One of the youngest members of the American Abstract Artists, Rosalind Bengelsdorf championed abstraction in her writings and lectures as well as in her paintings. As a teenager, she studied at the Art Students League (1930–34) with John Steuart Curry, Raphael Soyer, Anne Goldthwaite, and George Bridgman, and then for a year at the Annot School. In 1935, she entered Hans Hofmann’s atelier as one of the many scholarship students he took on. The following year, she joined the abstract artists working on WPA murals under Burgoyne Diller’s enlightened leadership.
In Hans Hofmann, Bengelsdorf found a true mentor. His dedication to the painting as an independent object matched her growing belief that the picture plane was a “living reality” of forms, energies, and colors. Like Hofmann, Bengelsdorf believed that “the shapes that compose the picture belong to nothing else but the picture.”(1)
She had begun to analyze objects in terms of geometric form under George Bridgman at the league and subsequently at Annot. In a high school chemistry class, Bengelsdorf became fascinated with the idea that space is filled with “myriad, infinitesimal subdivisions.” She saw “the universe as a charged miracle, a vibrating orchestration of the continuous interplay of all forms of matter.”(2) Under Hofmann, who emphasized the interrelationship of objects and the environments they occupy, these impulses merged. For Bengelsdorf, the artist’s task became the description of “not only what he sees but also what he knows of the natural internal function” of objects and the “laws of energy that govern all matter: the opposition, tension, interrelation, combination and destruction of planes in space.”(3) This meant that the abstract painter was studying the laws of nature, tearing it apart and then reorganizing the parts into a new creation.(4)
Despite this emphasis on formalism, Bengelsdorf also believed that abstract art played a larger function within society. She separated artistic concerns from economic ones and championed art’s potential for increasing knowledge and understanding. Satire, motion pictures, posters, and other pictorial solutions addressed some kinds of human concerns; but the larger ones — of the mind, of the possibility for order within life’s experience — these were the domain of abstraction.(5)
In her own paintings, such as Abstraction and Seated Woman, Bengelsdorf was concerned with these questions. Abstraction, which relates to a WPA mural (now destroyed) Bengelsdorf painted for the Central Nurses Home on Welfare Island, balances simple geometric forms through position and color. Seated Woman, which was featured in the 1939 American Abstract Artists annual exhibition, owes a clear debt to Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror (1932, Museum of Modern Art) and gives clear evidence of her belief that “energy and form are inseparable.”
After her marriage to Byron Browne in1940, and the birth of their son, Bengelsdorf turned from full-time painting to teaching, writing, and criticism. An articulate and perceptive writer, she often reviewed the exhibitions of work by her friends from the early days of the American Abstract Artists, and continued, through her writings, to champion the cause of abstract art.
A founding member of the American Abstract Artists, Bengelsdorf had been involved in the group’s earliest discussions. Reminiscing about the early meeting that Arshile Gorky had walked out of, she said that she and Browne were sympathetic with Gorky’s position. “We shared empathy with his concept of a basic abstract language of art.… Gorky could see beyond the limits of his own abstract idiom expressive of the climate of our time.”(6)
1. Rosalind Bengelsdorf, “The New Realism,” in American Abstract Artists: Three Yearbooks (1938, 1939, 1946) (reprint, New York: Amo Press, 1969), p. 22. Bengelsdorf articulated these ideas in specific and clear terms in a lecture she gave at the Artists’ Union in 1936. Her handwritten notes can be found in the Rosalind Bengelsdorf Browne Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., roll 2014. She spoke of energy and movement, and of movement and form respectively. She used diagrams of atomic structure to explain the interaction of spatial planes — what we now call negative space — with the forms within a painting. Along with Hofmann’s lectures of 1937–38 at the Art Students League, Bengelsdorf’s presentation of the “science” of abstract art was a vital justification for the potential of art in light of new scientific insights.
2. Letter from Rosalind Bengelsdorf to Henry Hunt, 7 February 1971, Bengelsdorf Browne Papers, roll 2016: 417.
3. Bengelsdorf, “The New Realism,” p. 21.
4 . Bengelsdorf, “The New Realism,” p. 21.
5. In her 1936 lecture at the Artists’ Union, Bengelsdorf addressed the question of art’s social utility. She equated the “plastic painter” to a scientist who is constantly researching to discover more about life. She also thanked the members of the Artists’ Union for their indulgence in allowing herself and others to proselytize about abstract art.
6. Letter to Henry Hunt, 7 February 1971. Bengelsdorf added that she and Byron Browne “shared empathy with [Gorky’s] concept of a basic abstract language of art underlying changing styles for millennia — a language attempting to equate the creative acts apparent in nature everywhere.”
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)
Rosalind Bengelsdorf studied at the Art Students League and with the artist Hans Hofmann at his first private school in New York. She was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists, and believed strongly that abstraction was a “more direct account of reality” because it expressed “internal” natural forms (Bengelsdorf, “The New Realism,” American Abstract Artists, 1938). She participated in the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s, and created some of the first abstract murals for the project. In 1940, Bengelsdorf married the artist Byron Browne. They decided that there should be only “one painter in the family,” so Rosalind turned her attention to writing and teaching, only picking up a paintbrush again after her husband died in 1961 (Fraser, “Rosalind Browne, 62; Was Abstract Painter, Teacher and Historian,” New York Times, February 1979).