A pioneering critic of the past fifty years and a revisionist scholar of the preceding two hundred, Artforum contributing editor Robert Rosenblum will be remembered for the stunning breadth of his erudition and taste. Here, a trio of his colleagues--and, above all, his friends--recall a protean figure whose love of art was matched only by his joie de vivre.
IT IS HARD not to be lighthearted when remembering Robert Rosenblum. Bob was himself one of those rare people who, though deeply serious, was never ponderous or solemn. His was a quintessentially blithe spirit. From the very beginning of our long friendship, we laughed, joked, and gossiped together, and, of course, talked about art, too. Or, to put it differently, our joking and gossip led naturally to serious art talk. Whether it was the almost unknown, hyperdramatic Neoclassical Scandinavian sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel, Ingres's sexy portraits, or just plain Pablo Picasso, Bob always had something interesting and unexpected to say, an observation no one else had ever made. For example, he speculated that the purportedly salacious hand palpating the breast of one of the lolling women in the foreground of Ingres's Turkish Bath might simply be the other hand of the same woman, thus reducing lesbianism to mere narcissism.
For many people in the field of art, Bob, who died of cancer this past December at the age of seventy-nine, is known as the scholar and curator who, decades before the wholesale excavations of the art-historical dustbin that occurred in the 1980s and '90s, proposed new genealogies for modern and contemporary art and vital relevancies for forgotten artists and derided styles. This is certainly an apt characterization, though it risks glossing over his deep immersion in the contemporary and the extent to which he brought his knowledge of the past to his considerations of the major practitioners of his own era, from Frank Stella to Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons and beyond. Above all, what was so exceptional about his take on modernity in art was his openness to the new and his refusal to categorize in terms of a single stylistic project or type of visual expression. In the latter respect, he opposed both the doctrinaire modernist and the conservative antimodernist. He could praise Cubism and abstraction in general while at the same time revealing, over and over again, how various the modalities of what constitutes the new or the modern in visual art can be.
My own memories of Bob, of course, are of a friend as well as of an admired colleague. He made me feel that I was a part of the community at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts when I arrived in 1953, an ignorant first-year student with a master's degree in seventeenth-century English literature from Columbia University. Bob, pursuing his doctorate at NYU after having earned his master's at Yale (and his bachelor's at Queens College), was the IFA equivalent of big man on campus. He immediately invited me to participate in a student symposium he was organizing on the picturesque. The fact that this subject had caught his fancy was perhaps a relatively early symptom of his revisionist take on art history: According to the prevailing view, which was Wolfflin-inspired and binary (classical vs. baroque), art and design that fell under the "picturesque" rubric were worthy of little more than condescension if not outright disgust. Bob's desire to look afresh at landscape designer Humphry Repton and the inventive English landscape theorists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was, as I would discover, typical of his refusal to abide by the conventions of his field. Despite the fact that I knew nothing about the picturesque, I succumbed to the understated yet self-assured charm of this man who, by his own description, had grown up as an "arty Manhattan teenager," and agreed to participate in the symposium. I don't remember much about the event, except that by the end of it Bob and I were friends. …