That artist Samuel Rosenberg could have been a star had he moved to New York in the early 1900s is a common belief among local fans and critics. But had he left Pittsburgh, it’s hard to say whether he would have had such an impact on so many future artists.
Here, that impact was huge, and it’s displayed in beautiful color through “A Painter’s Legacy,” the newest exhibition at the American Jewish Museum, which showcases the work of 54 artists who, at some point during Rosenberg’s nearly six-decade career, studied under him. Some remained in Pittsburgh, while others launched art careers around the country.
Melissa Hiller spent a year and a half assembling “A Painter’s Legacy,” and she could have gone on working for years. Decades even.
“I could spend the rest of my curatorial career grouping these works together,” said Hiller, the AJM’s director. “I could do that for the next 30 years.”
The number of possible artists who could have been tapped for the exhibition is seemingly endless: “A Painter’s Legacy” taps only a fraction of Rosenberg’s students, whether they painted with him at the Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University), the Irene Kaufmann Settlement in the Hill District or the Y in Oakland.
But short of an Andy Warhol piece (easily Rosenberg’s most famous student), Hiller’s exhibition won’t leave visitors wanting. Exhaustively curated, the exhibition includes statements from each living artist on Rosenberg’s impact on their work.
To track down the artists, Hiller “became a Nancy Drew art history sleuth,” through word of mouth and extensive research, she said. “I visited every artist [still living in the area]. It was very exciting, terrifically exciting, to walk into people’s homes and see how they live with the art, and how it became integrated into their daily fabric.”
Hiller found work in artists’ and collectors’ homes, as well as in museum collections, to piece together the exhibition, and set guidelines for what could be deemed “Rosenberg-influenced.”
First, Hiller only included pieces from Rosenberg students who had themselves become professional artists — a testament to Rosenberg’s influence as a teacher, if there ever was one. She also, “connected with the artists and sometimes their children to find that Rosenberg influence,” she said. “That kept me rooted in the process.”
Walking around the exhibition, Jane Haskell couldn’t help but smile. Three examples of her work were included; Haskell took a class at the Y with Rosenberg in the 1950s.
“Sam’s workshop — he didn’t consider it a workshop for art students,” she said. “He considered it a workshop for professionals. He treated us all as equals.”
Haskell’s minimalist “Study: Window Series” from 1982 might seem at odds with Rosenberg’s styles (he evolved from a portrait painter to a realist and became “more gestural as he got older,” said Hiller), but that never mattered.
“I think he gave me the freedom to explore and go my own way. He never imposed his work or put a finger on any of our works,” said Haskell. “He was critical, but not judgmental.“
Though Rosenberg was an active painter from 1915 to 1972 and taught countless students, there was no resulting “Rosenbergian school,” in terms of style, said Hiller. “That would’ve been antithetical to Rosenberg, or to any good professor who wants to teach students how to have confidence in their own style.”
Maybe that’s why the art collected in “A Painter’s Legacy” is so varied, from sculpture and sketches to painting, realism to abstraction. The lush, soft details of Abe Weiner’s “Monday Washday, 1945” (not totally unlike Rosenberg’s own portrayals of life in the Hill District) sits side by side with Ruth Selwitz’s bold, glowing abstract oil painting “Untitled.” The artists’ statements are often just as arresting. From Ray DeFazio, whose “Keeler Done at Sunset” is a masterful look at light and shadow: “[Rosenberg] was serious. He was intense. He was a gentleman at all times. He showed me that Bohemianism wasn’t necessary to be a Bohemian artist.”
Modestly hanging amongst the other pieces is the exhibition’s only Rosenberg piece. It’s an unfinished painting, depicting Rosenberg’s son sitting at a blank easel, himself a painter as well. The delicate painting shows an unobtrusive scene: Rosenberg watching another of his many students, likely guiding him along but never with harshness.
“He’s aware, clearly, of his own role as a teacher standing behind a student [in the piece],” said Hiller. “He was always standing behind his students’ shoulders, spurring them to do something beyond their comfort zones. And the students wanted to perform.”
With one look around the AJM, it’s clear they have.
Want to go?
A Painter’s Legacy: The Students of
Open through April 30
Opening reception, March 13, 1 to 3 p.m.
Fine Perlow Weis Gallery and Berger Gallery
American Jewish Museum, Jewish
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)