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