Collecting art as it was being made

November 01, 2005|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

Growing up in Baltimore during the 1950s, Linda Rosen Kushner remembers being surrounded by paintings and other artworks in her family's homes, first on East Monument Street and later in the city's Ashburton neighborhood.

As well she might, since her parents, Israel and Selma Rosen, didn't have just any old pictures on the wall.

Though the couple were of modest means - he was a general practitioner with offices in East Baltimore, she a former schoolteacher-turned-homemaker - what they possessed in abundance was a passion for art.

That, plus a terrific eye for talent and an adventurous spirit, led them to buy scores of works by some of the greatest artists of the 20th century - Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko - at a time when practically no one else dared.

"My father was a scholar and a loquacious one at that, so there was lots of discussion about the art and its importance," recalls Kushner, a retired lawyer who now lives in Rhode Island. "My parents were very consciously trying to choose the best examples they could."

How well they succeeded may be seen this week, when 11 modern and contemporary artworks from the Rosens' prized collection will go on the auction block at Christie's New York valued at nearly $11 million.

Among them are an important Rothko painting, Blue Over Red, executed in 1953, as well as drawings by Paul Klee, Joan Miro and Jean Arp, sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz and collage by Fernand Leger.

The Rosen artworks, which will be sold over the course of five sessions beginning today, for years represented one of the most significant collections of modern and contemporary art in Baltimore. (Israel Rosen died in 1988; Selma Rosen died in March at age 93.)

"Within the period they were collecting, it's hard to think of anyone in the community as influential as they," recalled Jay Fisher, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Baltimore Museum of Art. "The Rosens started collecting major contemporary artworks long before others had become engaged with contemporary art."

But the Rosens weren't just enthusiastic collectors. They were also extremely knowledgeable about the art they liked, and they used their knowledge to put together a collection they hoped would illuminate the major artistic trends of their time. Israel Rosen, for instance, compiled a large, important library of art and art history books that he later donated to the BMA and the Johns Hopkins University.

"Israel had this amazing sense and confidence about the artists he felt were important, and in every case, time has borne him out," Fisher says. "He was buying Kline, Pollock, Rothko literally as those works were being made. He also understood how those artists had been inspired by Picasso, and sought to acquire excellent examples of his work from every stage of his career."

Experts say that today it would be virtually impossible for any but the wealthiest individuals to put together a group of artworks comparable to what the Rosens achieved.

"What is so exciting is to think this was a couple without unlimited means who found a way to collect examples of early modern art through sheer passion and dedication," says Christopher Eykyn, senior vice president and head of the Impressionist and Modern Art department at Christie's New York.

"They had an eye to choose those extremely daring works that today might seem obvious but at the time represented very bold statements by them," Eykyn adds.

The Rosens didn't wait for history's verdict to buy what interested them.

Rauschenberg, for example, created one of his most famous prints, Accident, in 1963, and Israel Rosen bought it the same year. (During the printing process, the lithographic plate broke and Rauschenberg, intrigued by the role of chance in the creative process, incorporated the mishap into the finished piece, hence its title.)

The Rosens later donated the lithograph to the BMA; they also gave the museum superb examples by other modern and contemporary masters, including Picasso's famous Minotauromachy print, which is considered the artist's greatest achievement in the medium and a landmark of 20th-century art.

"They were collecting at a very exciting time in the '50s," Eykyn says. "It was a great time to have an eye and some availability to funds to enjoy one's collecting passion, but I don't know if the same opportunities are available today. It was a very special time."

Proceeds from the auction will become part of Selma Rosen's estate, to be distributed according to terms of her will, Kushner said.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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