Late Artist's Splendid Works Full of Mystery

September 25, 2010

Seth Rosenberg was an artist well acquainted with his inner bureaucrat. He painted as if he were an official in a ministry of 20th-century visual experience who gathered, sorted and classified visual fragments from the world around him and then recombined them in compositions organized according to inscrutable and magical rules of visual logic and humor.

In a small but superb exhibition accompanied by a lavishly illustrated catalog, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland is saluting Rosenberg, who spent the last four years of his life in Cleveland before he died a year ago at age 57 after suffering a heart attack.

Born and raised in Connecticut, Rosenberg earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Kent State University in 1975 and a master's degree in fine arts from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1979. He supported himself and his painting in Washington, D.C., by operating a frame shop and later a gallery before he was financially able to devote himself to his art full time. He came to Cleveland in 2005 to realize that dream, moving here with his wife, Jane, and son, Eli.

The exhibition is a richly enjoyable introduction to the work of an artist who approached the world with the wide-eyed wonder and curiosity of a child, but also with an erudite and deeply cultured sensibility.

In Rosenberg's complex, collage-like compositions, it's possible to recognize inspirations drawn from deep veins of modern art history, including the work of Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns, and perhaps even Gerald Murphy, the American Dadaist and expatriate who joined the circle of writers and artists who gathered on the French Riviera in the 1920s.

Rosenberg's style, however, is recognizable instantly as his own. His compositions are filled with curious collisions and consonances of rhyming forms, plus an ebullient density, which somehow never turns chaotic.

Rosenberg's sense of touch is also highly important. He paints with a soft, fuzzy lightness in a highly consistent manner across the entire surfaces of his paintings. This gives them a sense of unity and overall cohesion. So, too, does his muted sense of color, which also unifies his paintings and imparts a gentle humor.

Rosenberg seems to extol the wonders of the modern world, yet his palette of soft browns and grays, pallid yellows and muted, sour greens appears instantly faded, like illustrations in a newspaper left out in the sun too long. His work, though full of hurly-burly energy, hints at the passage of time, with a built-in, bittersweet nostalgia. Looking at Rosenberg's paintings evokes the aroma of an old book left hidden for decades in a trunk in the attic.

The 13 works in the show are divided into three groups. One group of paintings deals primarily with colorful patterns that collide and overlap in ways that create an intriguing visual tension.

A series of small monochromatic prints and a group of large, colorful paintings are built up with random illustrations, diagrams, phrases and patterns that look as if they were snipped from the pages of a Depression-era encyclopedia or dictionary.

The paintings and prints include maps of the Great Lakes and the Connecticut shoreline, a plan of the city streets of Paris, a color wheel, a diagram of the human nervous system, a picture of a blindfolded woman playing a harp and a cartoon like image of an athlete jumping over hurdles.

Portentous words and phrases appear, such as "Send for Complete Catalog" or "Violations and Penalties." A ham radio operator sits at a table, listening intently through headphones while zigzag lines suggest a mysterious transmission zipping through the ether. A quartet of jet fighter planes races through the sky.

The prints and paintings hint at personal meanings. A map of Vietnam, for example, could refer to the artist's son, who is adopted from Vietnam. The Connecticut map could refer to the artist's childhood.

A better explanation might be that Rosenberg used images that he knew would resonate with viewers because his sources were, in a sense, universal. Ultimately, however, even though the pictures, words and phrases are skimmed from a collective vocabulary, Rosenberg's use of them creates an untranslatable and personal language.

Margo Crutchfield, MOCA's senior curator, who organized the show, writes in the exhibition's catalog that even though Rosenberg's paintings and prints "speak simultaneously to history, current events, and the artist's own personal life story . . . they seem like richly coded puzzles." Rosenberg's paintings keep your eyes glued as you search for clues to mysteries that can never be solved. The message is that the search for meaning is the source of the fun.

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