Among her earliest memories from a childhood in the upstate New York town of Ferndale, 70-year-old artist Rosalyn Engelman recalls watching graphic newsreels that tracked the fate of relatives who ultimately would perish in the Holocaust. For her parents, the vicissitudes of the 20th century were experienced more directly. Her father was stranded in New York during a visit from Warsaw, Poland, before the outbreak of World War I, while her mother, who suffered forced labor as a child when the Germans occupied her shtetl, Korelich, in Minsk, immigrated to the United States after the Russian Revolution. These legacies shaped Engelman’s identity and seep into her emotionally charged art, but the New York City-based abstract expressionist’s canvases, most notable for their densely layered paint, generally take on more universal themes: the passage of time, the sheer power of color, the melancholic beauty of captured moments and the artistic process itself.
Recently, in a double bill at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the nearby Gallery 440, these concerns converged, offering both intimate exposure to Engelman’s deepest sensibilities and a mini-retrospective of the painter’s complex work from the past three decades. It is something of a moment for an artist who worked consistently until the late 1980s, when she contracted the neurological disorder Guillain-Barre syndrome, which left her blind and paralyzed. Through rigorous physical therapy she not only regained her capacities but also developed a renewed appreciation for art. The latest shows come on the heels of Engelman’s inclusion in the Florence Biennale and will be followed by a solo exhibition at the National Arts Club in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park this winter that may bolster her reputation as a painter’s painter.
The HUC exhibit, Dry Tears, a mixed-media installation inspired by Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar” and by a recent State Department report documenting global human trafficking, offers a look at Engelman’s more politically engaged work. In a rear gallery, visitors encounter disarming mannequins that are painted black and then roughly applied with blood-red paint by fork and pierced with nails. At first glance, the tableau may strike viewers as a crude translation of human suffering, but these sculptures draw on a wealth of art-historical references, from prehistoric and ancient warrior imagery to Christian and African mythology. Encircled by tumultuous Rothko-esque paintings of thick gesso abstracting battle sites, national flags and military motifs, Engelman offers a powerful critique of war and tyranny. “Art is a potent call to arms reaching viewers in visceral ways,” said Jean Bloch Rosensaft, director of the HUC museum, praising this “authentic expression that comes from the artist’s understanding of her place in the world yet exerts a universal message.”
The centerpiece is “Three Graces,” a group of figures chained together inside a pen constructed of railroad ties and draped in torn black mesh, stand-ins for innocent victims of brutality in Europe, Asia and Africa. News clippings of international atrocities collected by Engelman over the years are strewn at their feet, covering every inch of space. Off to one side, “Venus Vincola” turns the Venus de Milo, a smooth white marble icon of beauty, on its head, portraying the goddess as decapitated, bloodied and violated.
More bluish-purple in tone is “Boy M,” with his right fist beating on his chest in the beseeching gesture of Yom Kippur services, and his feet chained, memorializing children experimented on by Josef Mengele. It was underpainted by Engelman’s 14-year-old granddaughter, who accompanied her on a trip last year to Yad Vashem and, confronting an image of a boy with his feet chained, asked incredulously, “Did they really do that?” Meanwhile, “Boy K,” crowned with a halo of barbed wire, represents African children caught in the crossfire of war-torn Kenya and suffering from kwashiorkor, a disease caused by malnutrition. “All of humanity has suffering in common,” Engelman said, stressing that “a tenet of Judaism is to feel for others.”
Less graphic but equally potent are the expressive paintings framing the sculptures, which seem to drip with clumps of blood and dry tears. Engelman suggests that even where ends seem to justify means, we must acknowledge human consequences. For example, “Gettysburg,” its pastoral green accented by two bright-yellow stripes from which sharp red brushstrokes reach upward, is meant to remind us, in Engelman’s words, that “until the 1950s, bones protruded from the ground of these now beautiful, rolling hills.” Also quietly moving, a pair of “Blood Flowers,” thorny blooms of looped barbed wire, signifies, according to Engelman, “the beauty and bestiality of the human soul.”
Walking from HUC just a few blocks north to Gallery 440 for the shows’ simultaneous openings last month, the focus shifted dramatically, from this dichotomy to a beauty that is purer if tinged with sadness. This is perhaps best captured in encased pairs of the black leather shoes that Engelman wears to work for two years straight before converting them into artworks. Splattered with bright paint and worn out, they are at once a memento of creation and loss.
But the striking exhibition focused on 22 nearly monochromatic canvases in reds, blacks and whites demonstrating Engelman’s trademarks: subtle gradations of color and purposeful impasto brushstroke, applied layer upon layer, mirroring the tempos of the classical music to which she paints. The show, with works priced from $2,200 to $24,500, was a first for gallery owner Anthony DeLorenzo, a 20th-century decorative arts dealer who has never shown fine art. But like countless others Engelman has engaged, DeLorenzo was charmed when she struck up a conversation with him while vacationing in upstate New York, where he was looking at furniture for his inventory. Back in New York, DeLorenzo and Engelman made plans for him to examine a Ruhlmann lamp that she had picked up in Paris; the dealer was even more impressed by the art in her home, and surprised to learn that most of it was her own work. On the spot, he convinced her to sell him a large red painting that was hanging over her living room sofa, and within minutes, plans for the show were in motion.
Engelman’s upbringing in a traditional Jewish home may have inspired a sense of tikkun olam (repairing the world), but her aesthetic seems to owe more to Asian influences. After graduating from City College, she earned her masters in art history from the University of Rochester, focusing on Asian art, and has traveled to China, Korea and Japan more than 20 times. Meditative canvases such as the large white “No Libretto” 2003-04, based on an 18th-century interpretation of a Chinese poem by Japanese scholar/artist Hon’ami Koetsu, evoke memory and a sense of history, with calligraphy obscured by subsequent brushstrokes. Equally poetic are three “Ferndale Memory” paintings, capturing what Engelman refers to as “whiteouts” — hazy snow days in her hometown, where, she explained “everything is suggested but not clearly defined” — while deep-red canvases, like the 2007 “Beethoven #6,” and black pictures tinged with specks of white and gray, such as those from her circa 1998-2000 “Nocturne” series, communicate more fiery and dark emotions. The common denominator is “the mark,” according to Engelman. She explained, “My painting is about painting, not the thing but the essence of the thing.”
This approach may initially seem at odds with the socially conscious work in the HUC show, which continues through July 11 and was conceived when Rosensaft, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and Engelman shared family histories on an HUC mission to Israel. In fact, Engelman’s earnest approach to her art is linked directly to her desire to emotionally engage viewers. “It’s a magnificent obsession,” she said. “I’ll bring myself, you meet me halfway, and when we touch, that’s magic.”
Jeannie Rosenfeld is an art critic for the Forward.