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 February 2010
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David Howell Rosenbaum . . . from page 1

According to fellow Art Nurd Janie Rogers, Rosenbaum’s family was among the first Russian Jews to convert to Mormonism and move to “Zion.” A Wikipedia entry about his great-grandfather, Morris David Rosenbaum, says he was from Fordon (then in Prussia, now in Poland), emigrated to the United States and joined the LDS church after meeting Alexander Neibauer, the first Jewish convert to the LDS church. He married one of Neibauer's daughters, as well as a daughter of Apostle Lorenzo Snow. David Howell Rosenbaum's own father was a salesman and still lived in Brigham City when Rosenbaum was born there in 1908. He was a pragmatic man who told the aspiring artist, "You can’t make a living painting. You’ve got to work.” When he was 23, Rosenbaum studied at Utah State University under Calvin Fletcher, at about the time that Fletcher, mindful of the relatively dreadful art program at USU called upon such venerable artists as Birgen Sandzen, Ralph Stackpole, Otis Oldfield, and Ralph Pearson to serve as artists in residence at the Logan school. James Haseltine called the Logan group the "Ferment in the north," and placed Rosenbaum with Henri Moser and Everett Thorpe as the only artists Utah produced who might be called expressionists (100 Years of Utah Painting, p. 35). Several years after his abbreviated studies with Fletcher, in 1938 Rosenbaum made his way to the American Artists School and Art Students' League in New York for a year of structured training.

Back in Utah Rosenbaum painted under the auspices of the WPA, where he also performed art instruction as part of his employment agreement. The WPA purchased twenty or so of his paintings for use in public buildings.|1-3| George Dibble, long-time art critic for the Salt Lake Tribune recalled an experience he had with one of these paintings. “I was admiring a painting by Howell Rosenbaum on the fourth floor of the Salt Lake City and County Building. It was an oil landscape...typical of the canvases of one who painted ardently and well. A quiet figure of a man in his mid-seventies inquired about my interest in the painting. I assured him it was a work that I had not seen for some time, by an artist whose paintings in the ‘30s and ‘40s were well-known on the local art scene. 'This is not an outstanding painting,' he said, and when I asked why he would say such a thing, he said, 'Because I painted it.'”

In 1941, Rosenbaum opened a studio in Ogden but it was not long before he was drafted into the Navy “Seebees,” the slang term for the Construction Band of engineers and laborers who created airfields, ports, and other military installations during World War II. In 1942, Rosenbaum was sent to Guadalcanal, where he painted energetically, working in watercolor and pastel because oil paints were unavailable. Mostly he painted the natives and the surrounding geography, including the jungle, and sent some 150 to 200 paintings home.|4| The military was absent in the works, possibly because of army policy but more likely because of the artist's hatred for the Navy. “He hated that [military] with a passion,” said his brother, Paul, in a 1983 interview conducted by Kathy Bradford with him and his son, Paul A. Rosenbaum. In Guadalcanal, Rosenbaum contracted severe dysentery and was shipped back home to be treated at Bushnell, a military hospital located in Brigham City, where he was cured and discharged from the service.

In 1946 a group of his South Pacific paintings were exhibited, and in 1951 one of his figurative works won the state purchase award. Despite these successes, Rosenbaum became increasingly withdrawn. In their 1983 interview, the Rosenbaums remarked, “He didn’t want to be bothered. He never owned a car. He never had a telephone. He had a mailbox, but he didn’t want anybody delivering mail. He paid his rent up a year in advance so he wouldn’t have to be bothered writing checks. He didn’t have an alarm clock. He didn’t have a radio,” despite his love for classical music. Only three years before his death Rosenbaum finally acquired a TV, when his brother suggested that rather than carrying records all over the place he could listen to classical music on TV. When his brother visited he saw the TV had a big piece of cardboard on it. "I said, ‘What the hell’s that for?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I covered the damn screen up. I don’t want to see those idiots playing. I just want to hear the music.'”

Rosenbaum liked photography and attempted briefly to sell some of his pictures. He abandoned the commercial idea, but continued to travel—mostly to California—with friends and used his camera frequently. He continued to paint but became very frustrated with trying to play the game of selling art, and, according to David Ericson, for all intents and purposes ditched his painting career in the early ‘50s. How did he live? For 25 years Rosenbaum worked in Ogden at the Defense Depot as a warehouse janitor.

In the last few years of his life, Rosenbaum's outlook was as sour as ever. He told his family he didn’t want a funeral service, speakers, songs, or “anything like that. I just want to be cremated.” His brother Paul asked him, “Well, do you want your ashes spilled over Ogden from an airplane?” Rosenbaum replied, “No. Flush the damn things down the toilet.” Upon his death the family did elected to forego the “burial by facility,” and held a short dedication, placing his remains in the Brigham City Cemetery.

David Glover, a cousin (once removed) of Rosenbaum’s, says that after Rosenbaum's death Vern Swanson was engaged by the family to catalog and evaluate the remaining Rosenbaum paintings. The Springville Museum of Art, Swanson's institution, has in its inventory a number of choice Rosenbaum paintings including one of his strongest genre paintings, “Children at Play in Mantua.”|5|

Glover also told me about Bruce Fowler, a California music producer, trombone player, and former member of a later vintage of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. Fowler, who now lives in Woodland Hills, is a Utah native and attended Skyline and the U (where his father was a professor of music). He's also a great grandson of early Utah artist and poet, Alfred Lambourne (watch for a future column about Lambourne, one of the “Block Artists” and namer of Lake Blanche, among other interesting tidbits). He purchased a Howell Rosenbaum original painting for the album cover of Banned from Utopia's 1988 “So Yuh Don't Like Modern Art.”|6| Note that on the cover a photo of the band has been slipped into the Rosenbaum painting.

The "Banned from Utopia" is an example of one of Rosenbaum's caustic narratives, cynical though charming paintings that blasted, among other things, modern art. He especially had issues with Picasso and included him in three paintings. In the first painting, Picasso is seduced by a three-eyed, two-mouthed woman, a clear mocking of Picasso paintings cubist-inspired portraits.|7| Some have said that the bald subject in several Rosenbaum paintings are self portraits.

The second painting, the one I frequently use to stun my audiences when lecturing, includes images of a classical painting being repulsed by tonic with the names of modernists on the labels. Picasso, Klee, Dufy, Matisse et al. are shown on the bottles that festoon the painting.|0| Lastly, “Whoop-de-do” shows a crazed Picasso painting a gaudy modernist work with cat-tail brushes—using real cats! A Life Magazine photographer skillfully shines his spot while taking his photo. Meanwhile, a smiling critic looks admiringly at the work while Rosenbaum (lower left) peaks around the goings on. The portrait hanging on the wall reads, “Pablo Picasso, Father of us All.”|8|

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It is trite to associate the darkness in an artist’s paintings to the darkness he feels, but like Van Gogh, one could gather obvious messages of depression from many of Rosenbaum's artworks. The anger and contempt he spewed into his work is evident in his painting of Adolph Hitler, where burning books, ravens and skulls, a crucified communist, as well as a chained young man (perhaps a self-portrait) surround der Fuhrer, who is comfortably seated with a copy of Mein Kampf opened at his feet.|9| You be the judge about what it all means but the general dark theme coupled with limited value changes in the painting certainly do not make this painting one that you’d hang in your living room.

The Rosenbaums people do hang on their walls are his landscapes, among the best executed at the time.|10| The flashy landscape of Mantua [Logan Canyon area] is reminiscent of a familiar LeConte Stewart composition, but with enough color to drain two sets of inkjets.|11|

Although not known for his portraiture, Rosenbaum exhibited a credible talent for such things. On the reverse of his “Picasso Being Seduced by Modernism” painting is a very detailed portrait of a friend decked out in a Kramer shirt. His hands and jewelry details are expertly crafted and the cigarette holder is an attention-grabber.|12|

Rosenbaum’s quirky existence is easily overshadowed by his talent and production of multiple works in his relatively short career. Had he been receptive to some strong direction and more philosophical approach, he would have no doubt experienced major acceptance. The pleasure of observing Rosenbaum’s fascinating body of work is punctuated by his tortured and relatively uncelebrated career. The emotion that I feel about such artists is mostly soothed by spending time with their works and understanding the difficulty of their career path.

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Gallery Spotlight: Sugarhouse
Salt Lake's White Cube
15th Street Gallery emerges with a sleek look

Step through the doors of the recently opened 15th Street Gallery, in Salt Lake’s Sugarhouse neighborhood, and you’ll immediately feel transported to New York or the chic shops of Las Vegas. Sleek, minimalist décor is present throughout, complete with track lighting and white walls, floor and ceiling. Gallery owner Glenda Bradley says, “I saw a gallery in Atlanta years ago that had white floors and walls, and I really liked the look and wanted to try it here.”

The new, sleek feel of the space contrasts sharply with the building’s humble beginnings in 1932. According to Laurie Bryant, a local lay historian, the building on the commercial block known as 15th and 15th was a grocery store for several years and was then vacant before becoming a pharmacy in 1948. The Framery eventually leased the space. Bradley bought the business and operated it for 17 years. During that time, Bradley also bought the building and eventually decided to close the premises so she could completely renovate the ailing structure. She worked on it for much of 2009 and opened the doors shortly before the holidays. The space has been reincarnated as a sleek urban gallery representing Utah artists, both emerging and established.

The gallery’s director, Rebecca Richards, started work in April and is excited to offer an additional gallery experience to Salt Lake’s art lovers. Formerly an employee of Thomas Kearns McCarthy Gallery in Park City, she and Bradley have worked hard to make the gallery visually appealing as well as to offer quality art and gifts.

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The main gallery is large and open, with two white benches as the sole occupants of the floor. Currently hanging on the expansive wall space is work by Aaron Bushnell, Rob Adamson, Sean Diediker, Arron Lifferth and Shirley McKay. The Gallery also displays a few works from its previous exhibit by Trent Call, Chris Miles, Blue Critchfield, Dennis Smith, Wendy Chidester, Lane Bennion, Steven Larson, and Zach Hixson. Because even this large space is not enough to accommodate the ever-growing number of artists shown in the gallery, Richards plans to have a computer available with a continuous slide show of all paintings for sale, even if they’re not on the walls. She anticipates that new artists will be featured on the gallery walls approximately every six weeks.

The reception area of the gallery features a gift shop with almost all items in crystal, silver, gold, black and white with accents of brightly colored glass objects. Bradley says, “We’re part of a neighborhood here and we wanted to have people be able to drop in to purchase gifts.” The gift shop also features a signature line of chocolates developed by Bradley and Richards in concert with a local chocolate maker. Richards says they designed everything down to the tags and silver box packaging.

A smaller room in the back contains more gift items as well as a custom framing area. While, because of space limitations, the actual framing is completed off site Richards says it’s an invaluable service they want to continue to offer their customers.

The 15th Street Gallery is also equipped with a kitchen and is available to be rented for private and corporate events. Bradley says that because of the tough economic times, they are diversifying their services in order to maximize their success. “I’m not going to get rich off this place,” she says in her New Orleans accent, “but I’m having a good time.”

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