Editors' pick

Seth Rosenberg: The Cleveland Years

Painting/Drawing, Prints/Silkscreens

Editorial Review

Rosenberg ran out of time, not vision

By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Sept. 30, 2011

Art retrospectives - even partial ones - are sometimes presaged by tragedy. That's true in the case of Seth Rosenberg, a longtime Washington painter, framer and gallery owner whose untimely death, from a heart attack, in 2009 has precipitated an affectionate, if rueful, look at the work he created in the last few years of his life.

"Seth Rosenberg: The Cleveland Years" at the McLean Project for the Arts features paintings and prints made after Rosenberg sold his gallery and framing business, District Fine Arts, and moved to Cleveland with his family to take care of an ailing relative of his wife's in 2005. For those who remember the artist's signature, abstract style - a lively pileup of bold, clashing patterns, like plaid pants with a striped shirt - the show will come as a surprise.

Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Clevelend, it documents a new, yet not entirely illogical, evolution away from abstraction and toward representation. It also has a sadness beyond the obvious.

You can tell from a distance that the paintings are Rosenberg's. There's still an almost architectural jumble to the new, collagelike images, which gradually introduce more and more real-world objects - animals, human figures, buildings and machines - while cutting back on the number of pure geometric shapes or relegating them to the background.

The best paintings in the show strike a balance between the old, highly recognizable style of abstraction and the new figuration. While "The Cleveland Years" also includes a handful of large black-and-white prints made from computer scans of Rosenberg's extensive archive of vintage prints and ephemera, they are visually less compelling than the paintings. Rosenberg's last canvases hold a tantalizing tension between two highly charged kinds of markmaking: one that's all about form and one that's all about content.

The new paintings are easier to read - in some cases, quite literally, as they incorporate fragments of text - without being didactic or heavy-handed.

What seems clear from the show (which includes paintings made between 2006 and 2009) is the artist's growing awareness of the passage of time. Fragmentary maps and other allusions to life's journey - runners here, an airplane there - use place and locomotion as a metaphor for growing up and moving on.

Rosenberg's paintings from the end of his life resemble old steamer trunks, plastered with labels and luggage stickers documenting where he has been and what he has seen. There are lots of medical illustrations, alluding, perhaps, to the artist's father, a microbiologist. One painting, "The Annunciation," includes a scrap of a map of Vietnam, referring to the birthplace of Rosenberg's adopted son.

There's a sense of looking back that gives the works a powerful personal, and yet strangely universal, resonance. Travel stickers, of course, were always an attempt to hold onto something, through memory, that was slipping away.

They say that you can't take it with you, and that's true. But art in general - and "The Cleveland Years" more specifically - proves that you can leave something of meaning, and of lasting value, behind.

The story behind 'X'

Decoding Seth Rosenberg's late paintings is an inexact science. More than one canvas includes allusions to architect Rafael Vinoly's geometric addition to the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. A map of Connecticut, where the artist was born and raised, appears on one side of "Part IV," while a map of the Great Lakes region - his final home - appears on the other.

The painting "X" features a deer, which may allude to a highway encounter with the animal that the artist and his wife had shortly after receiving news that Rosenberg's brother had received a diagnosis of cancer. A corner of Rosenberg's old house on Hall Place in Northwest Washington can also be seen in "X," along with the silhouette of a rat, which refers to the country of his adopted son's birth. (The rodent also shows up in another painting, "Hard Times." Both are from 2008, the Year of the Rat in Vietnam.)

What does it all mean?

Rosenberg's paintings aren't texts but more like musical compositions, assembled from samples old and new. Looking backward, forward and at the news of the day, they call attention, more than anything, to the here and now.

-- Michael O'Sullivan (Friday, Sept. 30, 2011)