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'Legacy' exhibit looks at influence of Samuel Rosenberg

| Sunday, March 27, 2011

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.

Recently, many of those former students made their way to the Jewish Community Center of Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill to honor him, in words of reminiscence, and to gaze at the works of 54 artists whom he influenced, on display in the exhibit "A Painter's Legacy: The Students of Samuel Rosenberg."

The show, which fills the American Jewish Museum's two galleries at the Jewish Community Center, was organized by museum director Melissa Hiller. She spent the last two years tracking down works by some of Rosenberg's most successful students, and, in the process, learned that his influence stretches far and wide.

"I have friends who are curators in other parts of the country who, when I called asking, said, yes, they had heard of him and know of artists who studied under him," Hiller says.

The exhibit contains only one unfinished work by Rosenberg himself, with the rest being a cross-section of genres and styles including abstraction, realism and figurative expressionism. Seen together, they emphasize the impact Rosenberg had as a teacher and the influence imbued by his personality while 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.

"As a teacher, Sam made me believe in myself," Rochelle Blumenfeld, who took classes from Rosenberg at both places, says. "He thought that I had something to say. He gave me the language of art, a way to assess my work."

Blumenfeld displays two works in the exhibit -- "Cycle" and "Holding It Together" (both 2008). Abstractions, they each have a luminescent quality about them, as if they are lit from within.

"Sam's paintings contained a wonderful sense of light," Blumenfeld says. "He would say to think of paint as light, see through the darks as one would look through ashes to the embers. Taking this to heart, my work has always been about light, movement and making a statement."

That sense of light, too, can be seen in other works of abstraction like Aaronel deRoy Gruber's abstract painting "Break of Day (Alba)" (1960-63) and Grete Holst Evans' semi-abstract "Schenley Fountain" (undated).

Although Rosenberg's influence is seen and felt throughout the exhibit, his students were able to establish their own individual vocabularies, forge distinctive methods of working and, above all, follow their instincts.

"I used to go to his studio and watch him paint," recalls Hubert FitzGerald. "His studio was always open to students. You could observe him at work, and he would explain a technique. He never tried to impose his style on his students. He would suggest new areas to try and new techniques to experiment with, but he left it up to you to execute in your own way."

FitzGerald's oil painting "Red Scarf, 1957," on loan from the collection of the Greater Latrobe School District, is a tour de force of color, shape and light. A mid-century work, it smacks of the many styles that influenced both the artist and his instructor.

In fact, Rosenberg was known to explore various styles and modes of expression throughout his long career. One favorite mode was collage, which he encouraged many students to work in, as well. That's why visitors will find more than half a dozen on display by various artists, such as two untitled, undated abstract pieces by Blanche Galey Alexander that hold their own among more realistic works, like Raymond DeFazio's oil painting "Keeler Dome at Sunset" (1984).

Of all of the artists whose works are on display, DeFazio may be the one who followed in Rosenberg's footsteps the most. A retired associate professor of art from Seton Hill University, he has been painting and teaching since the early 1960s, and just completed another one-man show at Concept Art Gallery in Regent Square.

"I saw something in him that I needed to see," DeFazio says of Rosenberg's influence. "He had a passion for art, and he was living his passion. He was also a serious teacher and gave me the sense that the road ahead of me was wide open. It would be up to me to find a way to make it all work.

"He was serious. He was intense. He was a gentleman at all times. He showed me that Bohemianism wasn't necessary to be a serious artist."

Additional Information:

'A Painter's Legacy: The Students of Samuel Rosenberg'

When: Through April 30. 7:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Fridays, 1-7 p.m. Saturdays and 7:45 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays

Admission: Free

Where: American Jewish Museum at the Jewish Community Center, 5738 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill

Details: 412-521-8011, ext. 105; or

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