'Modernist Pittsburgh' shows educator Rosenberg's impact
When Pittsburgh artist and instructor Samuel Rosenberg (1896-1972) retired from teaching in 1964, it signaled the end of an era.
An art educator for nearly five decades, he influenced countless artists in and around Pittsburgh. Most notable among them were Philip Pearlstein, Mel Bochner and Andy Warhol, whom Rosenberg saved from expulsion in 1947.
Both a professor at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) for 40 years and at the Young Men & Women's Hebrew Association for 39 years, Rosenberg was, himself, a graduate of Carnegie Tech. All told, he created more than 500 paintings during a six-decade career.
Many of them were abstractions, inspired by the modern-day era in which Rosenberg thrived. His own work was featured on an international scale — displayed in the 1939 World's Fair, Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
At Concept Art Gallery in Regent Square in the exhibit “Modernist Pittsburgh,” nine prime examples of this work hang among similarly modern paintings by students and colleagues, along with a selection of period furnishings of the mid-century modern style by notable designers, some of whom have Pittsburgh connections, as well.
Organized by gallery owner Sam Berkovitz and gallery director Alison Brand Oehler, the exhibit was inspired by a photograph in the book “Portrait of a Painter” (University of Pittsburgh Press in cooperation with Carnegie Museum of Art, 2003) by Barbara L. Jones, curator of Westmoreland Museum of American Art.
In it, Rosenberg is seen sitting with his wife, Libbie, in the living room of their Squirrel Hill home. She is sitting on a modern couch, reading. He is sprawled in a lounge chair and ottoman designed by the legendary Charles and Ray Eames. In front of them sits a coffee table designed by Isamu Noguchi and stacking stools by Alvar Aalto.
“We thought it would be a cool idea to show how he lived, which was very ‘of the moment' in the 1950s,” Oehler says. “Lots of people in the 1950s were into antique furniture, and he was very much into modern things.”
To that end, Oehler says, “We decided we wanted to show the design work that was being produced at the same time to flesh out the show, make it more inspirational and draw some parallels.”
Thus, visitors will see the very same Eames chair and ottoman and Aalto stacking stools as seen in the photograph. Even the painting in the picture, “Horizon No. 2,” 1926, by Rosenberg, is in the exhibit. But, here, it hangs above a slatted ash bench from 1958 designed by Harry Bertoia.
“The thing about Rosenberg's abstractions is that he never really moved completely away from either figural, still-life or landscape oriented compositions. He never really went totally abstract, which I think is so wonderful about his paintings,” Oehler says.
Though Rosenberg's paintings are interspersed throughout the exhibition, visitors will see in works by his students — Glen Davis, Gertrude Half, Marie Tuicillo Kelly and Louise Pershing — each were able to establish their individual vocabularies, forge distinctive methods of working and, above all, follow their instincts.
One standout is “Open Space,” a spider web of an abstract fiber-based piece made from yarn and gessoed canvas by Marie Tuicillo Kelly, a student of Rosenberg's at Carnegie Tech in the 1950s. “She worked well into the early 1990s,” Oehler says. “She worked in lots of different media, but this, we thought, was a really great example of her work from the 1950s.”
Other furniture pieces of note include a walnut, oak and aluminum table designed for ALCOA by Lewis Butler, the right-hand designer of Florence Knoll, and a walnut buffet with complimentary wall-hanging cabinet complete with wine rack designed by Orin Raphael.
Of local interest, Raphael was the husband of Elizabeth “Betty” Rockwell Raphael, who opened Pittsburgh's first modern art gallery, Outlines, in the 1940s and later founded the Society for Contemporary Craft, which is located today in the Strip District.
At 7 p.m. Aug. 21 at the Regent Square Theater, next to the gallery, “Tracing Outlines,” a documentary about Elizabeth Rockwell and her iconic Outlines Gallery will debut.
“It was hugely prescient and way before its time,” Oehler says of Rockwell's gallery. “She showed the work of artists like Paul Klee, Alexander Calder — all kinds of crazy-famous, really well-respected artists before anyone collected them. The gallery was largely unsuccessful, because Pittsburghers didn't really buy the work.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media.