Harry Roseman, “2018-7” (2018), acrylic on paper, 17 5/8 x 24 in. (all images courtesy of the artist, photos by Al Nowak)

HYDE PARK, New York — Drawing is just one of the many different things that Harry Roseman does. He has also made public sculpture, most notably the 71-foot-long bronze “Subway Wall” (1990), installed in the entrance of the subway station at 60 Wall Street in Manhattan’s financial district, and the 58 gypsum curtains of “Curtain Wall” (2001) that line a corridor in Terminal 4 of Kennedy International Airport. He also makes small sculptures that can sit on a table, and, in addition to gypsum and bronze, he has made works with sheets of plywood. His pieces range in scale from intimate to monumental.

In 1956, at the age of 10, Roseman started a photographic project, which he would later separate into two series, titled Groups: Friends and Acquaintances and Self Portraits. Both are still ongoing. In 1971, he began Visitors: A Journal, documenting everyone who came to the home where he and his wife, the painter Catherine Murphy, were living. This project includes friends, plumbers, art handlers, and mail deliverers — literally anyone who came to visit, however brief.

Harry Roseman, “2018-4” (2018), acrylic on paper, 23 11/16 x 27 inches

In 2007, I interviewed Roseman for The Brooklyn Rail about a series of 100 drawings, 100 Most Popular Colors (1993-94), which he rendered on paint color charts. The count of 100 drawings was based in part on the 100 sample color squares on each chart, which ranged from blush white in the upper left-hand corner to violet in the lower right, with no bright or primary colors in between. This is what he said in the interview:

It’s a folded piece of paper with 100 boxes of insipid colors that look like they’re left over from the fifties. And I said, “100 most popular colors, 100 boxes, 100 drawings.” It seemed clear to me that there needed to be 100 drawings in order to achieve a total balance between each one and the whole enterprise.

When I asked him about how he used the chart, he stated:

I use the color chart, words and squares of colors as a ground. It’s very straightforward. […] Some transitions are clearly sequential. I made lines over the whole chart in the first drawing. In the second one, I made similar, smaller marks only in each colored box. It was a conversation about the various parameters that were possible once the thing itself was, in a sense, talking back.

Harry Roseman, “2018-5” (2018), acrylic on paper, 16 3/8 x 23 7/8 inches

Roseman is methodical and playful. He is interested in what his materials tell him. In 1989, he began drawing on a bolt of cloth. In our interview he told me,

“The Bolt” is a drawing that is also an object. It’s an incremental weave structure that is very depictive because it looks like a real weave. I’m just kind of metaphorically weaving while drawing and it is a certain length and I work on it somewhat every year. It will be another length eventually. It’s about counting minutes, and making marks, and making an object that exists as an object.

Finally, on what connects 100 Most Popular Colors and “The Bolt,” Roseman said:

My process and my ideas about much of my work seem to be incremental. I’m very interested in things that build up by mark or dab, and sometimes you see it and sometimes you don’t.

Having known Roseman for as long as I have — more than 30 years — I have seen many different bodies of work. During that time, he has never been associated with any group, style, or tendency. I think the art world (like much of America) is deeply suspicious of anything or anyone that cannot be easily categorized.

Recently, I was a “visitor” to Harry and Cathy’s house and had a chance to see a new body of Roseman’s drawings, all in acrylic paint on paper. First, Roseman made an amorphic shape or shapes by dripping or pouring acrylic paint onto the paper, using either an eyedropper or a container. Then, the contour of the amorphic shape talks back to him.

Harry Roseman, “2017-6” (2017), acrylic on paper, 18 x 24 inches

Using a sable brush, Roseman makes a series of concentric lines that echo the shape’s contour, spreading out from the puddle of dried paint, like rings in a tree, marking the shape’s growth. As meticulous and rhythmically repetitive as they are, unexpected things happen. The density and color of the line shifts from black to pale gray. A mistake happens, which Roseman has to incorporate into the flow of the drawing. Circles are in some, but not all, of the spaces that open up.

The fact that Roseman seems at times to interrupt — though not undermine — his own logic is just one of the many unforeseen occurrences likely to happen in one of his drawings. In “2018-5,” the red lines change direction, making the surface of the drawing become illusionistic rather than purely flat and graphic.

Harry Roseman, “2016-13” (2016), acrylic on paper 18 x 23 1/2 inches

Looking at these drawings, I was reminded of Sol LeWitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art” (1968), which opens:

  1. Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.
  2. Rational judgements repeat rational judgements.
  3. Irrational judgements lead to new experience.
  4. Formal art is essentially rational.
  5. Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.
  6. If the artist changes his mind midway through the execution of the piece he compromises the result and repeats past results.
  7. The artist’s will is secondary to the process he initiates from idea to completion. His wilfulness may only be ego.

Read through all 35 of LeWitt’s sentences and you could consider Roseman a conceptual artist, while simultaneously feeling that you are wrong. Is he a conceptual artist who also happens to be an outsider artist? Can someone be both and neither?

Harry Roseman, “2019-1” (2019), acrylic on paper, 17 1/2 x 24 inches

The drawings may be, as Roseman says, about “counting minutes, and making marks, and making an object that exists as an object,” but there is nothing dry about them. They are funny, quirky, and zipping with energy. They should be included in a show with drawings by Daniel Zeller, Xylor Jane, John O’Connor, Lori Ellison, and James Siena.

At some point, while looking at these drawings, while scrutinizing the lines and the changing space between them, it might occur to you — as it did to me — that one of many captivating and delicious things about them is that Roseman has dissolved the boundary between madness and rationality. He has found another way to keep dancing on a high wire.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...

2 replies on “Can an Artist Be Compulsive and Deliberate?”

  1. Thank you for introducing me to his work! I totally respond to it. I particulalry enjoy “2018-4” and “2018-7” where Roseman uses several colors in either the original paint drips or his response drawings. Mysterious, meditative and indicative of microscopic and galactic worlds simultaneously!

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