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The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

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MAY 2021 Issue
In Memoriam A TRIBUTE TO BARBARA ROSE

Barbara Rose with Lucas Samaras

Snapshot of a Critic: Talking to Barbara Rose
December 1969

Lucas Samaras, <em>Sittings</em>, 1979–80.
Lucas Samaras, Sittings, 1979–80.

Lucas Samaras: Tell me your name again.

Barbara Rose: Barbara Rose.

Samaras: Of what importance was the name to you. Rose, or even Barbara. What did it mean to you as a child?

Rose: I kind of liked my name because people always associated it with Princess Margaret Rose and I thought it was very nice not to have a last name. It was like having two first names. I rather liked the symbolic overtones of Rose. I often sign my letters with a bee and a rose ... but then I also found out that Barbara means barbarian.

Samaras: Yes.

Rose: That was pointed out to me by one of my teachers, a Spanish teacher who always used to say, “que barbarida.” And then she said to me, you know it’s very good that you have that name because that’s really what you’re like. You’re really a barbarian. I thought that was very good. I liked that.

Samaras: Would you say then that the Barbara part of your name was more important than the other part?

Rose: Probably. Barbara had more of a symbolic value to me.

Samaras: But the fact that the rose also has a stem with thorns, did that have anything to do with—

Rose: I never drew the stem when I drew the roses.

Samaras: What did your father do?

Rose: He owned a liquor store.

Samaras: Did you go there to visit?

Rose: Often.

Samaras: Did he have a drinking problem?

Rose: Jews don’t drink.

Samaras: They don’t?

Rose: No.

Samaras: Was he religious? Two sets of dishes?

Rose: My grandparents always lived with us and my grandmother being an illiterate peasant woman, was hysterically religious. She used to bury the pots in the backyard.

Samaras: Oh!

Rose: I remember my mother going to the kosher butcher shop and then as soon as my grandmother died my mother stopped keeping kosher. My father used to describe himself as an agnostic.

Samaras: Did he go to school?

Rose: Oh no, he was almost completely uneducated. He went to school for three years total and he was completely self-taught.

Samaras: Who else was in your house?

Rose: My two brothers.

Samaras: Younger brothers?

Rose: Uh huh.

Samaras: Did you have fights with them? Do you remember them coming into the world?

Rose: Oh yes, I remember very well.

Samaras: And?

Rose: I simply detested them and we constantly fought and I tried to kill them whenever I could.

Samaras: Are you aware of your life before they came and after they came?

Rose: I was only two and a half when my middle brother was born so I don’t really remember anything before then.

Samaras: What kind of girl were you?

Rose: As a child?

Samaras: Huh.

Rose: Very sullen and depressed and violent.

Samaras: Did you have models of this behavior elsewhere in the outer world?

Rose: No. And I wasn’t always like that. As a young child I was a model child, the teachers adored me.



***



Samaras: Did you think of yourself as a girl or a boy or both?

Rose: As neither.

Samaras: Until when?

Rose: I think when I had my children.

Samaras: Oh really? That’s terrific. Did your mother dress you as a boy or a girl?

Rose: I sometimes wore my brothers’ clothes.

Samaras: Your small brothers’ clothes?

Rose: They were younger but they were bigger.

Samaras: Wasn’t there another child?

Rose: My mother had a child before me which was a boy, which died in infancy from a circumcision infection.

Samaras: Oh God, that’s beautiful!

Rose: [Laughs] I thought you’d like it. So when I was born two years later—

Samaras: No wonder you were sexless.

Rose: I was born two years later ... my parents kind of used me as a replacement baby.

Samaras: God, that’s fantastic.

Rose: I always kind of suspected that I wasn’t the baby they really wanted. Somehow I was the wrong one. And then when I was about 18 or 19 my mother told me that indeed they had switched babies in the hospital and I wasn’t really her child, which unfortunately wasn’t true. This was a fantasy that she was harboring. I was supposed to be this good baby, this nice baby, boy baby, and I turned out to be me. My father had enormous ambitions for me. He wanted to be a Rothschild. He wanted to come up from the pushcarts and found a dynasty.

Samaras: That’s why you were thinking of Princess Margaret Rose.

Rose: Uh, possibly. My favorite fairy story was the Princess and the Pea. And strangely enough it’s my daughter’s favorite fairy story.

Samaras: How were you going to materialize this fatherly ambition, to become a Rothschild or something?

Rose: That’s one of the things that was terribly confusing because I couldn’t see any way in which I could possibly do this.

Samaras: Were you thinking of marrying somebody?

Rose: That was more or less their fantasy.

Samaras: What was yours?

Rose: I never thought about growing up for a long time. I thought I would either die or kill myself. It didn't occur to me for a long time that I was going to live after the age of about 20.

Samaras: When did you first start thinking about suicide?

Rose: The first time I remember thinking of killing myself was when I was 13 or 14.

Samaras: How were you going to do it, do you remember?

Rose: Oh yes, I was going to take sleeping pills. One of my good friends killed herself by getting in a car and fixing up the carbon dioxide. I thought about that but...

Samaras: How old was she?

Rose: 15. Her name was Beverly.

Samaras: What did you think about that?

Rose: I understood why she did it.

Samaras: What would save you every night from killing yourself?

Rose: Fear.

Samaras: Fear of what?

Rose: Dying. The stories that I wrote in college were all about suicide.

Samaras: You were committing suicide?

Rose: The protagonist was clearly me. I remember one in particular was a kind of religious fantasy. I didn’t realize that Catholicism forbids suicide and this was about a very religious girl who wanted union with God and in order to achieve it kills herself.

Samaras: Does the Jewish religion believe in a visualizable God? For the children?

Rose: Oh yes. They go to sunday school. A sort of a punishing Santa Claus. The Jewish God is an angry God. He was a little like my father when my father got mad ... I thought a lot about being good.

Samaras: Does the Jewish religion have any women in high positions?

Rose: They have sort of sexy ladies in the Bible like Judith, and Esther, sex pots. Bathsheba, Queen of Sheba, Zana, all about sex.

Samaras: What were you going to be when you grew up?

Rose: Leave my mother.

Samaras: Did you have any imaginary place you would go?

Rose: New York, always New York.

Samaras: When did you start becoming aware of yourself as a fortress, as something that you had to take care of, to feed and protect?

Rose: Consciousness dawned sometime between the 16th and 17th year.

Samaras: Did you leave home or did you go off to school?

Rose: Uh huh.

Samaras: Was college more tolerable for you?

Rose: It was more tolerable than my mother.

Samaras: Did you have good relations with roommates or ...

Rose: I had a few friends. Mainly I was very arrogant and disdainful and I thought everyone was very stupid.

Samaras: What about you in relation to your physical appearance, did you have any problems?

Rose: Yeah.

Samaras: Accepting yourself as yourself?

Rose: Yeah. I was always fat. But actually, by the time I went to college I wasn’t fat anymore. I did my best to look horrible. I never wore any makeup and I wore my gym suit every day. I refused to compete on any level.

Samaras: Except verbally.

Rose: No, I didn’t even do that. I mean for example, I didn’t talk in class or do anything to draw attention to myself. I refused to compete.

Samaras: What was your power then?

Rose: I didn’t think I had any.

Samaras: Your internal power. What made you go among these people who were taking care of themselves or talking or ...

Rose: I never thought of anything like that.

Samaras: What gave you the guts to go through that?

Rose: Oh, hatred.

Samaras: Hatred?

Rose: Hatred of my mother. My whole ambition was to show my mother that she couldn’t own me and control me and devour me.



***



Rose: I had a fantastic crush on twins, Richard and Raymond, and I used to have this fantasy about going into, I think it actually happened though, of going into this rose garden in the school yard and they would kiss me, which I think they did.



***



Samaras: Did you ever think of writing novels?

Rose: I’ve written a novel.

Samaras: Being a novelist à la who?

Rose: Well, I admired Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf.

Samaras: Did you admire any of the big men-guns?

Rose: I think that at one point I admired Norman Mailer.

Samaras: No, no. I mean the real ones.

Rose: Oh, the real ones, oh yes, God! I loved Henry James. Henry James was fantastic.

Samaras: Not the great ones?

Rose: I think Henry James was a great writer.

Samaras: Uh hum.

Rose: Proust. I read Proust several times.

Samaras: Can you think of any weird novelists that you liked?

Rose: When I was younger I loved adventure literature. Conrad.

Samaras: Did you read comic books?

Rose: Somewhat, not very much.

Samaras: The romance stories?

Rose: Almost none at all. I found them very dull. I read a lot of romantic fiction, Anna Karenina and things like that.

Samaras: Can you think of things that you read that were different from what your school teachers would read?

Rose: Yeah, I had a Wonder Woman problem.

Samaras: Wonder Woman? That’s beautiful.

Samaras: I was very involved with Wonder Woman for a while. I liked all that classical stuff. One of the things I liked was that she had a secret identity. She had a public facade that was this drab secretary but she had this fantastic life that nobody knew about. But she also had magic things which protected her.



***



Samaras: Were you happy about being a woman?

Rose: No.

Samaras: What were you going to do about it?

Rose: I thought you had to learn to live with it and suffer. I thought it was like being Negro or poor.

Samaras: Wasn’t that frustration greater than your hatred for your mother?

Rose: No, because I got certain satisfaction out of being a woman.

Samaras: What satisfaction?

Rose: Well, I had boyfriends, I liked that.

Samaras: What did having boyfriends mean? Were they inferior or superior to you?

Rose: Oh, always superior. I hated men who were dumb.

Samaras: Did you have a lot of them?

Rose: Many.



***



Samaras: What were you gonna be when you grew up?

Rose: A teacher.

Samaras: Besides a teacher. What did your father want you to be or what did your mother want?

Rose: My father wanted me to be the first Jewish woman president.

Samaras: [Laughs] And your mother?

Rose: My mother wanted me to be her. She wanted me to suffer a great deal and to feel everything that she felt and to be trapped.

Samaras: And do you feel that some of their prophecies have come true?

Rose: Uh? No.



***



Samaras: Did you think that you were going to have children?

Rose: Yes.

Samaras: Did you feel that you had to have children?

Rose: Yes.

Samaras: When did you begin to think of criticism?

Rose: I never thought of it. I never wanted to be a critic. I never prepared myself to be a critic. It was never anything I wanted to do.

Samaras: When did you start writing criticism?

Rose: It was a complete accident. I was pregnant with my daughter and I tried to get a job teaching art history for which I was very well prepared. I had fantasies of being persecuted because I was a pregnant woman, which were altogether true. I couldn’t get a job doing what I could do so I had the baby and I was stuck in the house. I couldn’t go out because we had no money, couldn’t afford a babysitter. So I had to figure out something to do at home. So I started writing.

Samaras: What did you write about?

Rose: The first article I wrote was called “Dada Then and Now.”

Samaras: What did it do for you?

Rose: Writing?

Samaras: Yeah.

Rose: It sort of helped give me a sense of identity. It made me feel somewhat less trapped and I made money which I liked.

Samaras: Why did you select to write about the living rather than the dead?

Rose: I didn’t. Actually I’m not a terribly rational logical person. I don’t make decisions that way. It was the thing I was drawn to doing. If I’d done art history I couldn’t make any money.

Samaras: Uh huh.

Rose: I think if there had been an equal amount of money available to write about dead people I would have written about dead people.

Samaras: What old artists interested you?

Rose: I’m very interested in Spanish artists because they’re very strange. I love Velázquez and I like Ribera very much and I like Goya and I like all those peculiar people; 15th century Spanish painting, Morales, Francisco de Rabalda, Spanish Mannerism. And I like the Spanish Primitivists.

Samaras: Why did you marry an artist?

Rose: It wasn’t an intention. I’d known Frank for years and I had no intention of ending up with him. It was just a totally accidental thing. I think the real reason was that I wanted to be with Frank but I couldn’t stand the idea of competing with anybody and I knew Frank was a genius and I couldn’t compete with him and that relaxed me. It allowed me to do anything I wanted to do.



***



Samaras: What did you think you were doing, being an art critic?

Rose: To begin with I thought I was just writing about my friends, people I knew, things that interested me.

Samaras: Yeah, but in an educational way, what were you doing?

Rose: I thought I could see things other people couldn’t see. I had a mystical attitude toward it. I used to think that I was hyper-sensitive and I could absorb and foresee things that other people couldn’t.

Samaras: Did you ever think of art criticism as a business?

Rose: No.

Samaras: You got paid for it.

Rose: Yeah, but after a certain point I could have gotten paid much more for doing something else.

Samaras: What?

Rose: Journalism. Writing for the slicks.



***



Samaras: At a certain point an artist thinks of art and artists in a sort of romantic rosy way and then with a little jump he realizes that it’s business. You know, money is involved, promotion and all that. What about business?

Rose: I thought that was very dirty and I never thought about it.

Samaras: But it’s real, it exists.

Rose: I understand that it’s real and it exists but I deliberately didn’t think of that.

Samaras: Considering the fact that you thought of your husband as a genius, and also considering that you had decided to stop competing, and that in your writing you sort of presented his work to New York or to the world in a way that nobody else could have done it and nobody else did?

Rose: That’s historically totally inaccurate. I never wrote a word about Frank.

Samaras: Indirectly.

Rose: No, not indirectly. I never mentioned his name. I remember having a conversation with Kynaston[McShine] and Kynaston saying, you can’t go on like this, it’s absurd. You write about everybody but Frank. And you can’t do it anymore. And I think the first time I ever wrote about him was in my book on American art where it was impossible not to write about him.

Samaras: Yeah, I understand.

Rose: I used to bend over backwards not to write about him or touch it.

Samaras: I thought that you were working on a five year plan or a ten year plan and you were gonna do this very conscious thing ...

Rose: You can’t be serious?

Samaras: I am.

Rose: That’s your paranoia.

Samaras: Of course. Maybe you didn’t have a five year plan ...

Rose: I never had any plan. That was part of the problem. I mean for one thing I never expected Frank to make any money.

Samaras: What is your contribution?

Rose: I think I had an important role in a certain respect because I was a unique person with a certain kind of intellectual equipment who was also intensely involved in what was happening. I always talked to people about their work. I think I saw a lot and I reported what I saw, and I will not deny that I saw it in a certain way and the way I saw it is the way people will see it for a long time.



***



Samaras: You didn’t marry Frank the genius, you married Frank. Right?

Rose: No. I married Frank, but I married Frank the genius because that’s what he was.

Samaras: Did you set out to marry a genius?

Rose: Not consciously, probably unconsciously.



***



Samaras: What was your hierarchical position in the “mafia?”

Rose: I cooked for it. You’re implying that I knew there was a “mafia.”

Samaras: Yes, I am.

Rose: I didn’t know until Alan Solomon told me.

Samaras: When was that?

Rose: 1964–65



***



Samaras: How did the “mafia” start?

Rose: Well, Michael and Henry and I really didn’t know anything about art. Frank was an artist and he really knew how to look at art and sort of taught us how to look at art. In the beginning it was just a kind of thing of us being excited about things ... and since I had to stay in all the time because I had this baby, and couldn’t afford a babysitter, I always used to invite everybody to our house and so everybody would come to our house, like everybody, everybody in the whole world. The “mafia” was really about the fact that people were sort of floating around. They didn’t have any place to go and our house was a place to come and so everybody came then ... we all sort of stuck together and had this plan that we were going to change the world ... It was gonna be different. In fact it’s very strange, I met somebody that I used to know when I was very very young ... and we used to talk about how we were going to change the world and make it different.

Samaras: How?

Rose: I wanted it to be what I liked instead of what it was like.

Samaras: Which was what?

Rose: I liked all the young artists.



***



Rose: There was a big joke that I was one of the boys. In fact Frank always used to say ... talk like a man, write like a man, eat like a man. That was a big joke.

Samaras: And then?

Rose: So that was like a boy joke. That I was one of the guys. And then the thing about the “mafia” it was really a question about having a certain vision and really all of us having a similar taste and seeing things in a similar way. And that was being very different from the way things were. I think maybe the only thing that kept us together was the idea ... we were all very young, very poor, and very much outsiders, and that kept us together.

Samaras: Yeah, that’s true. When did you become aware of power?

Rose: Well, I think when I took this job writing for Vogue but actually before that. I wrote this article for Art in America which later they gave this horrendous title “ABC Art” to, which was not my title, which was their idea. And I had nothing at all in mind when I wrote that article. I just accumulated a lot of material and I didn’t think anything special about it. I just wrote it because they offered me a lot of money. And then the next thing I knew it was like I invented Minimal Art. Or something. I couldn’t believe it, the whole thing. I just found it absolutely incredible. I mean I couldn’t believe it. And suddenly all the media were picking it up and I saw Harold Rosenberg in the street and he said, “Well what’s new today,” and I said, “I don’t know, I didn’t make up anything today.” And it was true, ‘cause I really had made it all up, cause no one had heard of Carl [Andre] or any of those people at that point. I mean I just, Carl was just my old friend ... and all of a sudden people really believed that stuff existed, I didn’t even believe it existed at that time. They were just sort of people I knew and I thought it was kind of interesting.



***



Samaras: You said before you were thinking of how you would change the world, making this plan to change the world.

Rose: It wasn’t a plan, it was just an impulse to change the world. I didn’t know how to go about it.

Samaras: It just came out that you have changed a certain outlook of the art world.

Rose: Yeah.

Samaras: And you have done it with your little hands.

Rose: My little typewriter.

Samaras: And your little feet.

Rose: But how did you think I did it Lucas, I mean you think I did it by hypnosis? I just wrote about what I saw and what interested me and the way I saw it.

Samaras: The fact came out to be that you were building a hierarchy on top of your criticism building up minor artists and then finally, boom. It was very clear who was on top.

Rose: [Laughs] I see what you mean.

Samaras: What do you think about that?

Rose: Huh. That may have been the effect but it certainly wasn't the intention. If you go back you'll see that I wrote about a lot of people and the reason why I wrote about a lot of people was because I always wanted to give people some kind of encouragement and help when nobody else was looking at their work. So I would nudge people and then they would have to make it on their own. I wouldn't do anything else for them. I did that for a lot of people.

Samaras: Yes.

Rose: And some people did it and some people didn't. And I didn't feel any responsibility toward those that didn't.



***



Rose: That “mafia” moment was that show at John Myer's Gallery called Shape and Structure. We did sit down and plot that show. I have to admit it. True. I mean Henry and Frank and I sat around and dreamed it up and then I wrote about it.

Samaras: How did it feel, that kind of thing?

Rose: Oh, terrific, yeah. [Laughter]

Samaras: Ok. Didn’t you have this inkling throughout your entire career in different degrees?

Rose: [Laughs] Plotting and scheming? No. Really not. That was just an isolated instance and it was also about people that we believed in.

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