Robert Rosenblum

On December 6 of last year, the art historian and educator Robert Rosenblum died of cancer in New York City, where he worked and taught. He was 79. 

Since our tabloid culture finds no prurient interest in the partners Rosenblum was or was not “hooking up” with, most people outside the art ghetto won’t grasp who he was or how many lives he touched. I’m among the lucky ones who knew him. He was my professor.

An expert in French Romantic painting and what we call Modern art, Rosenblum taught a course at NYU called “Art Since 1945,” which effectively canvassed all that had occurred from the end of World War II to the 1980s. Treating Matisse and Miro, Raushcenberg and Rothko, de Kooning and di Chirico, Johns and Giacometti as artists as worthy of scholastic investigation as Ingres and Rubens, Rosenblum illuminated the ideas behind 20th Century art, ennobling work that might strike some viewers as something their children could have done. His lecture style was devoutly uncharismatic. He was a droner. But Rosenblum was one of those rare souls who could speak in complete paragraphs, essaying a complex thought through thickets of compound sentences, concluding with a declarative statement that had the ring of inevitableness about it. He made young minds understand.

Rosenblum was renowned in the art world for being able to draw unexpected and convincing connections between movements or periods that previously seemed to have no link. He made you see that Picasso’s genius was born not in 19th Century Spain, but in 18th Century France and Germany. He made you look at the world differently.

I had no personal relationship with Robert Rosenblum outside of the classroom. He struck me as a gentle, perhaps shy, man, who found in paintings and sculpture the grand gestures and operatic passions he never displayed in public. He had about him an air of quiet authority, the confidence that comes from thinking long and deep about something that matters to you, and coming up with some satisfactory answers — and even more questions. To a young man bombarded with misinformation belched forth from a society enamored of power and wealth, encountering an intellectual like Rosenblum, who seemed utterly removed from the value system of the zeitgeist, was a reminder that the pursuit of abstractions like Truth and Beauty was a worthwhile (and transcendent) use of a life.

Rosennblum is survived by his wife and two children — and thousands of former students who are grateful for the revelations he shared. 

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