NEW YORK, NY.-
Aura Rosenbergs first major survey, What Is Psychedelic, fills the Mishkin Gallery of Baruch College in Manhattan and spreads across Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It takes this much space to draw a thread through 50 years of her art: witty mashups of classicism, op-art, photography, abstract painting, appropriation and especially freewheeling collaborations with fellow artists, including Laurie Simmons, Louise Lawler, John Baldessari and Mike Kelley.
I hear youve been talking to my friends, Rosenberg teased at her Pioneer Works opening, looking every bit the wry New York artist in a black blazer, black pants and white sneakers. It was true. Id been on the phone with them all week friends who are also her gallerists, bandmates, family, collaborators all.
Everybody knows Aura, said Alaina Claire Feldman, the shows curator and director of the Mishkin Gallery. (In fact, Rosenberg was a witness at Feldmans marriage.) But not everybody has seen the depth of her work. Until now. The exhibition includes stoner paintings from the 1970s, an R-rated ceramic tile made with artist Mary Heilmann in the 80s; a sun-gold photo portrait from 1996 of Louise Lawlers son, Felix, made up by his mother like a wistful clown; chunks of marble decoupaged with monochrome pornography, from 2019. It looks like a group show, Feldman acknowledged, but behind every artwork, theres 40 or 50 more in the series.
Rosenberg was born in 1949 in New York City. She grew up in Washington Heights, a neighborhood nicknamed Frankfurt on the Hudson for its German-Jewish community. My parents were separated, she said. My mother liked to paint, but my father was the glamour figure. Her father had fled the Nazis in 39; he set up shop as a designer furniture-maker and would take Rosenberg to meet clients like Mark Rothko. Im sitting in a chair that he made, she said. Its the only comfortable piece of furniture in our house.
As an undergraduate at the City College of New York and later Sarah Lawrence College, Rosenberg painted in a German expressionist style. I just lucked out, she said, because the person teaching her survey course in art history was Marcia Tucker, founding curator of the New Museum, who nudged her toward the fledgling Whitney Independent Study Program in 1970. Rosenberg tells the story of her artistic breakthrough, or breakdown: Richard Artschwager, a visiting artist, indicated one of Rosenbergs washy canvases and asked aloud why anyone would make such a thing. The room started spinning, she remembers, because until then, all my instruction had been more like, Put a little more red down here. But this was questioning the very basis of what I was doing.
She kept asking that question of herself. In 1973, while earning a masters degree at Hunter College, she painted what is now the oldest work in the survey, and its namesake: pinwheels of flower-power purple and red pigment built up around the phrase What Is Psychedelic, lettered in rough, teal-stained canvas.
Rosenberg met her husband, artist John Miller, at Hallwalls, a gallery in Buffalo, New York, run by the Pictures Generation power couple Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo. They didnt start dating until 1986, when they connected at a Whitney Independent Study Program alumni event at the museum. There was a country western band playing in the courtyard, she remembers. We danced all night together.
Their daughter, Carmen Rosenberg-Miller, was born in 1989. In 1991, her center of gravity shifted again when Miller accepted a fellowship in Berlin. The war remained in living memory, and Rosenberg was apprehensive about moving to Germany. But we made a lot of friends quickly, Miller said, and weve been back every year for 30 years.
Stirred by the newly reunified city and its dark legacy, Rosenberg began a project based on Berlin Childhood Around 1900, a memoir by philosopher Walter Benjamin (German Jewish, like the artist), written while fleeing the Nazis. Rosenberg began taking Rosenberg-Miller to the places Benjamin describes and photographing them. This communion with a dead writer grew to involve his living descendants when Benjamins granddaughter, Chantal Benjamin, saw Rosenbergs work in an exhibition. They became friends. With Cologne, Germany-based artist Frances Scholz, theyre producing a series of videos set to passages from Benjamins book read by Lais Benjamin Campos, the writers great-granddaughter.
Parts of this somber project are on view in What is Psychedelic, but so is the irreverent sculpture Stashbox for Benjamin, a small pipe Rosenberg set in a niche carved into a copy of Benjamins book about his experiences with hashish. People who know Benjamin as a heady Frankfurt-school philosopher driven to suicide by the Nazis might not know his lively, cannabis-curious side. Rosenberg draws out both, pairing sweetness with despair.
The materials not that playful, performance artist Michael Smith said of Rosenbergs work, but theres a sense of innocence. Smith was the first participant in one of her most intimate series, Head Shots, for which more than 50 men agreed to have their faces photographed in the throes of sexual release (or to fake it). Im pretty prudish, Smith said, but I can mug it. And I happen to have a plastic Santa outfit. The unsettling image of an orgasmic Kriss Kringle is at Mishkin, alongside sweaty portraits of Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Miller (with Rosenbergs feet in the photo). There are men laughing and men dying of AIDS. Rosenberg charmed them all into showing their vulnerability.
Shes not objectifying these men, said critic and curator Bob Nickas, a friend since the mid-80s. Thats where community comes in. Think of the artists who agreed to participate in that project: Tony Oursler, Hunter Reynolds, John Baldessari. It shows how important collaboration is to her work.
That same spirit is crucial to Who Am I? What Am I? Where Am I? a series of portraits of children costumed by other artists. The idea formed in the photo booth that Rosenberg ran at her daughters school fairs. She found childrens faces to be beautiful surfaces for painting. Could I force people to take face painting seriously by doing it with serious artists? she wondered. It would be an opportunity for children, who love to experiment with identity, and for artists to play which is harder than it sounds.
The face-painting project has drawn the most flak from critics, who charged that the portraits exploited children and exposed them to mature themes. Models beg to differ. Actor and writer Lena Dunham, daughter of artists Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham, calls the day she dressed up as a ventriloquist dummy for Rosenbergs camera the best day of her life. She writes in the exhibitions catalog that Rosenberg turns children, both so unaware and so hyper-attuned, into both props and creators, objects and fully formed creatures. Rosenberg-Miller, the artists daughter, posed for the first portrait with temporary tattoos of butterflies and teardrops applied by Kiki Smith. (With a doctorate in art history, Rosenberg-Miller is now teaching a seminar at Princeton about artists and their models.)
I remember having a lot of fun on the photographs with Dan Graham, she recalled. Dan was so playful, and his work thinks so much about children and childhood.
Sometimes, the game got dark like the time Mike Kelley made her up as a Goth prom queen. When Rosenberg-Miller looked in the mirror, she said, she didnt recognize herself. It felt like my identity had been completely erased.
Her mother, speaking in her spare SoHo studio where hunks of stone from a previous project, with magazine pages of pornography decoupaged to them, were scattered on the hardwood floor explained, In that moment, I really had to decide if I was the photographer or if I was the mom. The photographer won out.
Rosenberg said she thought about titling her survey something descriptive and stately, like Five Decades. But the more time you spend tracing the relationships embedded in her work, the more all-encompassing the ambiguous, plaintive declaration What Is Psychedelic becomes.
When I was 22 and making that painting, the artist said, I was thinking more about an optical experience that would be comparable to getting high. Now she thinks of psychedelia as a way meaning emerges from the world. Its a process that artists go through when theyre making their work, she said, when you start to see connections that you hadnt planned on. Those connections happen between works, but they also happen between the actual material of your life. You start to see your life in an expanded way.
What Is Psychedelic: Aura Rosenberg
Through June 11 at Pioneer Works, 159 Pioneer St., Brooklyn, New York; 718-596-3001, pioneerworks.org. Through June 9 at Mishkin Gallery at Baruch College, 135 E. 22nd St., Manhattan, New York; 646-660-6653.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times