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There is a persistent and destructive myth that people are born artists, and that they are gifted with natural talent, and that art cannot be taught or learned. The biography of Stanley Rosen, who was born in Brooklyn in 1926 to Polish immigrant parents, is further proof that passion, curiosity, openness, and intellect play a more important role than natural talent.
Rosen’s parents worked in a neighborhood grocery store, and he has been described as an indifferent student in his high school years. Nothing had set him on fire or piqued his interest. Towards the end of World War II, he enlisted in the navy and served in the occupation of Japan. For Rosen, his time in Japan was “overwhelmingly beautiful – a beauty you didn’t know what to do with” — an experience whose aesthetic component shook him to his core, despite his participation in the forces controlling a defeated, destroyed, and shamed country.
However, at this moment in his life, Rosen still had no clear sense of his direction, and he certainly did not think of himself as an artist. All this changed through various encounters – including his first wife and various teacher-mentors – until he chose to go to Alfred University in upstate New York to pursue an MFA in ceramics. In 1956, he and his family moved to New York City because he got a job at the pottery school Greenwich House. He was 30, and soon discovered the work of Alberto Giacometti, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, and David Smith, which changed his life once again. In 1960, he began teaching at Bennington College, where he was on the faculty until 1991, overlapping with better known painters and sculptors: Pat Adams, Anthony Caro, Paul Feeley, Vincent Longo, Jules Olitski, and Tony Smith.
To be honest, until I learned about Rosen, I had no idea that Bennington even taught ceramics, that’s how little attention the department or medium were given in any story about the school’s role in postwar art, starting of course with Helen Frankenthaler. Some of this invisibility is due to Rosen’s self-effacing personality. He belongs to a generation of sculptors working in ceramics that includes Peter Voulkos, James Melchert, Robert Arneson, and Betty Woodman (all born between 1924 and ’30), and is the least known of this group, which is largely his own doing. Still, Rosen’s ceramic sculptures are a revelation: they are like a country that many of us never knew was there until now.
I want to stress that the exhibition Stanley Rosen: Beginnings at Steven Harvey Fine Arts Projects is closing this Sunday and should not be missed by anyone who cares about ceramics. This is the first solo exhibition of Rosen’s sculptures and drawings to be presented in New York. There is also a show, Holding the Line: Ceramic Sculpture by Stanley Rosen at the Alfred Ceramic Art Museum of Alfred University (October 19 – December 30, 2017), curated by Jamie Franklin, but I saw only the one at Stephen Harvey. According to the Alfred press release, Holding the Line, which originated at Bennington, was Rosen’s first ever solo show, at the age of 90. By all accounts, he was uninterested in gallery exhibitions or the art market. Whatever sense he had of himself was not derived from these measures: he appears to have possessed a self-sufficiency that we rarely encounter in the art world or elsewhere.
Rosen starts at the beginning, with a coil pinched at both ends that is a little more than inch in length. I don’t think you can begin with less than that and build the forms he does. Also, by working with a short coil rather than a long one, which is commonplace when using a potter’s wheel, Rosen underscores his intention to build something out of a minute form, while eschewing the wheel. However deliberate and slow the process – and it is hard not to imagine that a lot of time goes into making each piece – the works are not about the labor but about the joy of making: this feeling comes through in all the work.
None of the more than a dozen sculptures at Steven Harvey Fine Arts Projects is higher than twenty inches. They are made of stoneware that is often unglazed: the colors are earthy – grays, tans, dirty whites, dark browns – and might remind you of different kinds of bread. In all of the work there is a dialogue between the visual and the visceral.
Rosen never lets you forget that you looking an object made of pieces of clay, but he doesn’t emphasize it either. One piece, measuring only 3 by 8 by 9 inches, might remind you of a section of piled carpet — a field of vertical coils on a slightly arched bed, with a mushroom-like abstract form in the middle.
Rosen has drawn inspiration from vernacular architecture as well as the history of vessels. His sculptures never become purely visual: this is what distinguishes his work from many other sculptors working with clay. His pinched coils and flattened pieces of clay insist on their undistinguished material existence. The insides of his vessel-like pieces are roughly layered. They invite scrutiny as well as encourage physical contact. The coils are like extrusions, something squeezed from a tube or a body. They share something with the rubber tubing penetrating Eve Hesse’s “Accession II” (1969). There is a tactility and a sensuality to Rosen’s sculpture that feels primordial. At the same time, there is nothing seductive, charming, or witty about any of the works, which makes them even greater.
Stanley Rosen: Beginnings continues at Steven Harvey Fine Arts Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) continues through tomorrow, November 26.