Interview with Art Rosenbaum by Kristen Peyton

When did your career in art begin? What compelled you to spend your lifetime creating art?

 

I was a kid artist. I didn't come to it later. I was making art when I was just a few years old, scribbling and drawing. My mother was an artist; she’s from New York and studied at the National Academy and did medical illustrations. She encouraged my efforts. Art was the direction I was headed since I was very young, and I have kept it going along with the other things I have done in my life.

 

Was there a moment in your life where you decided “I want to do this for my career/lifetime?”

 

No, there wasn’t one moment because art was what I grew up doing. That was my identity. I was “the artist” in grade school. I was looking at art and going to museums as a kid. My uncle had a collection of German Expressionist prints and a few paintings that he brought back from Europe after his time in the service. He was one of the Monuments Men that recovered and returned work that the Nazis had stolen. He brought back work by Kollwitz, Beckmann, and others. So, I was looking at sophisticated art from a fairly young age and painting with oils in grade school. Growing up in the arts was the pattern of my family. My brother was a classical pianist and that is what he is still doing. He was taking lessons when he was five and quite accomplished at a young age. My parents encouraged us in the arts, although I know there are some families where that's not the case. My father was a doctor and his parents were immigrants from Europe, so I guess the next step was that the following generation could have the freedom to do what they wanted; so, if they wanted to go into the arts that was great!

 

So, my struggles were not with my family, but with my art—a struggle I am still engaged in. I sometimes wonder how people make art without a struggle—I don't think much comes from that. It may be somewhat of a cliché in some people’s minds, but I really think you have to engage. My wife studied with Richard Diebenkorn, who is a very important and recognized artist. According to my wife, he would tell people that whenever he confronted a blank canvas it was as if he’d never done it before. He was implying that he had all the challenge, mystery, and risks that he would have had the first time, no matter how many times he had done it. Once you make a little headway the momentum starts and the work starts talking to you, and you become more confident. That's what makes it interesting.

 

Sometimes when I was teaching, particularly a beginning painting class, the students would be merrily painting and their mind would be drifting. They would be filling in large areas with paint and I would think, “How can you be so jolly about it? Every stroke is dynamite in relation to each other” (not that you have to agonize over every stroke…although Cézanne was said to have done that). There is an intensity you should feel.

 

Who were the most influential artists (ones you’ve met and one’s you haven’t) in the development of your work? What else has influenced you?

 

It would be many, and many I haven’t met.  But of the ones I’ve met, the painter who would be at the top of my esteem in the last century is Philip Guston. I did have the occasion to meet him a couple of times, to hear him speak and be in his company. I didn't know him really well, but in my estimation he is the most important American painter of the last century—other people I know wouldn’t say that (maybe him and Hopper). But I did get to meet Guston, and he seemed to be the artist of that period, the 50’s and 60’s. He was the artist of that group that my friends in New York that I went to art school with and I were most interested in, even more than De Kooning, Pollock, and others. And I think the reason was that even in his abstract work there was a narrative and a confrontation of human dilemmas that maybe was absent in some of the Abstract Expressionist art that depended more on gesture and confrontation with paint.

 

 

I had a background in art and was working with oils since I was a kid and even exhibiting. I was in high school getting into the Indiana Artists Exhibit. I felt pretty much that I was an artist even though I was young. I studied art and was interested in the German Expressionists and other historical artists.  I owe a lot to Sydney Shapiro, an art student in Indianapolis who gave me private lessons when I was in high school. In the high school, Shortridge, in Indianapolis, my teacher was Elizabeth Houck. She died just a few years ago, and a reporter from the Indianapolis Star contacted me, as one of her students who had gone on in art, for some comments for her obituary. I had only good memories of her, but couldn't think of much that was specific—the kind of "bullet" the writer was looking for. Some time later it came to me that what I got from her was not "motivation" (I had that) or specific instructions or techniques, but rather unspoken but understood support and respect—this kid's going to be an artist.

 When I went to New York, I went to Columbia University and majored in Art History because they didn't have a studio major, although I did take studio courses. John Heliker was my main studio teacher in undergraduate classes and in the MFA program at Columbia. He had a fantastic eye, and was a great trouble-shooter: "maybe adjust that passage in the upper corner..." He never commented on content, I guess giving me the message that the nudes, the implied menaces in the world, the musicians, were my own business. He'd turn the subject to Italian Renaissance art, to his place on Cranberry Island in Maine; to his friends Philip Guston and John Cage.

 But a lot of my friends were interested in the Abstract Expressionists and would go down to the Tenth Street Galleries. And I sort of backed away and thought “well no, there has to be some reference to the visual objects in the world—some representational elements (even Picasso had that in almost all of his work).” But then I saw that there was a group show of several current artists at the time at the Whitney (I think it was). There were 5 or 6 paintings of Guston’s abstract period—I cant remember the exact ones but they might have been The Clock and some others of that period—I was completely bowled over. There was an amazing amount of painterly engagement, feeling, and ulterior to those paintings. I started working pretty much under his influence. I was reading that De Kooning remarked to Guston (in his Dutch accent), “Hey Phil, these young artists aren’t imitating me anymore they are imitating you! They are putting all the paint in the middle.” If you know that period of Guston, there were quivering forms in the middle that moved out to the periphery. I was guilty as charged. Some of my friends were doing that, having masses of color interacting and fading into the periphery. I would give my work titles, maybe coming from an old fiddle tune, because I wanted to acknowledge that there was some reference beyond just engagement with paint—that might be called abstraction (although, I don't know what that means, exactly). 

 

When did your interest in American Folk music begin? How has it shaped your career as a painter and muralist?

 

Well, that was another early interest. As I said my brother was interested in classical music, but the kind of music I heard that I liked was old recordings of fiddle players, banjo players, which I heard when I was maybe in my teens.  I started playing the banjo partly under the influence of Pete Seeger and the Urban Folk Revival when I was in high school, but I started listening to recordings of the grassroots music fairly early on. The first instrument I played was the guitar and then I started playing the banjo in high school.

When I went to New York to go to college I met a lot of people in the Greenwich Village or even Uptown in Columbia where I studied who were interested in folk music.  We formed little bands and got together for jam sessions, and then I realized I could go back to Indiana, Kentucky, or go out to the blueberry pickers camps in Michigan that were nearby a place where I worked a summer job in a hotel and hear people who had grown up with the music. So I started making recordings, which later became a lifelong interest in field recording.

 

The interaction with folk art and my art has been varied. Sometimes just an idea of a fiddle tune or a sea shanty would give a title to a more abstract work, because I wanted to suggest that there was an ulterior, some other vibration that maybe was behind, but not explicit in the work. Sometimes that would come out in an abstract vocabulary. Sometimes it would be more direct charcoal drawings (that I still do) of musicians I have met. And sometimes the musicians become part of a more involved allegorical figurative painting. There might be nudes, there might be objects, interior, exterior, and there might be a musician thinking about how what they are doing relates to a kind of…I wouldn't use the word narrative, although some people have used that in reference to my work, because narrative means more telling a story with a beginning, middle, and end… I would think allegory would be better if you have to label it. I don't know if you have to.

 

When we moved to Athens, Georgia, in 1976 my wife, son, and I had already been involved in music. I had written a couple of books on banjo technique, instruction books, and had made some recordings of my own music and also field recordings. So, I was already very much involved with that interest and that world but I knew in Georgia that there would be a lot to explore and learn about. We went out and met musicians: signers who did the Ring Shout on the Georgia coast, fiddle players and banjo players in the mountains, people who sang old ballads, African American religious singers, and old school blues players (those are a few of the categories). Pretty soon my wife, who is a photographer had quite a few photographs and I had some drawings and a couple of paintings. They developed into an exhibition called Folk Visions and Voices, first here in Athens, Georgia at the Image Gallery and later different forms of this exhibit traveled. There was even one showing in Belgium, and one in Italy, and in many different places.

 

There is a funny story about one of the times I met Philip Guston (to get back to him). It was at the very first exhibit of this thematic combination of drawings, photographs, and paintings. I had about two or three paintings completed then, and quite a few drawings. Guston looked around and said, “You’ve got a lot of paintings to do!” He thought I would develop all the drawings into paintings.

 

Sometime the musicians and singers would come to the openings and perform. I thought that was great. Some of the old Black Gospel singers came to the opening of that particular show, just as guests, but they chose to sing because the gallery had been an old cotton warehouse where one of the gentlemen had worked for a maybe a dollar or dollar and a half a day, back in olden times. He said, “Well, we are helping each other inch a little higher in the world.” And that was wonderful.

 

I remember that when we didn't have people singing or playing in person, we’d have a cassette recording. I remember that my boom box broke when Guston was looking the exhibit, and I told him, “I want to get this boom box started because we like to have these voices for relating to the photographs and artwork.” He said, “I don't need background music to look at painting.” And I said, “Well, its not background music, its music these people make and its there own expression.” I tried to explain and he glared at me as if I hadn’t heard him the first time, and He said, “I don’t need music to look at paintings.” So I said, “Okay.” I can see the point. The painting has its own voice. That's why I haven’t pursued working in performance, mixed media, or interactive modes, some of the things that a lot of people are doing these days. I like playing music and I like what some other people are doing in different media, but I think the challenges and rewards (when they do come around) from working from a flat surface and trying to get something out, is what I need to be involved with.

 

I notice many figures in your work? Do people pose for you or are the figures imagined?

 

I have many different types of sources for the imagery. I do like to work from life and in quite a few of the works that you may be thinking of, I have had models, friends, or people pose and sit. If you are thinking of the multi-figure compositions, sometimes I will get a couple of models, nude models or a single figure, to pose and then I will introduce other elements, sometimes from reference photographs. I have done some work from old-fashioned stereopticon cards, where you see a three-dimensional view, that our Victorian ancestors were fascinated by. I don't really think that modern technology has gotten anything that is any more intriguing and intense than those three-dimensional views of the past. Sometimes I will look at one of those and incorporate elements from it into a composition with figures taken from life or other elements. The difference in working with from a three-dimensional photograph and a flat photograph is enormous to me because you are in that tactile, three-dimensional world that might have been in 1880 something. There is one particular painting I did called Strainer that has a kind of picture within a picture. The image within the larger image, which has a musician, nudes, and a poet friend of mine—different people in the modern world—flow back into this image of canvas laced to a strainer, an outer frame. That image came from one of the stereopticon cards that I have collected over the years of an Irish wake, probably in the 1880’s, where there was a fiddler, people drinking, and some people wearing masks. I thought, “What is that all about?” I did some research and found out that there were masked mummers, people who did folk dramas, at weddings and wakes. It is an old tradition that has pretty much died out, but goes back centuries.

 

Sometimes I will work partially or completely from invention but very seldom, and almost never, from only one source, such as Philip Pearlstein (who will set up models in his studio) or Alice Neel. They paint what’s there. I want to include other elements other than that one source, and the same is true of a reference photograph. I really wouldn't for the most part want to take a photograph and paint from it, although I have done some landscapes and a few other works that way (basically from a reference photograph). But more often and particularly in the more complex compositions I like to have multiple sources.

 

We got to meet Alice Neel in the last years of her life. She was quite an impressive and intense person, very friendly, but she got to be outspoken when she wanted to be. It was great to get to visit her in her studio, which was really just an apartment in the Upper West side in New York, and see her paintings. One of my colleagues, the director of the museum, Bill Paul, had given her one of the first museum shows she ever had. I think it was the year before we came here in the 70’s. It was a good introduction to her. It was a wonderful afternoon looking at her work.

 

There is another American painter, who I know personally, James McGarrell. His recent works are extremely high key in color, very strong and intense colors. His early work wasn't like that, but he was interested in allegory, and the figures in an indoor-outdoor continuum of space.

 

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I’ve been interested in the Italian Mannerist, Pontormo, who is maybe my favorite draftsman. His figure drawings are amazing, really, maybe the best ever. Every mark counted. Also his work (painting and drawing) has a kind of stress, a feeling of straining and anxiety that we can relate to in modern times. Maybe more than the high Renaissance artist whose work was often more harmonious, I like the straining and anxious contortions of the Mannerists.

 

There are a lot of artists that I am really interested in. Cézanne is one of my favorites. People say, “Well, your work doesn’t look Cézannian,” but I think Cézanne’s discoveries and where he pushed painting went beyond the look of the patches of color that he made. He used performance and space. Maybe stylistically my work doesn't look as if it echoes his, but I am very interested in the way that he dealt with both what happens on the surface of the picture plane and the different ways he could create depth. Meyer Schapiro said that with Cézanne that became a non-issue, whether he had to work on the picture plane or on a deep dramatic illusionistic space. He was able to do both. His work is very complex, and it is certainly not an original choice of mine to put him at the top. Picasso and Matisse said that he was the father of everything they were doing.

 

Please comment on your material and techniques in both your mural work and paintings. Does your approach differ?

 

My approach in doing multi-figured paintings… I used to do preliminary drawings in the traditional way when I would do a more complex large painting on canvas.

More recently I have taken to starting with one or two figures and then adding an element or taking it out. It is like having a stage where an actor can come on and maybe leave, and other elements can be added cumulatively if they seemed to fit. I wouldn't give that advice to a student, who wasn't very experienced; because I would say try to work more holistically. I feel now that I can do that in my easel paintings.

 

One thing I could say for the easel paintings (I am back tracking a little bit): when I was teaching in Iowa one of my colleagues knew a lot about painting materials and techniques. He said, “you like using glazes and transparencies, why don't your do work in the Venetian mode where you work on a reddish ground instead of a white ground and then do an under painting in lights and darks and then glazes to build up the colors. I said, “What?” I had read about that method but that wasn't what we were taught. We just painted a la Prima, directly off the palette onto a white canvas (and you rework it, of course). But I did try that and pretty much to this day I like to work on a red ground (maybe I don't do a complete monochrome under painting, I might come in a little sooner with color), but I do like working up and down off the toned ground. So I applied that to mural painting. Most mural painters wouldn't do that, they would work on a white wall reminiscent of the white of the fresco artists, but I like to develop lights and darks in an under painting.

 

For murals I do a complete preliminary drawing. I use a carpenters chalk string to make a grid on the wall and enlarge the drawing and then make some changes if they seem necessary. I attach a canvas onto the wall (I don't like to work on the dry wall). I put a lot of acrylic gel or gesso on the wall and press the canvas onto it, and then paint more of the acrylic on the face of the canvas. I staple it temporally in place then work outwards. I take the staples out and have a canvas that is permanently attached to the wall.

 

I like working in acrylic. I use Golden matte acrylic. It gives the look something like a fresco (although you can put a matte varnish on after you finish to get a matte look). I personally don't feel that deep darks are good in a mural. Generally, I think higher key colors—like a fresco, gives you more of a wall sense. Acrylics work well with that. Maybe if I get a chance to do another mural, I will do it in Casein, that's another interesting medium. Casein has a milk protein binder. Like acrylic it dries insoluble, you can’t lift it up the way you can by wetting a watercolor. Jacob Lawrence, who did that series on the Great Migration, worked in casein. Casein was very popular in the 40’s, but when acrylics came in, a lot of people switched from casein to acrylics because acrylics were supposed to be more versatile. But I like the feel of the casein paint. It is less plastic-like than acrylic and a more robust than watercolor. Some people do murals in oils, oils have a richness and depth that is a good thing for working on a canvas, but for working on a wall the darks are maybe too dark and luminous. That's why fresco works so well in murals, the particles that are in the plaster base reflect light in a really wonderful way, giving a nice wall sense.

 

How does your approach to a mural verse a painting differ?

 

Comparing murals with more large-scale work on canvas, most paintings are done out of my own interest and invention. They are not commissions. They are not destined for a particular place. Sometimes they get into collections or museums, and sometimes they are stored in my studio, where I have many. But the mural is a different thing because it is public art.  There is someone, a client, who is interested in a theme that relates to what they are doing. When I did the mural at the new special collections library, the selection that deals with political history, they gave me a lot of thematic material that they wanted to be included and a lot of help and suggestions a long the way. I came up with some things by myself, but there is much more interaction with the client and the public that will see it. Its public art verses something that is more a product of your own studio involvement. That's one of the differences.

  Art Rosenbaum   Doors 2014

 

I find it enjoyable to have people come by and comment. They’ll say, “What’s going on there?” Sometimes they will say something that is really helpful. In fact, one person gave one of my murals its title. I did a mural on campus here for the humanities and art center, The Wilson Center, representing people that were in the arts and humanities: students, poets, dancers, musicians, and artists. This guy came around when I was nearly finished and said, “What are you going to call it?” I said, “Well, I haven’t thought of it.” I said, “What would you say?” He said, “The World at Large” because it has technologies and people doing all different things, so he gave it the title. I said, “That sounds like a good title. I wouldn't have thought of that.”

 

That is one of the joys of doing something that's more public, you can work and have a conversation with people and also work for a constituency. I find it a relief and contrast to what goes on in the studio, when I am dealing with my own ideas and self-generated themes.

 

Comment on your most recent work. How do these pieces fit in your body of work?

 

Art Rosenbaum     Casein Landscapes 2015

I am doing more landscapes now. I’ve liked to reconnect with nature and do some works on a smaller scale. It seemed after I did the large mural, I didn't feel as if I want to get back to oil painting for a while. I actually just did one oil painting in the last couple of years, which was a commission for a real estate developer. His name happened to be Jeff Koon, I called it Jeff’s Koon’s world to make a little joke on the famous artist, who’s work I don't really admire that much. He wanted his interests to be depicted. He was interested in a lot of things like playing the guitar, fishing, and photography. So I put surrogate figures doing the things he is interested in around the figure of him and his dog.

I need to get back to oil painting because I do like working casein.

 

I should mention drawing. I have been doing some large-scale drawings in different modes. Over the years, I have done a lot of drawings of art students that are interested in sitting for free, just for a drawing (If they come back and have repeated sittings or do something for a painting, I like to pay them, but they were willing to sit just for the series). My friend Joe Patrick and I had a show called “We Draw our Students.” I taught with him at the university of Iowa—my first teaching job. We had a show there several years ago at the art school with his drawing that are real quick, expressive drawings and mine that were usually black, red, and white chalk on grey paper mostly (that take a little longer to do). I like drawing. I do portrait drawings and some drawings that are more involved with the subject matter of the paintings—complex subjects—landscapes, nude and clothed figures. Drawing that is constant activity. I have been doing more drawing than paintings recently.

 

As far as themes go, recently, I have been thinking about the beach and old wrecked ships with figures that are lovers, younger and older figures. I’ve done some large casein paintings with some of that thematic material. I don’t know what it means; I will leave that to someone else to figure out. I probably could articulate the meaning, but I don't really like to. I’ve found that when people ask me to explain the narrative or allegory of a paining, if I can toss it back to them and say, “What do you see in it?” If they’re tuned into the work usually they come pretty close to the intention. They might not know what all the sources are, where they come from, but that's not as important as having the difference elements coalesce. What I try to do is to put the various elements together in a work, so they feel as if they are in the same world, although they may be very disparate. That's more a question of if I can build the paining and its structure in a convincing way.

 

A couple of weeks ago I was at the MET in New York and saw a work by Max Beckmann—maybe my hero of Twentieth Century painting even more than Matisse or Picasso, because he had so much human content in his work—the human predicament. There is painting called “Bird’s Hell,” (that I have seen reproduced but never had seen the original). He did it when he was in Holland during the Nazi period. It was an encoded protest. It shows a nude man being flagellated and whipped by a bird creature with other birds seen as menacing, evil presences. But the painting is so complex and wonderfully developed in its color and its structures. It made me say, “Well, I have a long way to go before I can build a painting that is as strong and powerful as that.” It is interesting to go back to an old favorite and to get re-nourished and re-inspired again and sometimes intimidated.

 

Do you have advice for someone young in her career, setting out on a lifetime of art making?

 

Take opportunities to exhibit. Keep working and follow your inner drive. Do what you want to do. Some young and even older artists don't have too much luck in the gallery and commercial system, but some do. What I like about Lee’s gallery is that he seems to have a very diverse taste and doesn't try to shape the direction artist. I have seen other dealers that tell artists what direction they need to go in based on what they can sell. I know there are practical considerations—people want to make a living and want to have there work get out—but I really value the inner freedom that making art represents. Keep at it!