In Pittsburgh, “history” is often a euphemism for “loss,” a way to talk about what we had, but two retrospectives currently on display celebrate what the city got from the greatness of its past. “A Painter’s Legacy,” at the American Jewish Museum in Squirrel Hill, collects works from fifty-four students of the late Samuel Rosenberg, “the Dean of Pittsburgh Painters” for the first half of the 20th Century. Meanwhile, on the other side of Schenley Park, the Works on Paper Gallery at the Carnegie Museum of Art is showing “In Pursuit of Beauty,” the first exhibition in more than fifty years of the work of Andrey Avinoff, director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History from 1926 to 1945.
After the founding of the Neighborhood Art School at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House in 1917, Rosenberg taught painting in Pittsburgh for nearly fifty years, splitting his time mostly between Carnegie Mellon University (then the Carnegie Institute of Technology) and the Young Men’s and Women’s Hebrew Association. During that time, he also produced hundreds of canvases that many believe stand-up against the greats of his era. Yet he refused to leave for New York. “Yes, I know there are artists in town who sneer at Pittsburgh, who want to go at Venice and paint canals,” he said. “But the artist who dislikes the town should, in my opinion, stay here and put his hate into pictures of the Pittsburgh scene. In doing so, he would have something to say.” He loved “the town,” though. After abandoning a successful career as a portraitist in the 1930s, he wandered the Hill District (“the spot I know best in Pittsburgh”) painting everyday life. In these paintings, the landscape and the buildings of the city reflect the personalities of its people (and the other way around). The Carnegie Museum owns several paintings from this era, including “Greenfield Hill” and “Second Avenue,” both of which make burdened men and big hills and gray skies and cold cobblestone roads (the somber stuff Pittsburgh is made of) appear exuberant (which Pittsburgh is). These subjects must have seemed parochial to Rosenberg after the shock of World War II because his paintings in the 1940s became allegorical, haunted men clutching for bread and staring into open books, and in the decades that followed he gradually abandoned figures altogether, striving to capture mood and truths through the balance of form, color, line and texture. This work went a long way toward legitimizing abstract art in conservative Post-War Pittsburgh.
Though all these styles appear in the work of his students, Rosenberg’s influence isn’t obvious. One student described his teaching style as “enigmatic osmosis,” guiding students toward goals without leading them there. (In his most legendary moment, he kept Andy Warhol from flunking out of art school.) Rosenberg funneled passion through discipline, teaching in a suit and elbow length gloves, and offering technical discourses: how to mix egg tempera, how to underpaint a canvas, how to keep colors from fading. He loved art, regardless of era or style, and gushed equally about how Rembrandt could “make a stroke have the texture of hair, cloth, skin, metal, any substance translates vision into paint” and about Hans Hoffman’s “push-pull” theory of balancing colors.
His influence is apparent, but not obvious, in the works of his students. Ray DeFazio finds serenity in Allegheny Observatory at sunset through technical precision. Abe Wiener makes the streets of his hometown as bright as the paths of heaven. Aaronel deRoy Gruber’s captures the muddy crispness of early morning. Mary Shaw Marohnic uses fiery chaotic diagonals to describe Pittsburgh’s mid-century industrial landscape.
Like a regional theatre production of Hamlet, “A Painter’s Legacy” humbles a big story, in this case, the story of American art in the first half of the 20th Century. Going into the exhibit, I knew the styles on display — The Ashcan School, Abstract Expressionism — better than I knew the painters, but because they and their subjects are so local — such as Dale Stein’s serene “From the 67,” a view from the old trolley line through Squirrel Hill and Oakland — those old styles suddenly made more sense. Still, the exhibit can be a frustrating one at times. Because Rosenberg didn’t imprint himself onto his students, the connective tissue is sometimes obvious and sometimes imaginary, but at the opening reception recently, as Rosenberg’s former students — many now in their seventies — circled their works, it became clear that Rosenberg created a true community, a distinct sum that emerges impossibly from very disparate parts, a Pittsburgh school of art.
Rosenberg, though a bit of an outsider as a self-taught master, was still a product of Pittsburgh, but Avinoff must have seemed pretty exotic when he got here in the mid-1920s, an exile from revolutionary Russia, a son of aristocracy, a renowned butterfly collector and a semi-closeted homosexual. In a quote at the exhibit, Avinoff declares, “I bow to scientific fact until five o’clock. After that I may have other ideas,” but “In Pursuit of Beauty” shows that divisions between his work and his art aren’t quite so defined. Like Rosenberg, Avinoff studied properties. The exhibit includes his scientific watercolors of regional fauna, painted according to four strict “guiding principles” (number two: “portrayal of the individuality of the plant as to character, position, arrangement, and venation of the leaves and the texture of their surfaces”), as well as his studies of iridescent butterfly wings and flower petals, glass and bubbles, rippling water and the glow of sunlight hitting a tent flap. He used those mysterious qualities to ground his fantasies in the real world. Under his pen or brush, delicate objects become ferocious. In “Memories,” flowers and butterflies crowd snippets of his childhood estate like overlapping thoughts, and in “Tulips (Disintegration),” the estate crumbles and the flowers wilt and the butterflies are nearly too ragged to fly. His still lives are more alive than still; his watercolors of the original Nationality Rooms show not only the cultural details but also the trees outside the windows and the remnants of old lesson plans on chalk boards, the qualities that make those spaces classrooms, rather than just set pieces.
Avinoff moved to New York after leaving the museum and I don’t get the sense that he particularly longed for Pittsburgh in his final years. He was a world traveler and a supremely curious person, qualities that benefited Pittsburgh. Although Avinoff worked more privately than Rosenberg, his legacy is both more public and less appreciated today. The exhibit includes a self-guided tour of his contributions to Oakland: the thousands of butterflies he collected and cataloged, the architectural casts he used as models for his paintings, the dioramas he commissioned, the dinosaurs he purchased and the Russian Classroom in the first floor of the Cathedral of Learning based on his design. It’s a reminder that while institutions might dominate Oakland, the neighborhood only thrives when those institutions gives their best citizens permission to run free.