Although Ralph Rosenborg has painted abstract work throughout his life, nature has served as his perennial motif.(1) He won a scholarship while still in high school to Saturday art classes at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. After classes ended, he later continued to study privately with his teacher there, Henriette Reiss, who provided not only exacting technical training, but broad-based instruction in music, literature, and art history. More significantly, Reiss had worked with Kandinsky earlier in her career and introduced her young protégé to the vast arena of vanguard European ideas. After four years, Rosenborg was ready to exhibit. He showed frequently during the 1930s—initially in group exhibitions at ACA Galleries and later in Mayor La Guardia’s 1934 Mile of Art at Radio City. His first solo exhibition, at the Eighth Street Theater in 1935, was followed by shows at various galleries almost annually throughout the 1940s.
A highly personal artist, inclined toward interpreting nature rather than the geometric form pursued by many of his fellow members of the American Abstract Artists, Rosenborg wrote in 1955,
“Painting will always remain a super-real world to me, devoid of all modern forms of blasphemy. It is a world in which the immensity of creation moves me to a personal form of prayer and contemplation. It is also a world in which its laws demand a personal integrity of purpose, a simple humbleness, and a sufficient set of experiences as the basic requirement for admission to it.”(2)
During the 1930s and 1940s, Rosenborg moved freely between expressionist watercolors evocative of the rhythms and colors of nature (such as the Untitled watercolor of about 1938) and more consciously structured oils, such as The Far-away City, in which deep-toned, dream-world landscapes take on the color and architecture of expressive stained glass. He paid little heed to modernist theories of surface and structure that fascinated many of his contemporaries. Later during the 1950s, Rosenborg’s paintings increasingly reflected the energies, as well as the appearances, of the natural world. Tumultuous seascapes, serene landscapes, and brightly colored floral still lifes, were all executed with an attention to richly textured, heavily painted surfaces.
Although New York City has remained home for Rosenborg throughout his career, he has traveled widely. In 1966, an award from the National Council on the Arts and Humanities enabled him to tour Europe. He continually strives upward in his work, and frequently draws an arrow in a rectangular box on the back of his paintings. Originally a Mayan motif, the arrow, for Rosenborg, “signifies that I will strive to always go up, aesthetically, spiritually, and from all practical points of view. It’s very important because I try to stay on earth, but actually, the painting is another world.”(3)
1. An excellent discussion of Rosenborg’s work, especially during the 1950s, can be found in Martica Sawin, “The Achievement of Ralph Rosenborg,” Arts Magazine 35, no. 2 (November 1960): 44–47.
2. Ralph Rosenborg, “Statement,” Contemporary Paintings and Sculpture (University of Illinois exhibition catalogue, 1955); reprinted in “Ralph Rosenborg: Recent Oil and Watercolor Paintings” (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Gallery of Fine Art, exhibition brochure, 1983).
3. Ralph Rosenborg, “Statement,” Contemporary Paintings and Sculpture (University of Illinois exhibition catalogue, 1955); reprinted in “Ralph Rosenborg: Recent Oil and Watercolor Paintings” (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Gallery of Fine Art, exhibition brochure, 1983).
Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930–1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)