Sometimes when I am out looking at art I ask myself the question “What does it mean to experience this artwork in this moment?” I found myself asking that question at the exhibition of Seymour Rosofsky’s drawings at Corbett vs. Dempsey titled “Xylophone Solo.”
Rosofsky died the year I was born, 1981. He was part of the Chicago Imagists’ Monster Roster, a loosely affiliated movement of post-war Chicago artists including Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, and Jim Nutt who defiantly insisted on making representational figurative paintings during the height of Modernism. Rosofsky’s work wasn’t typically as political as Golub and Spero, or as weird and colorful as Jim Nutt, though like those artists, he employed a grotesque sensibility in order to define experience.
Often this sensibility was like Norman Rockwell through the delirium of a fever dream, aimed at the existential horrors of middle American domestic life. In Couple Dancing In A Living Room (1970), we see two figures, perhaps children, swinging hand in hand around a piss-yellow, chandelier-lit interior. A tiny Pagliacci figure floats between the dancing couple, seemingly kicking the male in the crotch. The room itself appears to be an open cube surrounded by an inky black void. This surreal scene of creepy domestic merriment is at once spacious and claustrophobic, like a private universe that has nowhere to expand.
The theme of figures trapped within the conditions of their own existence is repeated throughout the show. In Seated Man, Blue Background (no date) a solitary man in a funny hat hunches awkwardly in a chair too tall for his tiny legs. The man in Figure in Chairs With Ball and Two Polls (1969) also sits uncomfortably at rest near what appears to be a seaside view. Hardly a scene of leisure, the man’s slumped posture coupled with Rosofsky’s frenetic rendering suggests an itchy boredom that’s both gnawing and deflating. These scenes also harken back to the lonely human beasts in Francis Bacon’s paintings or George Grosz’s miserable portrait The Poet Max Herrmann-Neisse (1927), images that featured European figures psychologically ravaged by the horrors of global conflict and the failed promise of the Modern era. In Rofosky’s world, the misery stems from themes more uniquely American.
In a picture titled Rifleman and Bar (1965), the restlessness and violence of America’s pioneer history, the obscenity of popular culture, and the neon haze of capitalism’s excesses coagulate into a dingy barroom scene. Above a frieze of glum barflies, a gilded mountain man in buckskins takes aim at an unseen target. In the foreground is the bartender, turned away from his customers in a moment of reflection. Is the mountain man the bar man’s fantasy or a giant kitschy advertisement, just part of the décor? Oddly enough it’s the bartender, whose features are highlighted by an unknown light source, who looks like a neon sign. These two figures represent two poles of American identity: the untethered adventurer and the stable working-class hero who can reliably found in the same place night after night. Unfortunately, these archetypes are hardly served by the surrounding tableau. Much of the background feels visually inert, plagued by a horizontality created by the red stripe of the bar that cuts through the center of the picture and leads the eye nowhere. The bar man and mountain man represent two intriguing dynamics that the rest of the picture can’t quite support.
Though it’s through these figures that I come back to my original question about what it means to experience Rosofsky’s work in 2012; after the financial crisis that devastated the housing market, after several decades of changing cultural dynamics have shifted the ground under the feet of the white middle-class that dominated mid-Century America, and as the art world has sought to look beyond the existential angst of certain white male artists. Elements of Rosofsky’s work feel as though they are locked within a distant historical narrative despite the fact that images within the show were created as recently as 1980. The investigation behind Rosofsky’s bar man and mountain man is rooted in the question of what it means to be an American. The question itself is undeniably relevant today, though the stakes are vastly different and more complex than those posed within the frame of the artist’s inquiry, and were so during Rosofsky’s time as well. As for the artist’s domestic scenes, those images may serve as a disclaimer against the nostalgic dream of stable mid-Century home ownership. As Rosofsky’s drawings remind us, even when houses were not underwater, home could be a difficult place to breathe. Even if the artist’s work my not be timeless, they certainly have that much to say.
Seymour Rosofsky Xylophone Solo will be on view at Corbett vs. Dempsey in Chicago through September 1, 2012.