An Interview with Curator and Archivist Susan Rosenbaum
A curator and archivist by profession, Susan Rosenbuam inherited an artistic mantle from her famous artist father, Benjamin Abramowitz. What follows is an interview with Ms. Rosenbaum concerning her memories of the Jefferson Place Gallery, and the Washington D.C. art world at that time.
RB: Thank you for agreeing to chat with me about the Jefferson Place Gallery. Your father was a professional working artist beginning in the 1930’s, and his solo show at the Jefferson Place Gallery was in 1971. The work he exhibited there was from his abstract modernist phase. Do you recall ever visiting the Jefferson Place Gallery, and do you have any recollections, yourself or from your father, of founding director Alice Denney, or the director when your father showed, Nesta Dorrance?
SR: Sadly, I did not visit that I recall. I had a toddler, and lived and worked in Boston at that time. He did talk often about Nesta, and kept in touch via letters I believe.
RB: You recently completed a comprehensive survey of your father’s work. As I alluded to, his body of work is immense, and diverse. Were you able to come to any conclusion about your father’s technique from doing that survey, or about the meaning of his work?
SR: My father lived to his mid 90’s, and now 6 years after his death, more than 100 years since his birth, his legacy is in some ways a paradox. His early WPA lithographs were created under the name Ben Hoffman, and it’s only through my efforts that they’ve been recognized as the work of Benjamin Abramowitz. His work as a whole demonstrates gigantic imagination, and aesthetic exploration. He was a dedicated father and husband, a loner, though social, a contrarian, and debater, though charming, a revered mentor and teacher his whole life. Many younger artists – Sam Gilliam and his whole family, included, visited the studio/home in Greenbelt, and curators made the trek into Prince George’s County pre-Beltway. David Driskell delivered art supplies to him as he worked his way through Howard. That he was not and still is not as widely recognized as say Jacob Kainen, or Willem deLooper, or Davis, or Reed, speaks to some of those choices. He chose not to congregate or socialize in DC watering holes. He lived and worked in Greenbelt, MD, not DC, then a real outpost. He did not trade, auction or donate artwork – his wife Ruth made that absolute decision. She was a ferocious champion, she came with no money whatsoever, she kept all the money in envelopes in the kitchen — and I can say with real sorrow that my father’s greatest failing as an artist was his devotion to hearth and home.
The stunning lack of broader recognition even now perhaps is a function of our contemporary art world, and the complexities of attracting attention from gallerists and museums. Walter Hopps wrote in The Dream Colony, his new book, “Benjamin Abramowitz was one of four extraordinary artistic pioneers in Washington.” He did have numerous solo exhibitions – the Corcoran, Baltimore Museum, the Phillips. And yet… ?
RB: We’re glad to be able to place your father within the Jefferson Place Gallery “frame”. Few artists like your father, artists of major accomplishment, made their careers in this area. And nearly all that did went through the Jefferson Place Gallery one way or another. From your experience as his daughter, do you have any individual stories or memories of your father’s career that stand out to you? Favorite experiences, or least favorite experiences?
SR: Favorite experiences: As children, my brother and I had no sense of his place as an artist. Painting is what he did. We grew up surrounded by his work. As a young boy in the 1950’s my brother was embarrassed by the nudes in our living room, so my father explained that his nude painting, ‘Leda and the Swan,” was drawn from the Bible. We then got a phone call from one his friends’ mother, asking to see and buy the “religious paintings.” I remember being sent to bed by 7 pm so my father could have his time to paint each night, and at age 15 accompanying him to his outdoor classes when my mother left for Maine to take care of my cellist brother, (and evenings that summer going to see Ingmar Bergman films,) being coached in Latin, being taught to make my own drawings of fashions at his desk, being scolded for disorder which to him was a real sin. Discovering that a dozen of his lithographs are in the Metropolitan Museum, and in the collections of the St. Louis Museum, and Newark Museum,
Least favorite: The challenges of today’s art market, and wanting to see his work more broadly viewed. The burden of overseeing this large collection of work that I feel compelled to try and market.