Volume 77 / Number 30 - Dec. 27 - Jan.2, 2007
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

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Herman Rose and Elia Braca, his second wife, with one of his paintings

Herman Rose, 99, realist artist who resisted trends

By Ed Field

I place Herman Rose in the highest rank of American painters. Putting aside what might arguably be called the novelty artists — a whole swath of modernist fashionistas labeled pop, op, conceptual, installations, etc., and with these I’d also include the abstract expressionists and action painters of yesteryear, funded by post-World War II corporate America — Herman Rose is up there with the major painters of the realist tradition, figures like Ryder, Bellows, Hopper, Soyer and Alice Neel.

If Rose wasn’t proclaimed the Great American Master in his lifetime, he was far from neglected, and first-rate galleries and museums displayed his work. But the swiftly moving art world, latching on to the latest, often-superficial thing, had little time for this contemplative artist who considered every brush stroke, whose works were small, who favored landscape painting and studio still lifes, and whose portraits were homely but sensitive studies of people he knew,rather than celebrities. The vast importance of this delicate, powerful work is easy to overlook in the metropolitan rush for what’s hot.

I first heard of him after he was included in the MoMA show of 1954 “Fifteen Americans,” at a time when he already had several shows at the Egan Gallery, and had moved to the left-wing A.C.A. Gallery that promoted realist painting. In the mid-’50s, when I briefly hung out with Frank O’Hara and his crowd, which included Joan Mitchell, Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers and Joan Wilson, I was quite surprised that this group on the cutting edge were all Herman Rose fans. It was painters who most appreciated him. It was said that he worked on a painting so long that some of the city scenes had the flowers of all the seasons in them.

He was born in Brooklyn into a family of humble immigrant Eastern European Jews who could never understand this gifted son — to escape their disparagement, he resorted to taking his plate of food into a corner to eat in peace, and, romantic to the core, even ran away to Maine to live with the Indians. He studied art at the National Academy of Design, and during the ’30s worked in the W.P.A. Federal Artists Project.

I always considered him one of the two geniuses I’ve known in my life — the other being the eccentric, brilliant writer Alfred Chester, whom Herman Rose painted as a faun in “Orpheus in Central Park,” where I posed naked as Orpheus — it’s now in the Hirshhorn Museum. An almost shambling figure in shabby clothes, Herman was never a ladies man, and what he told me once was typical of his innocence. Fantasizing about meeting a girl, he said, “When I see a girl sitting by herself on a park bench, maybe I could go up to her and say, ‘You look lonely, I’m lonely too. Can’t we be friends?’” She might have screamed for help! He did get married, though, and had two sons, whom he supported by working as a draftsman. But when he went into psychotherapy in the ’50s, he left his wife.

It was in this period that I met him at a party. He was lying on the floor drunk, waving his arm in the air, saying, “I’m a pile of shit, take my rose” — significantly, he had changed his name from Rappaport to Rose, perhaps to improve his self-image, and (figuratively) smell better. So taken was I with this man who seemed as much of an oddball as me, soon I was bicycling 20 miles from Long Island into the city on Sundays to pose for him in his Union Square studio. Typically, it took a year for him to finish the painting.

Functioning better after being in therapy, he met the woman who was to become his next wife, Elia Braca, an actress of temperament and dark beauty, whose soap opera career in Hollywood and Chicago had ended and was now living in the Village, painting, and acting onstage.

Though their relationship was stormy — she called it “the battle of the Roses” — she had the effect of pulling him out of the fog he tended to slip into. A sophisticated woman, she also had a modernizing effect on him, the old-school lefty, for before she came into his life he was severe in his interests, reflecting his Depression mentality, big on high culture and self-improvement.

He remained intellectual, reading serious literature and listening to classical music, and his letters, especially, revealed his brilliant mind. But his new wife introduced him to the lighter things in life — restaurants, gay friends, European travel. His ungainliness also revealed his discomfort with his body — but when she tried to dress him in a fashionable suit, the tight pants made this old-fashioned man squirm.

Even married to this glamorous woman, he never lost his unworldliness, and didn’t feel comfortable in the fashion-driven New York art world — and indeed, he had no small talk. When he felt good about himself he could stride into a room like a noble Roman — and indeed there was something Roman about his head. But mostly he avoided art events, and his career was built solidly on his work, with no help from social graces.

He was nutty in a heartbreakingly simple way — I remember him on the street suddenly breaking into a jog, when the idea of getting fit hit him. Going out to dinner with him was a trial, with what-to-order a major fuss. And when the plates arrived he invariably asked the waitress to change this or that — the plate invariably went back to the kitchen, sometimes two or three times. Amazingly, waitresses never minded any of his requests and fulfilled his demands.

With his poor sales record, he did tend to gallery hop. There was a string of galleries after the Egan and the A.C.A., all of which he left in hopes of selling better somewhere else — the Forum Gallery, Fischbach and the Zabriskie Gallery, whose feisty director Virginia Zabriskie told him straight out, when he complained of his low prices and poor sales, “Herman, neither of us is ever going to earn any money from your work until you’re dead.”

In the case of his last gallery, the Fischbach, he left because they would only show him in the side room and he couldn’t swallow the humiliation. This act of pride, though, left him without a gallery. Yet, the Hirshhorn Museum boughthim over the years, and there were grants from the Pollack-Krasner Foundation, the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mark Rothko foundation, the Sheep Meadow Foundation, many purchase awards from the American Academy of Arts & Letters to the National Academy of Design and artist-in-residence gigs at universities in Virginia and New Mexico.

Even without a gallery in his last 15 years, he kept painting almost to the end. His death recently at the age of 99 in his Westbeth studio is not, after such a rich life, a tragedy. I am sure that his marvelous artwork, unencumbered by the extraneous issues of fashion and commerce, will take its place in the canon of American art, where it belongs.

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