Rosen at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, SUNY New Paltz, NY
RAYMOND J. STEINER
THERE IS PERHAPS no better example of just how profound an impact the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art (informally known today as simply “The Armory Show” because of its venue at 69th Infantry Regiment Armory in New York City) had on American artists caught up in the frenzy of “modernism” than the present exhibition at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art.*
Charles Rosen — like many of his contemporaries — had barely digested the aesthetics of traditional academicism when, almost out of the blue, he and his colleagues were hit squarely with a brand new gospel coming out of a largely disenfranchised populace of European artists whose very lives were being turned upside down by sweeping political, social, and economic changes. For many artists “modernism” — the label (as with so many others that are sprinkled throughout our art histories) a handy catch-all that rendered the disruption palatable to both the unthinking and thinking masses — so completely overwhelmed them that they lost all sight of their own aesthetic predilections, beliefs, and training. “Modernism” — almost by definition — blotted out all theories, standards, teachings, art, artists, and instructors that found themselves representing an artistic tradition that fell on the wrong side of 1913. As if by divine fiat, out the proverbial window went anything that smacked of the academy — in spite of the fact that it had served artists and enriched the lives of their public for hundreds of years.
For most of the older generations, the modernist onslaught registered little more than an annoying blip on their aesthetic screens. Their European counterparts had, after all, undergone a genuine blitzkrieg of fire and bombs and there was little wonder that their reactions would tend toward the extreme, that their art would take on strident political and social messages in protest. After all, European artists argued, weren’t the old established art academies all jowl to cheek with a wide variety of dictatorial types of governments that had been oppressing them since time immemorial? Who needed to have their creative output subjected to similar tyrannical rules? If the world was going crazy with worldwide war why not art as well? Why not Dadaism, Fauvism, Surrealism, Futurism, Expressionism, Cubism, Constructivism, whatever-ism, declaring war on the past? If the European world was topsy-turvy, then why not its art as well? (Consider the irony, if you will, of the fact that a painting of Matisse’s had been hanging upside down for nearly two weeks during its venue at the Armory Show before someone “in the know” noticed the faux pas!)
For the emerging American artist — and Charles Rosen was only 35 in 1913, hardly enough time to have matured within his own artistic vision — the “freedom” that “Modernism” — in whatever stripe it might appear — promised, was well-nigh irresistible. Who needed years of instruction and training when the doors to self-expression and direction were suddenly flung wide open?
As noted above, this exhibit, entitled “Form Radiating Life,” exemplifies the path taken by so many artists of the time. Organized in some chronological order throughout the various gallery rooms of the Dorsky Museum (there are over 60 paintings, charcoal drawings, and pastels), we trace Rosen’s career from that of a burgeoning impressionist/pointillist, through the Armory Show impact, and on into a full-fledged “modernist” with a style that, in his words, was an example of “form that radiates life” (the quote serving as the source of the title for this exhibition). Whatever his characterization might mean, it apparently justified for Rosen an abrupt change in direction. The transformation, to say the least, was certainly a dramatic one. The question is, however, from what and to what did Rosen’s aesthetic vision transform? “Form radiating life” really doesn’t say much, but then such verbal constructs can never actually clarify the unique and peculiar language of art, which speaks — or does not speak — on its own terms.
The advent of modernism gave birth to a plethora of such verbalizations that cropped up in manifestoes and art reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, each purporting to explain to puzzled viewers just exactly it was that they were looking at. Art — which for centuries had been communicating on its own terms to mankind — seemed to suddenly go dumb, and a quickly-growing crop of adjective-laden wordsmiths eagerly jumped in to fill the breach. It soon got to the point where we couldn’t trust our own eyes anymore, needing sheaves of words written by self-made pundits to help us through the process of looking at pictures (an activity that most children can automatically do — ergo “picture books” rather than written books for pre-school years). It’s no wonder that artists caught in mid-career fell so easily into the suddenly popular trend of letting words take over the ancient practice of speaking through their art. It’s also no wonder that their older, more experienced colleagues persisted in following a craft that had been working since the first cave paintings appeared some 40,000 years B.C. — remaining true, in short, to a method of communication that predated a spoken/written language by thousands of years.
A thoughtful viewing of Rosen’s earlier — discarded — forays into impressionism and pointillism, may offer a clue as to why he might have abandoned this course. Whereas some paintings reveal a firm mastering of his medium — for example in the foregrounds of such works as “A Winter Morning” ca.1914 or “Floating Ice, Early Morning” ca.1915 — most of his “pre-modernist” work is rather tentatively handled, many paintings reminiscent of the work of others and only a handful executed with what we might call a definitive “handwriting” of his own. The fact is, Rosen, in these early works, was still developing his own voice — not unusual in someone so young. I know that it is fashionable today for thirty-year-olds to mount “retrospectives” — why not, since it is equally fashionable to continually “innovate” and render what was done last year as passé? Before “modernism”, however, to become a master implied an extended apprenticeship, and one had to ply one’s craft long and hard to develop an individual style, a recognizable oeuvre that was unique. A genuine retrospective had to be earned and only took place well into an artist’s maturity, most often shortly before or after death. What changed? Creating art has not become any easier, as any true artist can tell you. The only thing that’s easier today — thanks to “modernism” — is to find someone to validate a product as “art.” Nowadays, it takes no great effort for would-be artists to find someone to write about their work, place it in some slick art journal, and find a gallery to show it — a long drawn-out apprenticeship is no longer necessary since cash seems to do the trick so much more efficiently. As a young man exclaimed when I mentioned a lack of standards at a lecture I gave in Cologne, Germany, some years ago: “We changed the rules!” How obtuse of me not to see that!
There’s little doubt that the rules were certainly changed for Charles Rosen at — depending upon your viewpoint — an inopportune or opportune time, indeed. Suddenly, he no longer had to deal with such old-fashioned ideas as an inner vision and could rely purely on his intellect. Local color went out the window, along with draftsmanship, perspective (both linear and aerial), figurative representation, standards, and, especially, outdated notions of “beauty” — Robert Henri and his so-called “Ashcan School” put the kibosh on that worn-out concept. Simple sight was easier than insight and things such as trees and rivers and mountains and fields and buildings in themselves could be deemed irrelevant since it was now proclaimed that color and form made their own statements — how neat is that? As Henri preached to his students, forget about art for its own sake — make art for life’s sake — and “life” is wherever you choose to aim your brush. Not to worry, son — the painting, the technique — will come. And, if it doesn’t? No worries — “modernism” has in any case forever after rendered any notion of a definition of “art” irrelevant. Now you could make paintings and declare that whatever “form” appears on your canvas “radiates life” — who could ask for anything more?
Well…we could. The touted “nitty-gritty” of the Ashcan School soon grew thin for many viewers as too many artists — Rosen and his Woodstock colonists included — seemed to become fixated on turning out the same depressing views of run-down and decrepit buildings found on the “wrong side” of the tracks. It got to the point where you had to look hard to tell a Bellows from a Speicher from a Rosen hanging in Woodstock galleries. In fact, it got to be embarrassing enough that many of the loudest supporters of “nitty-gritty” art backed away from it in later years. A few years before his death, Rosen’s fellow painter Karl Fortess (Fortess was class monitor for Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Art Student League summer sessions at Woodstock and a steady supplier of his own bleak landscapes of leafless trees and lowering skies to add to the dreary mix) referred to the stuff they were turning out in the name of modernism during the late ‘20s and early ‘30s as the “Woodstock School of Outhouse Painting.”
Granted that the “Depression Years” were no fun — I grew up on Brooklyn’s streets in the ‘30s and ‘40s — but routinely viewing roses through world-colored glasses became de rigueur for a great many artists who were in fact not all that bad off and had just been affecting a style that was “hot” — a snappy new term that came to the fore ever since Henri made art “newsworthy.” It was Forbes Watson, in fact, who credited Henri with single-handedly attaining this accomplishment of turning art into news in his Introduction to Margery Ryerson’s paean to that artist’s philosophy, The Art Spirit. Fortess, incidentally, was certainly not alone in distancing himself from “Ashcan” art. Henri, the arch-radical of his time and long-time advocate of “context over technique,” along with several of his coterie (most notably Shinn and Sloan in their later writings), claimed that they never really believed in much of the hoopla that was being printed in the popular press about “The Eight” and the so-called “Ashcan School” during its heyday. They, along with Henri, ironically found themselves appalled at what was being touted as “art” in its wake — a wake they had themselves largely created by discovering how to manipulate the press. It was not too long after the Armory Show, in fact, that Henri himself went on record condemning both the nonsense that “charlatans” were producing, as well as the “apes” that followed suit.
Emerson once wrote that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Though he aimed his remark at “little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” how ought we apply the admonition to artists? On the inner flyleaf of the cover on the catalogue accompanying this exhibit (Form Radiating Life: The Paintings of Charles Rosen by Brian H Peterson. 198 pp.; 9 7/8 x 12 ¼; 185 Color Illus.; Chronology; Appendices; Index. $45.00 Hardcover. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) we find: “For some painters a single way of working can last a lifetime. This was not Charles Rosen’s story…” Well, so much for consistency here. The blurb ends: “…this book represents the oeuvre of an artist not only of prodigious talent and vision but also of tremendous sensitivity and imagination.”
For this viewer, I can only wonder what kind of vision his “talent” and “sensitivity” — a fair share of which I heartily agree he possessed — might have produced had his budding artistic career of self-discovery not been interrupted by the seductive lure of “modernism” with its attendant infection of surface superficiality.
*“Form Radiating Life: The Paintings of Charles Rosen” (thru May 20): Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, SUNY New Paltz (845) 257-3844