Professor Robert Rosenblum

Art historian and Guggenheim Museum curator celebrated for his contrariness


Robert Rosenblum, art historian and curator: born New York 24 July 1927; Professor of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University 1956-66; Professor of Fine Arts, New York University 1967-2006; Slade Professor of Fine Art, Oxford University 1971-72; Curator, Guggenheim Museum 1996-2006; married 1977 Jane Kaplowitz (one son, one daughter); died New York 6 December 2006.

It was typical of Robert Rosenblum that he was curating exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic at the time of his death; Rosenblum's energy was undiminished even in his 80th year and stricken with colon cancer. The shows, in Paris and Houston, reflect the extent to which the Manhattan dentist's son had stormed the barricades of European art history. (Rosenblum's 1967 masterpiece Transformations in Late 18th Century Art remains the most important work on French Revolutionary painting.) But they also hint at another Rosenblumian trait, namely his impishness.

The first show, "Portraits Publics, Portraits Privés", at the Grand Palais, is the sort of exhibition you'd expect from a historian of Rosenblum's stature: a scholarly, if slightly dull, romp through portraiture from 1770 to 1830. (This will move to the Royal Academy in London in February under the name "Citizens and Kings".) The second, at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, is not. Called "Best in Show", its subject is the dog in art from Jacopo Bassano to Jeff Koons, via Titian, Gerrit Dou and Sir Edwin Landseer. Its breadth of period and air of whimsy - Rosenblum was notoriously devoted to a pet bulldog called Archie - is the kind of thing to make serious art curators curl their toes. Yet, as often in his career, it is this apparently shallower work that is the more interesting and, perhaps, more important.

Although he questioned the term, Rosenblum was a postmodernist. Schooled at Yale in the art-historical rules of genre and period, he delighted in breaking both. Transformations wasn't just about the late 18th century: its real interest lay in the birth of modernist painting a hundred years later.

His biggest recent show in London, the Royal Academy's "1900: art at the crossroads" (2000), looked sideways rather than forwards and back. The notion that modernism was a French invention that developed outside the art-historical mainstream was knocked on the head: Scott Tuke bathers were hung next to baigneuses by Cézanne, Alma-Tadema nudes side by side with Degas'. Speaking at a recent symposium to honour Rosenblum, a colleague remarked that "thanks to Bob, art history has become a smorgasbord . . . rather than the table d'hôte of strictly Gallic dishes it had been for generations". Apparently oblivious to this, the French government appointed him to the Légion d'honneur in 2003.

There is little doubt that Rosenblum's insistent eclecticism changed the face of late 20th-century curating. His reshuffling of the art-historical pack was echoed in the anti-chronological hangs at the Musée d'Orsay and Tate Modern. Like those hangs, Rosenblum's brand of relativism had its detractors. Reviewing "1900" during its run at the Guggenheim, the New York Times critic huffed that it was "hard to remember the last time so many bad pictures were in one place at one time," adding, viperishly, "unless you consider eBay to be a place". To get what Rosenblum was up to in a show, you had to understand the rules he was breaking. This was fine for his fellow art historians, but could leave non-expert visitors with the sense of having wandered into a souk.

But Rosenblum was secure in his own world view, and so none of this bothered him much. In a field where specialisation tends to be ever more narrowly focused, he refused to be tied to a period or place. After the triumph of Transformations, he confounded colleagues at New York University, where he taught until his death, by deserting French art for German. His Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko (1975) repeated the success of the first book by forging an improbable link between two artists working a century apart.

Occasionally, Rosenblum's fondness for rocking the boat could be mistaken for grandstanding. In 2001, he co-curated an exhibition at the Guggenheim of the work of Norman Rockwell - an illustrator whose anodyne, Evening Post images of America made "Best in Show" 's pooches look positively dry. ("If I can enjoy Frank Capra, why can't I enjoy Norman Rockwell?" reasoned Rosenblum.)

Even friends described this "as the crowning achievement of Rosenblumian contrariness", although his public reviling of Edward Hopper may have run it a close second. His taste for what he called "the messy mix" of High and Low extended beyond the realms of art. "Bob could be discussing some fine point in Picasso's development and then turn to a topic like airline menus, in which he had a great interest," recalls a colleague.

At best, this breadth of vision produced extraordinary results: Rosenblum's book Introducing Gilbert & George (2004) is as full of insight as his works on Friedrich or the French Revolution. The stable of his students is legendary, both in its size and its range of interests: Rosenblum described himself as a "soup-to-nuts" teacher, which, for 40 years, he was.

This description also gives an idea of life at the Greenwich Village house he shared with his wife, the artist Jane Kaplowitz. Furnished with a dazzling mix of great art and junk, the Rosenblum household was endlessly convivial. As with his writing, you might find yourself there in the presence of a great artist or of a nobody to whom Rosenblum had taken a shine, both of them treated with equal respect.

Charles Darwent

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