A Tribute to David Rosand
by Phong Bui
Although I’d read David Rosand’s wonderful volume, Titian (published by the ever-popular and collectible Harry N. Abrams’s Library of Great Painters in 1978), I didn’t meet him until Saturday, September 24, 1994. It was at a whole-day symposium in honor of Meyer Schapiro’s 90th birthday at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium in the Metropolitan Museum.
The morning focus was on Schapiro’s scholarship, which included talks by scholars such as Linda Nochlin, Theodore Reff, and William Rubin on modern art; Jonathan Alexander, Michael Cothren, and Linda Seidel on medieval art; David Friedberg and Henri Zerner on theory. The afternoon was dedicated to Schapiro’s relationship to artists; Carroll Janis, Lucas Samaras, and George Segal were among the panelists. The entire event was brilliantly moderated by Rosand.
I remember distinctly one fragment from a note Allan Kaprow asked Rosand to read to the audience, “Besides the searching quality of [Schapiro’s] mind he thinks like an artist.” I thought immediately that it evoked the same kind of spirit that David Rosand brought to art history, and to his relationship with artists. Rosand’s presence made the meeting as comforting and stimulating as one would hope from such an occasion filled with scholars and artists; and it was a rare sight to see the respective practitioners of both disciplines in one environment, so harmoniously reverent and well disposed toward each other.
Those who knew Rosand well have attested that he was equally at home in a classroom at Columbia University (where he taught from 1964 to 2010) as he was with his academic colleagues and artist friends. Whatever he wrote, whether in essay form or in numerous books and catalogues, resonated with his incisive eye and sharp mind. He never failed to deliver the necessary synthesis of these two coordinates of eye and mind in the service of the artist’s hand. About Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto for example, Rosand wrote about the social, political, historical, and cultural background in the context of each artist’s formal, aesthetic, and technical concerns, as in the volume Painting in Sixteenth-Century Venice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto (Yale University Press, 1982). About Robert Motherwell, whom he knew intimately, Rosand revealed the painter’s interest in philosophy, French literature, poetry, and Zen Buddhism as pictorial resources that directed him to the invention of his form and line in a multitude of ways (Robert Motherwell On Paper: Drawings, Prints, Collages, Harry N. Abrams, 1997). Rosand’s other books include The Meaning of the Mark: Leonardo and Titian (Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, 1988), Myths of Venice: The Figuration of a State (University if North Carolina Press, 2005), The Invention of Painting in America (Columbia University Press, 2007).
Rosand always managed to embed his words in clear prose that bridged interpretation and creation, seeing and making. This ability is deeply rooted in the domain of the phenomenology of drawing: with all the groundings in the process of picture-making, including the energy generated from contradiction and ambivalence, freedom and restraint, Rosand’s analyses were akin to gestures made by the artist: the variation between a sharp and a dull line, a line that lies on top of the paper as opposed to a line that digs into it; the look and feel of a vigorous passage of light to dark as opposed to a mechanical one; the demonstration of how the speed of execution accords with the viewer’s sense of verve.
Thinking and writing are different, as are thinking and drawing—the former is always quicker than the latter. In his Drawing Acts: Studies in Graphic Expression and Representation (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge New York, 2002) Rosand applied brilliant detail and broad analysis in full scale. He also enlivened issues of connoisseurship without referring to its darker association with commerce. This luminous volume about drawing seems to have been written for artists and scholars alike—for anyone who loves and values those things that are unique to drawing and what it adds to the world.
Before studying with Meyer Shapiro at Columbia University, David Rosand had learned about art through his father, an artist, “who taught [him] to regard the watercolors of Winslow Homer with special reverence: there was technique and natural control of the brush,” he once wrote. Like his mentor Meyer Schapiro, who had taken drawing classes with John Sloan at the Hebrew Education Society settlement house in Brooklyn, Rosand also studied art as a youth, with Isaac and Raphael Soyer at the Brooklyn Museum. Many who knew Rosand said that the experience had colored his sensibility and passion for art and his deep admiration for artists.
The last time I saw David Rosand was at the opening reception of Come Together: Surviving Sandy, an exhibition I curated in October 2013. His generous words as he stepped into a waiting car were: “Art benefits from a strong community; the Rail is important because it provides that community.” And I said in return, “Grazie mille! Buon lavoro a tutti!” Though Rosand’s parting comment was only one small gesture in a life full of important ones, I took it as a profound reassurance from a man who created his community from here to Venice (his lifelong relationship with Venice and Michelangelo Muraro, the art historian and former director of the Ca’ d’Oro museum, led to a gift of Muraro’s house and library, Casa Muraro, to Columbia University in 2004, and he was honored by the Renaissance Society of America with its Paul Oskar Kristeller Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2007), from the past to the present (the Alexander Hamilton Award from the College in 1994, the Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates in 1997, the Award for Distinguished Service to the Core Curriculum from the Heyman Center for the Humanities in 2000, and an honorary degree from Columbia in May of this year), and most assuredly—by way of his work and the personal impact he had had on so many people—to the future.