Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

Beyond The Frame: Henry Rothman at Lori Bookstein

Henry Rothman: Collages at Lori Bookstein Gallery

September 6 to October 6, 2012
138 Tenth Avenue, between 18th and 19th streets
New York City, 212-750-0949

Henry Rothman, Untitled (Red T), circa 1974-79. Paper collage, 7-1/4 x 10-1/2 inches. Courtesy of Lori Bookstein Fine Art

Henry Rothman, Untitled (Red T), circa 1974-79. Paper collage, 7-1/4 x 10-1/2 inches. Courtesy of Lori Bookstein Fine Art

A visual coup de foudre, this gem of an exhibition of masterful collages ambushed a skeptical critic on her Chelsea peregrinations. Defying expectations, what were these collages that owed such a graceful debt to Kurt Schwitters and possessed such intelligent and delicate affinities with the work of Anne Ryan while exhibiting a definite character of their own? Was this the work of an emerging artist and if so, how to explain the modest mastery and lack of self-conscious appropriation characterizing these quietly radiant compositions? A time warp touch of quiet authority and sure grasp of abstract shape and color juxtaposition seemed beyond the imagination and skill of the typical MFA graduate these days. Yet I had never heard of the artist, Henry Rothman, before this encounter.

The works in the current show were made over two decades, from the mid-sixties until the late 1980s. Rothman (1910-1990) was an artist’s artist: in what was then a much smaller and more intertwined art world than today’s five-ring circus, his collages were admired and snapped up by many of the New York artists who were his clients and peers. But recognition of his work was sidelined by his own modesty as well as by the relentlessness of aesthetic fashion, with its appetite for the always bigger and more spectacular.

Rothman, who had immigrated to America some time in the 1930s from Austria, where he had attended art school in Vienna, studied journalism at NYU after he got to New York. He began his career in the 1940s as a street photographer fascinated with urban decay, graffiti, and peeling fragments of posters. He also opened a small framing business on Manhattan’s 28th Street. This shop also doubled as a kind of casual salon for other artists, among them his photographer colleague Weegee, as well as Louise Nevelson, Jacques Lipchitz and even actor Anthony Quinn, then pursuing his fortunes as a painter. By the 1950s Rothman had begun making small collages that deftly incorporated shards of advertisements typography, combining scraps of color with orphaned lettering that visually echoed his earlier photographs.

The Jed Bark of his day, Rothman’s great skill as a master framer brought him many of the era’s most prominent artists as clients. Apparently they eagerly acquired his collages, which he would then frame for them. But reluctant to be seen as competing with his artist clients, he never pushed his own artwork. Instead their creation seems to have been an intimate and personal activity.

Like Robert Kulicke, artist and legendary goldsmith, whose prowess as an inventive framer (he pioneered the Plexiglas box frame in the 1960s) may well have initially obscured his excellence as a painter, Henry Rothman remained exceptionally modest about his own artistic achievements. Celebrated as a master of water gilding, (the refined technique of applying sheets of gold leaf over a carefully prepared layer of red clay), he was deservedly famous among professional framers. To this day his son David carries on the high standards set by his father in the framing business that is now on West 36th Street. At last, though, Henry Rothman’s exquisite collages are gaining recognition they deserve.

Henry Rothman, Untitled (Blue and Red) [double-sided] circa 1960-63. Paper collage, 6-7/8 x 4-7/8 inches. Courtesy of Lori Bookstein Fine Art

click to enlarge

  • David Rothman

    Dear Alexandra,
    I would like to thank you very much for your wonderful article of praise regarding my dad’s recent collage show at The Lori Bookstein Gallery. David Cohen was kind enough to forward it to me as I had not been aware of the article. As I read your article, it reminded me to a time much earlier in my life when my dad was still alive and doing his work. Many of the things you said could not have been said any better by myself, and I was very grateful to see all of these ideas in print. I know you must have received most of your information either from the gallery personal or possibly off the internet so it is likely that several erroneous statements will occur. Just about everything you wrote is quite accurate; however, there are two points that I would like to correct.
    Point number one which I feel is extremely important is that my dad was born in America on January 26, 1910 as opposed to what you wrote in your article. You had stated that he emmigrated from Austria in the thirties where he had attended an art school in Vienna. While it is true that he did attend art school in Vienna in the early thirties, it was after he had graduated from NYU where he had studied journalism. Another slight correction is that he began his street photography in New York City in the mid to late thirties. Of course I am quite aware of the fact that most of your information about Henry came from second or third hand souces and this is just to clear the record. I would very much like to meet you sometime in the future and please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.
    David Rothman