Since January, Susan Rosenbaum, the only living child of WPA artist Benjamin Abramowitz, has been developing a registry of his work.
She has also been caring for her ailing father, making decisions about his medical care and his final days. Abramowitz, one of the survivors of the New Deal arts programs and a creative presence in Washington’s art scene for six decades, died last week at 94.
During their last year together, as Rosenbaum looked at thousands of his canvases and prints, she discovered that she didn’t know the scope of his art as well as she thought. She found pieces from the WPA era that were “mind-blowing” in themes and techniques. And, although she knew he was an intense record-keeper, she was surprised at the depth of his notebooks.
Many of the artists who worked for the WPA are gone, but their work and themes continue to be valued for their historic and artistic contributions. Rosenbaum is determined to share her father’s legacy, and documenting the work was her first step.
Abramowitz rose to some fame as an artist under the Works Progress Administration, a federal program created in 1935 to employ construction workers, writers and artists. He settled in Washington in the early 1940s with his wife, Ruth, and was a forerunner of the bold style of Washington’s famed Color School. He worked well into his 80s.
After 60 years in Greenbelt, Abramowitz moved in 2003 to his daughter’s house in Montgomery County. He took along his correspondence, his art and the scrapbooks he had kept since he was 18. Even though his vision was failing, he held on to his life’s work.
Starting in January, Rosenbaum and two assistants counted nearly 8,000 works, including 433 paintings and 162 sculptures. The basement of her townhouse became an archive, with files for the flat lithographs, dozens of shelves for the paintings, exhibit spaces on the walls for art and pedestals for sculptures. She hired carpenters to build racks and install flat files to accommodate her father’s collection.
Looking at everything around her in her home, Rosenbaum named the search and cataloguing “the rediscovery project.” Fortunately, she is familiar with museum practices. She works as an arts consultant and has held positions in arts institutions, including five years at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Cataloguing her father’s work was personal and at times overwhelming. “What is too much information? What is the right amount of information for now? For later?” Rosenbaum asks. She was able to hire assistants with funding help from the Montgomery County Arts and Humanities Council and the Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation and with a partnership with Arts for the Aging.
She says she and her father thought he had been overlooked, if not forgotten. “He always said, ‘I need a trumpet,’ ” said Rosenbaum, adding that he also said time would tell his story.
George Hemphill, a longtime Washington art dealer who represented Abramowitz for a time, said that the artist “was unhappy about the way he hadn’t been recognized.” Hemphill says Abramowitz might have been overlooked because he was not a follower of trends. “He was right there with the Color Field paintings, working and teaching around Dupont Circle, but he was not doing the kind of things they were doing,” Hemphill says. “He painted abstracts, but by and large, they were small. That is the moment the American painters began to do outsized work.”
In his heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, Abramowitz had 13 one-man shows; 11 of his lithographs are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and two paintings are at the Phillips Collection. His letters, essays, teaching notes and photographs of his work up to 1978 are in the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian.
Abramowitz was born in Brooklyn, the child of Romanian immigrants. He started drawing early — some of his work was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum when he was a teen. At 18, he joined the WPA, which recruited artists to create murals and writers to document oral histories, but was frustrated. “The WPA authorities . . . were afraid of the political statements we would make in the artworks. A lot of the artists . . . were politically aligned. . . . It was very bad times,” Abramowitz said in a 2008 interview at Juniata College in Pennsylvania.
Rosenbaum discovered unofficial work her father made during that time. “Work that was not a paid project for the WPA was in many ways more powerful and disturbing. Only in doing the archives did we come across the work — about 40 or so ink drawings,” she said.
“In the 1940s and early 1950s, he was driven by the war, lynchings in the South and what was going on in D.C.,” Rosenbaum says. Her father’s lithographs show an artist concerned about the disruptions of soldiers’ family lives. In one piece, a soldier is holding tight to his young daughter and wife. Another shows black men who are angry and agonizing over their social conditions.
In Rosenbaum’s work creating the registry, some traits of her father were reinforced — his passion, his technical skills and his commitment to his two children (her brother Jonathan is deceased).
Abramowitz was a strict and devout parent. He didn’t allow television, and he tutored Rosenbaum in many of her high school language classes. He built their couches and furniture. Their Sunday excursions were trips to the Phillips Collection.
For the first part of this year, Abramowitz was “alert and communicative,” Rosenbaum says. She showed him the two catalogues with his history and all the photos. During the summer, they went out for eggs and lox at a deli and, even with his limited vision, he approved her work with simple words: “You are doing very well.”
As she has assessed her father’s work, Rosenbaum has reached out to friends in museums and universities for their opinions. But, she says, “what I want to do is organize small, nontraditional exhibitions, to reintroduce him.”
She is not sure what she will do with the collection. She is just getting used to having his work without having him in her life.
“He left his own handwritten, extraordinary labeling, record-keeping, writings . . . the path was there. I needed to follow it. Not interpret. He always said, ‘The work tells you what to do.’ And it did,” Rosenbaum says.