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Robert Rosenblum

Robert Rosenblum Chart


Robert Rosenblum's career as a critic, teacher and curator was defined by his insistence on challenging accepted norms of Modern art and its history. He began his writing career in Art News, Art International, and other similar publications. Rosenblum believed that Modernism had a much longer history than people assumed, and in offering this perspective, he significantly reordered the way in which most people studied art movements. Instead of examining and judging works of art within time-specific frameworks, Rosenblum tended to critique art regardless of its associated movement or place in history.

Key Ideas

Rosenblum identified the history of Modern art as dating back to the French, German and Danish painters (who worked mostly in the Neoclassical style) of the late 18th-century
Rosenblum considered "postmodernism" as an era in which people loved and consumed art on a scale never seen before in the U.S., yet appreciated it more as a luxury or trivial entertainment, rather than as something socially and culturally significant.
According to Rosenblum, the foundation of Abstract Expressionism was based on a mythology of total and apocalyptic devastation, which encouraged many artists to search for meaning in art and basic symbolism. Given this mythology that so heavily informed the AbEx movement, Rosenblum believed that contemporary artists were unable to achieve an equally poignant, personal sense of abstraction in their work.


Childhood and Education

Robert Rosenblum was born in New York City to Abraham H. Rosenblum, a dentist, and Lily M. Lipkin. After serving in the United States Army from 1945-1946, immediately following the end of World War II, Rosenblum returned home and enrolled in Queens College. He later earned his Master's degree in Art History from Yale University in 1950, and his Ph.D. in Art History from New York University, where he wrote his dissertation on the German art historian Walter Friedlander [Friedlaender].

Professorial Career

Rosenblum held several teaching positions after receiving his Ph.D., first at the University of Michigan, followed by Princeton, where he taught until 1966. The following year he was appointed to Professor of Fine Arts at NYU (his graduate alma mater), where he remained for the duration of his career.

The Abstract Sublime

In February 1961, Rosenblum caused a stir in the art world when he coined the term "The Abstract Sublime," (also the title of an article he wrote for Art News). The term was used to characterize the feelings and emotions evoked by the works of artists like Rothko, Pollock, Still and Newman. The article was a response in many ways not only to Newman's 1950-51 painting, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, but also to an article Newman had written in 1948 for Tiger's Eye entitled, "The Sublime is Now."

Of Vir Heroicus Sublimis, Rosenblum wrote, "[it] achieves a simplicity and as heroic and sublime as the protagonist of its title. Yet again, as with Still, Rothko and Pollock, such a rudimentary vocabulary creates bafflingly complex results .. Like the other three Masters of the Abstract Sublime, Newman bravely abandons the securities of familiar pictorial geometries in favor of the risks of untested pictorial institutions; and like them, he produces awesomely simple mysteries that evoke the primeval movement of creation." These "Masters," as Rosenblum referred to them, have created a new painterly language, a new "geometric vocabulary" as he phrased it, in which they deconstructed Cubism and essentially spread all the pieces across and throughout their canvases.

In 1967 Rosenblum revisited his dissertation and published an expanded version entitled Transformations in Late Eighteenth-Century Art. This book confirmed Rosenblum's place as a preeminent scholar of art history, but the work was by no means a formal study of European artistic styles. Instead, Rosenblum argued that the history of Modern art was older and more inclusive than what the academy of art history supposed.

Later Years and Death

Rosenblum received a Distinguished Teaching Award from NYU in 2005. He continued to teach, write reviews, and curate exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic, and throughout the U.S. right up until his death from colon cancer in 2006.


Despite having studied art history at Yale (their curriculum is renowned for favoring strict theoretical rules and genre-based study), and taught at Princeton (one of the last schools to formally recognize Modern art as a scholarly field), Rosenblum became a critic and historian who broke from tradition in nearly every way. He curated exhibitions in which works by the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were displayed next to works by traditional Salon artists; he challenged the established formal notion that Modernism began at the turn of the 20th century; he took works by Rockwell (what Greenberg famously referred to as "kitsch") and placed them on the walls of the Guggenheim. Rosenblum constantly confronted formal ideas of Modernism and even art history itself, and challenged those in the art world (from the average museum-goer to the trained historian) to view Modern art as a vast well of ideas rather than a teleological timeline. In this sense, Rosenblum was a model postmodern critic.

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