitions in SoHo along 

with Barnaby Ruhe, Elizabeth Converse, 

Vernita Nemec and other artists, to 

challenge the domination of the Whitney 

Biennial by commercial galleries. This last 

year, in 1995, I became one of the main 

figures involved in criticism of the Andy 

Warhol Foundation, which I felt should be 

revamped to allow grant funds to go 

directly to individual artists. Having been 

encouraged by Andy and having known him 

personally, I'm sure that's what he would 

have wanted.

In another little adventure I had, for more 

than three months in 1981, I would bring my 

paintings to West Broadway and lean them 

against the windows of the 420 building, 

usually on Tuesday morning between 10 a.m. 

and noon, when the dealers were coming to 

work, Charlie Cowles, Antonio from 

Sonnabend and of course Leo Castelli. At 

first they were rankled and would ignore 

me. Then Mary Boone from across the street 

would arrive in her Mercedes and say she 

wanted to help me arrange them correctly. I 

love that one, she would say, but I don't 

like that one. She gave me a very positive 

vibe. The cops never bothered me--not the 

way it is in SoHo now.

Recently I have been producing my popular 

Art Seen cable TV series combining my love 

of the visual arts with animation, great 

jazz and classical music, done in 

collaboration with many people, including 

the dancers Linda Larson and Jennifer Cook 

and painter Lei Chang, the musicians of the 

John Fischer Group, video editor David 

Channon and the jazz pianist Gust Tsilis. 

In Manhattan, my paintings are on view at 

Wendy's at Broadway and Bleecker, at the 

Visiones Jazz Club at West Third Street and 

MacDougal, and at the health-food shop next 

to the SoHo Guggenheim; I also completed a 

20-foot mural at the Canal Street Post 

Office in 1987. I have been continuing my 

long association with the Artists Talk on 

Art symposium series in SoHo, which has 

brought me into dialogue with hundreds of 

art-world personalities. Among my Art Seen 

television specials have been two on 

Picasso, including Picasso and the Weeping 

Women, and A Tragic Occurrence, featuring 

Egon Schiele and time travel to Christo's 

studio. During the last year I've done 

three shows with art historian Donald 

Kuspit exploring 20th-century art. I hope 

you can tune in to see Art Seen, aired 

every other week on Manhattan Cable 

Television channel 17 on Thursdays at 11:00 

p.m., repeated on Saturday afternoons at 

12:30 p.m. on channel 34.

David J. Brown, author of Mavericks of the 

Mind, put it well when he wrote the 

following about my work: "From out of the 

jangled urban machinery of New York City 

emerges the hopeful vision and optimistic 

cry of Figurative Expressionist William 

Rabinovitch. Working with acrylics on large 

panels, Rabinovitch masterfully expresses 

some of the timeless archetypal dramas of 

the evolving human spirit. Balancing 

paradoxes of nature--primate past with 

angel future, violent seriousness with 

playful silliness, sensuous biology with 

sharp technology--Rabinovitch's work is 

pulsatingly alive, vibrating with pleasant 

emotional explosions of color and forms. 

Most of Rabinovitch's work is fun and 

entertaining, as he blends together sliding 

erotic and mechanical forms with a wise and 

subtle high humor. Perhaps Rabinovitch 

achieves his greatest effect by layering 

forms upon forms, creating a 

multidimensional quality that reveals 

deeper and deeper depth to the viewer with 

careful observation."