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

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
football
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
News
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Travel
travel
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform