Chicago

Seymour Rosofsky

Gray

Seymour Rosofsky was born in Chicago, where he grew up and received most of his art education. Although he went away several times—as a soldier in World War II, on a Fulbright grant to Rome in 1958, and on a Guggenheim Fellowship to Paris from 1962 to 1964—he remained a Chicagoan all his life, and died here in 1981 at the age of 57. Perhaps because he stayed at home this way, his art has an unmistakably domestic and enclosed feeling to it. His is not the imagery of grand ideas that the Abstract Expressionists and Minimalists created. On the contrary, at a time when the dominant esthetic was abstract and heroic, Rosofsky threw himself into genre painting with enormous energy and dedication. His work presents us with a number of scenes from Chicago life.

The part of his output that I find most compelling is the work that depicts people in their houses or apartments engaged in the most ordinary of activities—playing cards, watching television, having tea or a piece of cake. Although these common occurrences might be taking place anywhere, the atmosphere Rosofsky created is oppressive in a way that makes it seem quite specific to Chicago. The figures in his pictures are middle-class couples for whom orderliness has turned into drabness and routine into a deep rut. They live a life in which the imagination has curdled. Rosofsky saw them as picture-book dolls with putrefying flesh, funny little toy people who turn into evil homunculi. The figures sit on their chairs in just the slumped, vacant way that a doll abandoned after play would, or that a corpse might if someone were left to rot where he had died.

The dollhouse mise-en-scène of Rosofsky’s work seems an intentional effort to scale down the claims it would make on us. He is fascinated by the workaday aspects of life, but he doesn’t want to inflate his subject all out of proportion. The material in his at-times-downright-creepy pictures could as readily have been used to make television sitcoms, and his own rendering of it is almost cartoonlike. In fact, he was better at drawing than most American painters are; even when the imagery is sketchy or partial, the effects look precise and vivid in a way more typical of commercial illustration than fine art. Even in his paintings, drawing rather than brushwork or surface is the most powerful element. This exhibition, because it consisted entirely of works on paper, showed Rosofsky to great advantage. His mastery of a range of drawing media, especially gouache and pastel, was impressive.

What ultimately makes Rosofsky’s work memorable is that he has given to these lethargic people dulled by time a measure of spiritual presence, an aura, a magic. We see through their listlessness—sometimes literally right through the floor or a wall—to where the hidden ghost of their sexuality or their pain or passion for life is lurking. Rosofsky has been compared to a variety of better-known 20th-century artists, from Alberto Giacometti to Edward Hopper. I see him, however, more as a kind of Marc Chagall of Chicago. Rosofsky was also a Russian Jew, and he made his memories of the Chicago of his boyhood serve him the way Chagall did those of old Russia in the region around Vitebsk where he was born. The clothes and settings of Rosofsky’s work evoke an earlier historic period (here, the 1930s) much as Chagall’s do. And Rosofsky also managed to impart to the world he depicted a mythic quality that we would never suspect existed had he not been able to show it to us.

Colin Westerbeck