Leonard Rosenfeld was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1926. After serving in WWII, he studied painting, sculpture and drawing at the Art Students League in New York. He found a place to work near the school and began to paint. By the early 1950s, he was ensconced in the Cedar Bar, the abstract expressionists’ hang-out in Greenwich Village. Art critic Clement Greenberg, artist Willem DeKooning and poet Allen Ginsberg were in and out of “the Cedar,” as were other abstract expressionists, art critics and beatniks. This was when painters “hung out” together and talked about painting. Many of these so called gestural painters were concerned in different ways with the spontaneous and unique touch of the artist, his or her “handwriting” and the emphatic texture of the paint. “One of the remarkable aspects of de Kooning’s talent, for example, was his ability to shift between representational and abstract modes which he never held to be mutually exclusive.” This approach is visible in Rosenfeld’s work, though Rosenfeld’s work overall was largely not abstract in the strict sense of the word. Abstract expressionists included Color Field painters concerned with making an abstract statement by creating a large, unified color shape or area. Although all artists producing at this time were somewhat influenced by these painters, Leonard Rosenfeld considered himself to be more of an Expressionist and named Vincent Van Gogh as his hero. This Expressionist from the late 19th century viewed painting as a vessel for his personal emotions, and his focus was on the paint itself, thick and rich in color. Both Rosenfeld and Van Gogh developed their own personal style despite any formal art school education. Rosenfeld also respected Gauguin’s belief that “Western civilization was out of joint because industrial society had forced men into an incomplete life dedicated to material gain, while their emotions lay neglected.” In a video tape interview with Rosenfeld in 1986, he speaks of himself and any artist as a hero who consistently creates without any promised remuneration. “I am an outlaw, against society because I am not doing something that can make money. I am doing it because of the love, not the money.”
In 1957, Rosenfeld created a series of “railroad drawings” depicting subway stations, tracks, and dockside construction sites throughout Brooklyn and Queens, initially done on-site and finished in his studio. Many of the artists of the New York School in this period had pared their art down to the essentials of black and white. Like Franz Klein, he was fascinated with the details and tempo of the contemporary industrial landscape of urban New York. While both artists’ work have a dynamic and spontaneous impact, Kline actually rendered many of his most complex pictures from studies. Rosenfeld’s ability to capture the city’s gritty energy though his dynamic line work makes these pieces some of his best. Martha Jackson showed three of these works in a group exhibition in 1965.
Rosenfeld steered clear of the pop art phenomenon which dominated the 1960s. He did not seem to be affected by the bombardment with consumer products and media-proliferated imagery, nor did he embrace the minimalist or conceptual art wave of the 1970s. Over the next two decades he produced a variety of smaller drawings of his family, friends and genre scenes from New York, Mexico and Florida. In addition, he did astronaut and rocket paintings, and airplane mixed media works inspired by the country’s space exploration successes. These works represent almost an unedited personal visual diary of the artist.
As the 1980s ushered in the Neo-Expressionist movement, Rosenfeld hit his stride with a new exhibition of “rag paintings” in Soho, at the so-called “supermarket,” Ivan Karp’s OK Harris gallery on West Broadway. These works were made by wrapping strips of canvas, some painted, and held in place by carpet tacks on a stretcher frame, to create a mummified look. This approach lead to his wire paintings in 1982, replacing bits of canvas with colorful electric wire attached to the stretchers with carpet tacks. “Sometimes other material joined the wire-like cotton, silk or fur,” explains Rosenfeld, “and the carpet tacks began to play another role. In 1989 I found, next to a graffiti-painted wall, some used spray-cans and a white glove with paint on it. I flattened the spray-cans with a hammer and nailed them to the stretcher bar. The spray-cans joined the wire. I used the found white glove with the wire and the cans and made a piece called Graffiti Man. Soon the wire was pushed out by the cans. In 1990 I started to draw with graphite on the wood panels attached to the stretcher bar. I made two spray-can pieces with drawings on them—like the pieces called Black-Gloved Drawing Man, Busted Jew and Sneaker-Man.” These 30 or more “wire paintings” painstakingly made with dedicated workmanship constitute the most unique and visually interesting in the collection.
“Neo-Expressionism opened art to many possibilities once banned by Minimalist purism,” as each artist emerged independently from his/her respective cultural background. As a downtown artist, Rosenfeld painted street life as he saw it from outside his increasingly gentrified lower east side studio: prostitutes, Chinatown, and the “omnipresent abrasive form of popular expression, graffiti art.” Many of his graffiti works depict African-American males with spray paint cans and smoking guns, sometimes with a man shot with blotches of red paint symbolizing blood. Rosenfeld admits he likes to shock, but he is really interested in a topic that attracts attention. In some ways he can be compared to the graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who used words and phrases, arrows, guns and rockets to reveal the frustration he felt as a self-taught artist trying to succeed in the established gallery system. In one work Rosenfeld includes a phrase, “To the art dealers of America who shot me down again and this time almost got me.”
In the nineties, Rosenfeld began a new series called Nuts and Bolts. “I had to start something, but what? I began to draw black lines on top of the paper. I worked my way down the paper to the bottom, drawing more black lines. Then I stepped back and looked at what I had. The forms I created on the paper had two distinctly different shapes. One form looked like a square donut. The other form looked like a beer can. I called them Nuts and Bolts. I sat down and stared at the paper. Interesting; I broke the ice. Now, how to proceed? How do I find colors I’ve never seen before? Or an architectural interplay yet untested?“ At one time, when a comment was made that these were “abstract” works, he replied, “No; these are nuts and bolts!”
Later the Coney Island Left Behind series of small colorful watercolors playfully depicts scenes from Coney Island. These appealing works best communicate his narrative style capturing Coney Island from a Brooklyn boy’s memory of days gone by.
A series of paintings called Angels was inspired by the events of September 11, 2001. Rosenfeld’s studio was just one block from the World Trade Center and he had a firsthand view of the tragedy. “When the officials were discussing the events leading up to that day, they kept referring to disconnecting dots. They couldn’t put all the pieces together and figure it out. Those are the dots in the pictures. So I started painting those dots with angels. No one would know the significance of those dots unless they were told.” Though always entrenched in the materials themselves (paint, cans, wire, etc.), Rosenfeld had a penchant for depicting events of the day. In addition to his 9/11 series (preceding the Angels), he did an entire series of watercolors, called “Blues,” on the subject of the OJ Simpson trial which he followed daily.
During 2004–2007, he painted soldiers at war, beginning with a portrait of General David Petraeus. He had seen a New York Times Book Review of “In the Company of Soldiers” by Rick Atkinson. It spoke of the General’s question to Atkinson, “Tell me how this ends?” He was impressed by Petraeus’ question and decided to paint a portrait of him. The picture shows Petraeus as a, then, two-star General and Commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. To the right of the General’s shoulder are a gun and a wing. The General’s question seemed thoughtful and prescient. At that moment, Rosenfeld started to paint the war in Iraq. No painter he knew or anyone else was painting the story of this event. In 2007 he painted another portrait of the General. This one is entitled, Et Tu, Petraeus?
Rosenfeld was always interested in the history of art and the progression of imagery. “I would like to be associated with modern painting.“ He describes himself as a narrative artist. “I like to tell stories. I have always told stories.“ Indeed his art does tell a story—a 50 year visual progression of imagery that communicates his personal expression, our culture and modern art.
The foregoing was taken from statements from the artist’s website, leonardrosenfeld.com, artist catalogues and other sources as noted below:
H.H. Arnason, History of Modern Art (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1998) 439.
H.W. Janson, History of Art, (New Jersey:Prentice-Hall, 1966) 508.
Anna Reisman, “Galeria Corona Scores A Coup!”, Vallarta Tribune, April 4, 2004
Artist’s Biography by Linda Cheney of Cheney Appraisal and Barbara Jo Lubitz of BJL Appraisal