Len Rosenfeld, Eulogy, December 6, 2009
By Janet L. Hoffman
Today would have been our 18th wedding anniversary. As many of you know, the 18th letter of the Hebrew alphabet is “hai” which means “life.” So I would like to tell you a little bit about Len’s life, which is what he was all about—life.
Leonard Rosenfeld was born on December 14, 1926. His father came to America from Austria, his mother from Ukraine. His parents met on the beach in Coney Island when his father offered his mother a piece of Juicy Fruit chewing gum. Len’s sister, Anita, was born a few years after Len.
Len grew up in Brooklyn, running in the street with his Irish and Italian friends. He was especially close to Jimmy and Billy Barrett whose home smelled like beer. Jimmy died in WW II, on Guam. Len visited his grave there when he was in the service and brought back a photo for Jimmy’s parents. Billy moved to California, and died recently at his home in Texas, where he and his wife later moved.
Len remembers his parents’ laughter from the bedroom. His father was a heavy fellow with blond hair and blue eyes. His mother was dark-haired and, according to Len, quite beautiful. She used to wake Len up by putting on his socks. Len’s father had a trucking business which he lost in the depression. After that he drove a cab. They were very poor, with Len and his friends often stealing vegetables from the Italian farms in Brooklyn. There was not much to eat and Len’s mother did her best to stretch the food they had.
When Len was about 14, his mother came running out of the bedroom one morning and told Len to go get Dr. Herzlitz. It was too late. His father died of what sounds like a cardiovascular event of some kind. He was 41. It was a big blow to Len, who became ill afterwards. The doctor told his mother it was a stress reaction to his father’s death. He got better. Len remembers his father as a “dreamer” who used to take long walks with him and draw pictures. When Len was quite young he drew a picture of his mother. Len had beautiful blonde hair which he wore in a “DA” and pompadour, as was the style then. The girls just loved him.
When still a student at Tilden high school, Len was drafted into WWII. His mother ran to the draft board begging and screaming—don't take my son! I am a widow with two children (Len used to work at the grocery and brought in some money to the household.) This was to no avail. In a way, Len was glad to get out of Brooklyn and “see the world.”
Len liked the donuts and coffee they served at Fort Dix where everyone was processed. And the army was the first place he had “three squares” a day. He was first placed in a group with other wise guys from Brooklyn—Jewish, Italian, Irish. He then got sick and fell back. When he resumed training, he was put in with a bunch of guys from the Deep South: Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, etc. They never saw a Jewish person before and he got beaten up a few times, especially by “Onclebach” who, as Len put it in a slightly different way, was so endowed that he could not make it with a woman. Len and Onclebach became fast friends later, and Onclebach was his protector. Another friend was the son of a minister, who was very kind to Len from the outset. These men loved going to the synagogue in Atlanta on Sundays with Len for bagels and lox, and to meet the girls there.
During basic training, Len’s Sergeant, Moriss, had to help Len when it came time to jump over a wall in the first weeks. Len was malnourished and very skinny. Pushing Len by the butt over the wall, Moriss said, “Rosenfeld, you're a pile of shit. But I'm going to make a man out of you!” And he did. In fact, Moriss was a great Sergeant. He was all battle scarred himself. When he asked Len what he would do when confronted by a Japanese soldier with a bayonet, Len said, well I’d confront him with my bayonet and fight back. “NO, stupid” said the Sergeant “you turn around and run like hell.” He saw his job as keeping these guys alive.
When the time came, they were shipped out to the Philippines, via San Francisco (Len fell in love with this city on the way). And leave it to Len. When they piled out of the bus at the final destination, there they were ON THE BEACH, where he spent the first part of his duty. The war was pretty much over. While they were on the ship, the US dropped a couple of bombs on Japan. Len could not believe how one bomb could kill 100,000 people. It was astounding to him. So his time in the Philippines, and then on Guam, was spent guarding Japanese prisoners, keeping in shape, finding and exploding grenades and mines, and generally keeping busy with camp duties The biggest danger was the weather. There was a typhoon at one point, which destroyed the whole encampment except the mess hall, which was concrete. Len risked his life to save a young gay soldier calling “Rosie, Rosie, help me.”
While on Guam, the guys used to visit a woman who came to the camp from time to time to alleviate their male needs. Len did not participate, so when the other guys all came down with the clap, Len was scott free! He had other fish to fry. Namely, one day he saw an ad on the camp bulletin board—take courses, get college credit. So he signed up for a course on Chaucer and Shakespeare. When Onclebach saw him reading the books, he asked “Y’all what's that you’re readin’?” Len said it was this guy Chaucer. Onclebach was incredulous. And though Len wasn't sure he understood all of it, he did pass all his tests and got college credits. After that, he became a voracious reader.
Let me share with you an art-related war story. When on Guam, one day Len was riding around in a jeep, rather wildly as he loved to do, and almost ran over a couple of high ranking officers. At the time, Len was in charge of procurement and the supply warehouse. He had decorated the whole warehouse wall with very graphic pornographic drawings, from floor to ceiling! Suddenly the “brass” (whom he had almost just run over) approached and called everyone to attention. They announced they had come to inspect the warehouse. Everyone lined up and the brass was escorted in. When they saw the drawings one of them (a general) asked, WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THESE DRAWINGS????? “I am, sir. Private Rosenfeld.” The brass replied, “Private Rosenfeld, do you mind if I take a few of them?” “Of course, sir! Help yourself!” I always wondered what became of those drawings.
When nearing the end of his tour of duty in 1945–46, the army was not quite sure what to do with the remaining soldiers. Len was actually offered a paratrooper position. Nice outfits, he thought, but who the hell wants to jump out of planes? Good decision. But he was befriended by the officers and often found himself invited to the officers’ dining room, which had a full bar. He spent his last months in the air force enjoying the provisions.
After that it was back to San Francisco, then home to New York. When he arrived at Grand Central Station, he threw out everything that was tan or gray, including his leather flight jacket (later he regretted that), got a cheap suit, a bottle of wine and knocked on his mother’s door in Brooklyn. Now what to do? He was in the “25 a week” club for awhile, which is what the army did for returning soldiers. But that was going to end. Once he finished his last year of high school, which he did at Erasmus in Brooklyn, Len was offered schools on the GI bill, among them art schools in San Miguel de Allende, in Paris (he later regretted not going to Paris), and the Art Students’ League on 57th Street. Of course to him it was the Art Students’ League. After all, everything art was happening in New York. Why go to these other places? And there he went. He studied with John Corbino (who painted horses’ asses), and a Japanese artist named Yasuo Kuniyoshi, among others. Len hung out at the corner cafeteria and at San Remo in the Village, with the writers, but mostly from time to time at the Cedar Tavern on University Place, with the painters.
Len showed up at the Cedar around the time Jackson Pollack met his untimely end. In fact, when Len walked in the bartender almost had a heart attack, because Len resembled Pollack—tall, with now thinning blonde hair. He met Franz Kline, Willem DeKooning, and the rest of them. Kline was a hale fellow well met guy who was always ready to talk sports. Len witnessed Kline trading some of his big black and white paintings to a collector, in exchange for a red Ferrari, which he used only to go back and forth from his apartment to the Cedar Tavern.
DeKooning liked to talk about art, and to drink. Len picked him up from the gutter once with cash pouring out of his pockets. He gave the money to the bar tender and with a woman friend, Barbara, schlepped DeKooning to his apartment (a walk-up), told Barbara to stay and take care of him and went back to the bar. Several hours later, DeKooning showed up again, all spiffed up and clean, ready for a long evening! Len remembers DeKooning coming up to him on the street one day, with surprised excitement in his voice: “Len, I sold a painting for five thousand (with accent!) dollars - imagine that!” And there was the night at the Cedar when DeKooning heard art critic Clement Greenberg say that Jackson Pollock was the greatest painter of the day. DeKooning turned around and slapped Greenberg in the face. The men jumped on each other and started throwing punches, until Len and others stepped in to separate them.
While at the Art Students’ League, Len's friend, and for awhile roommate in an apartment in Harlem, Edsel Kramer, pulled Len aside and said—you gotta see this. He led Len to a studio room where there was a beautiful young woman, with long dark hair, blue eyes and clear milky skin, painting at an easel. That was the lovely Jean Alexander. Long story short, Len married her and had two daughters, Michelle and Francesca. As his relationship with Francesca later blossomed, as father and daughter and artists of much the same feather, this gave him much pleasure. He was very proud of Francesca and her accomplishments as an artist and as a caring and good person.
While at the Art Students’ League, and thereafter, Len worked at various jobs—framing, delivering lunches from a cafeteria in midtown, to name a couple. He finally came to the realization, however, that, for him, art and family were incompatible. His marriage broke up, and he was sad about that. Jean and the children moved to Virginia, and Len took a studio at 106 Forsyth Street, on the cusp of Chinatown and Little Italy, where he lived and worked until 1993, when he moved into his current place on Broadway.
Len was not going to be an abstract expressionist, like the rest of them. That’s been done, he said. He had to find his own way. In the late 1950s he did a series of “railroad drawings” right on site in the railroad yards of Brooklyn and Queens. He showed these at Martha Jackson. He often told the story of how Martha Jackson came to his studio. He was a perfect gentleman, though friends had told him that to get anywhere with her you had to seduce her. Martha offered him a studio in Brussels. Len later regretted that he did not take it. But at the time, New York was the place to be and that is where he stayed. As always, he was quite prolific, producing his minimal wrapped pieces on stretchers, a suicide series of paintings, astronauts, the hookers and pimps that populated his neighborhood on Forsyth Street, graffiti men and women, all the way up to the OJ Simpson Trial and both Iraq wars. His work was always topical, though the topic and message meant little to him. What mattered to him was the paint. The technique. The material.
He loved to tell the story of how he came to show at OK Harris, Ivan Karp’s so-called supermarket gallery which still exists on West Broadway. Len came to the gallery and Karp asked him, “what do you want?” Len said, “you know what I want, Ivan. I want you to show my work.” Karp pulled open a drawer and showed Len files on 100s of artists. “I know you’re good,” he said, “but I can’t even show the artists I have.” As Len was leaving he turned and said, “Ivan – don’t let me rot up there!” Karp got up from his chair, turned red, pounded his fist on the table so hard that all the secretaries and assistants came running out, and said “Don’t get sentimental with me!” Len walked out. The next day Karp called Len, waking him from his afternoon nap. When he announced it was “the big fish” calling, Len pretended not to know who it was. Finally, he said, “It’s Ivan Karp—I decided to give you a show!” And Karp did show his work for a time, with reasonable success.
In the early 1980s, Len picked up a piece of telephone wire from the floor of his studio. He nailed it to the wooden stretcher. Thus began the wire pieces—large sculpture-like works made of different colored wire nailed to the stretcher bars with carpet tacks. This saved money. Oil paint was expensive. He did dozens of these and sold them privately and through galleries. Unfortunately, Ivan Karp did not like this new work. And that was the end of the relationship. Len was devastated, but he moved on. And he never stopped working.
In 1988 Len showed the wire pieces in Mexico City at Casa del Lago at the University of Mexico. It took Herculean efforts to get the works out of Mexican Customs and to the University. Finally, the works were released the day before the show, and sent to the University with a police escort. After the show, Maria Moldonado, the owner of Galleria Kin, a highly regarded gallery in Coyacan, just outside Mexico City, wanted to show the wire pieces. However, after the Customs debacle, Len decided to give them to the University and to the organizer of the show. When he told Maria this, she said, “You estupido gringo! You never give work away!” Years later, when we looked for one of them at the University (a depiction of Pancho Villa), we were unable to locate it.
From the wire paintings, Len moved on to crushed cans in the mid-1990s. Then he had a romance with watercolors, which he showed at Michael Kisslinger, where he had a big retrospective in 1995, showing the new graffiti men series, among others. He then did an OJ Simpson series and a Blues series. These works were featured in a one-man show at NatWest bank on Broadway.
We moved into our current apartment in January 1993. In February 1993, there was an attempt to blow up the World Trade Center. Len was still in his studio on Forsyth Street at the time, though we were already married (December 6, 1991) and living on Broadway. Len called me at work from the studio. “A boiler exploded in the World Trade Center,” he said. “No,” I said, “that had to be a terrorist act.” History proved me right. We used to talk about this. How could they really bring those buildings down? One afternoon we were sitting on our little back terrace, talking it over. Len said that if the buildings ever came down we’d be “finished.” So I said, “how do you think they could do that?” He said, “they’d have to hijack planes and fly them into the buildings.” To this Brooklyn bean this was just logical. “You have to put yourself in their heads,” he said. “They bombed our embassies in Africa, and the Cole. They were willing to die in the act. Why not here?” And then of course it happened. He experienced the whole thing first hand, one block away, and it truly affected him. We moved out until the end of the year and stayed in an apartment in the east village. Len said he would not go near the subject with a ten foot pole. But true to himself, he did paintings of this event, and sold some of these works.
After his 9/11 series, which was oil on paper, and then a Coney Island water color series, Len returned to his favorite and, to him, most challenging medium—oil on canvas. His last oil painting series was sparked by the war in Iraq. He was inspired by General David Petraeus’ comment early on, “Tell me how this ends.” And by photos in the newspapers and what he saw on TV. This powerful series was the subject of two shows at a private gallery uptown. But the series, which spanned the years 2004 to 2008, took everything out of him. He was worn out and not sure what to do next.
Just before his surgery in August of this year, Len was searching for something. He had done a number of very rich pastels in the interim, some of them self-portraits. He commented, “I don’t know if I’m going to do anything next.” He then paused and added, “I’d like to do something very big, like the size of the wall. But I don’t know what it would be exactly.”
Len was a truly dedicated and uncompromising artist—nine to five, and more. That was what mattered to him most. He designed his whole life around it, keeping the rest of his life simple so he could ply his art. He sacrificed a lot for it—his family, his comfort—but never his dignity. And he always kept his work fresh, new and inventive. He never went backwards—only forwards. You would never have known that the work he produced even in his later years was anything other than the work of a young and innovative artist, always experimenting with new forms and materials.
To close—just a brief glimpse into a part of Len that most of you did not know. Len kept and traveled with little books in which he wrote sayings, words and definitions, poetry of others, and his own. Let me share some of these gems with you through my dear friend, Mary Roodkowsky, whom I know for nearly 40 years:
“The greed of the exploiter is ideally met by the need to be exploited.”
“I have found the key to success—but I can’t find the lock it fits.”
“To cope with one’s dreams—and the bland Indifference of the cosmos to our hopes.”
“What is art? Toil, sadness dirt and dream”
“I am an old man faraway watching the sands of time, run out.” Mexico 2004
“What is your philosophy? Put a little grey (PAINT) into everything. And say ‘me’ as infrequently as possible.”
“To the medical men you’re just another incapacitated schmuck going through the grinder.”
“What if the great day never comes. And your life never shines with vivid blossoms” Carl Dennis
“In the old days, I was overlooked. Now I’m looking it over.” LR 2005
Len was not religious, but he was very philosophical. So the following should be heard with that in mind:
“In a dream we are born. In a dream we live. Death alone will wake us.”