By PAUL LASTER, Jul. 2017
In these revisionary times—when the Zero, Gutai, and Arte Povera movements are getting a second life—one of New York’s own, under-known artists deserves another look.
An artist that was always on the fringe of the Downtown art world, while never quite hitting it big, Leonard Rosenfeld made some very inventive work. Born in Brooklyn in 1926, Rosenfeld spent more than 50 years in the New York art scene—going to the Arts Students League before hanging out at the celebrated Cedar Tavern, where he befriended the Abstract Expressionists Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.
Exhibiting with the Martha Jackson Gallery and OK Harris during his lifetime, Rosenfeld made his first substantial mark with a series of radically fresh “Rag Paintings,” in which he wrapped scraps of painted canvas around stretcher bars, while leaving the remainder of the painting field open to the wall. He followed that series with his “Wire and Can Pieces,” which are currently getting renewed exposure in a solo show at Denise Bibro Fine Art in Chelsea.
Presenting a selection of works made between 1981 and 1991, the exhibition features the artist’s ingenious assemblages using bits of electrical wire to construct figurative imagery and smashed spray paint cans to add both abstract and referential content. A few small canvases with cut, wrapped and nailed elements, along with several self-portraits—expressively made with graphite and charcoal on paper—add variety and context for the larger, more intricate works in the show.
Rosenfeld’s initial “Wire Pieces,” which were assembled from predominantly black and white wire and carpet tacks, drew from aspects of his personal life. Blues Man (horizontal) depicts a black singer, whose mouth is made up of two harmonicas and body is shaped like a guitar, situated above a steam locomotive. Rosenfeld was fascinated with both blues music and the railroad, which was the subject of an early series of drawings of the elevated trains and stations of Brooklyn and Queens in the 1950s. Similarly, MX Chief—a self-portrait that shows the artist as a tribal ruler hovering over a tiny white Volkswagen—references the many adventuresome summer getaways that he spent in Mexico.
With an increased confidence in this body of work, Rosenfeld began employing colored wire, as witnessed in Jailhouse Love, which shows a captive couple embracing under a yellow moon floating in a dark blue sky. It was begun in 1981 but worked on—or reworked—over a five-year period. The piece Chinatown – The Year of the Fish colorfully captures Rosenfeld enjoying the good life while feasting on fish at a Chinese restaurant, assembled above the image of a house containing three of his favorite activities: cooking for guests, arguing over politics and aesthetics, and making love. Likewise, Gunga Din Meets King Kong, humorously portrays another one of Rosenfeld’s favorite pastimes—the movies—with the Rudyard Kipling’s Indian water bearer and RKO Pictures’ giant ape illustrated in a lively array of colors.
The graphite and charcoal self-portraits in the show feature Rosenfeld as an aging Jew and a worn-out, underappreciated artist. Inspired by a discarded sneaker that he found outside his Lower East Side studio, Rosenfeld repeatedly drew the shoe suspended in front of and obscuring his face (as seen in the works on paper Worn Out Running Shoe and Man and One and the Same) or seemingly merging with his head (as executed in the slightly surreal looking Going to an Opening in a Shirt and Tie.)
This blending of the shoe and head reappears in the several of artist’s “Can Pieces” in the show. In Hung Up Running Shoe and Man and Sneaker Man, Rosenfeld illustrated his head with graphite and wire, and then collaged deconstructed parts of the found shoe on attached boards. Finally, he surrounded the imagery with smashed, discarded paint cans that display suggestive brand names like “Grand Finale” and ironically altered labels, such as “pray” instead of spray.
In the other “Can Pieces” on view—Angel Soldier, Watching the War on Television, and Channel Zero—Rosenfeld used the boards in the center of the stretcher bars to comment on the first Iraq War, which he compellingly viewed on TV even as he opposed it. He drew images of marching armies and innocent civilians being slaughtered by soldiers on imaginary television screens, which he tagged as being broadcast from “Channel 0” on a “FONY TV.”
Although he had once served in the army, Rosenfeld no longer believed that war was a means to an end. However, he still felt a camaraderie and concern for the soldiers—emphasizing that point by painting the cans in “Desert Storm” black-and-brown camouflage colors and splotching others with bits of red to signify spilt blood, while also adding small canvases of fighters to the central surfaces and army surplus items to the adorned stretcher bars.
Rosenfeld’s hybrid works present a bohemian way of making art that draws from both popular and urban culture to construct a passionate and imaginative look at his life and times. For this erstwhile “beatnik” artist, who often described his work as “a combination of abandon and discipline,” the beat goes on. WM
Catch this “must see” exhibition at Denise Bibro Fine Arts, 529 West 20th Street in Chelsea through July 15, 2017.
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, artist and lecturer. He’s a contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and writer for Time Out New York, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Galerie Magazine, Sculpture, Art & Object, Cultured, Architectural Digest, Garage, Surface, Ocula, Observer, ArtPulse, Conceptual Fine Arts and Glasstire. He was the founding editor of Artkrush, started The Daily Beast’s art section, and was art editor of Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine, as well as a curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.
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