SAN DIEGO COUNTY : Rosenberg Exhibit at SDSU Compares 1950s to Present : <i> After all, a nation grows up, learns its lessons. Doesn’t it?</i>


Margaret Randall poses that question in her introduction to the book, “The Rosenbergs: Collected Visions of Artists and Writers.” An account of her own experience provides some answers.

An American-born poet and photographer, Randall moved to Mexico in 1961. When she returned to the United States to live in 1984, she had to petition for residency. During her interview with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, several of her books were spread before her. Passages critical of U.S. foreign policy were highlighted in yellow. There, she writes, “I encountered my first tangible evidence that the McCarthy Era is still very much alive in this country.”

That the constricted freedoms of the 1950s have parallels in the present was something that had also occurred to Rob Okun, editor of “The Rosenbergs,” which was published last year. Okun, referring to the period in terms of its victims rather than its chief persecutor, organized the exhibition, “Unknown Secrets: Art and the Rosenberg Era,” with curator Nina Felshin.


The show, at the San Diego State University Art Gallery through Oct. 6, impresses a formidable weight on the consciences of its viewers. It testifies to the lingering presence of anti-communism, anti-Semitism and the government’s desire to streamline political beliefs--forces that were instrumental in the conviction and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

All of the artists in the show, whether working in the ‘50s or the ‘80s, assume the Rosenbergs’ innocence of the charges of passing secrets of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. (Okun states in “The Rosenbergs” that he could find no examples of anti-Rosenberg art.) Most relegate facts and figures of the case to the background of their work. They use historical data as a framework upon which to construct statements about such broader, ever topical issues as scapegoating, paranoia and fear of the “other.”

Several artists who responded to the Rosenberg case as it transpired adopted a direct, imploring tone in their paintings and prints. The urgency of their

appeal finds its most powerful form in a woodcut by the Mexican artist Francisco Mora. The poster, from 1952, pleads for letters to be sent to the U.S. president to “stop the crime” of the Rosenbergs’ impending execution. The poster shows a strong, bare arm reaching out and preventing the richly adorned arm of American industry from pulling the switch to send the Rosenbergs to their death.

Other works from the ‘50s humanize the couple whose case has become a symbol of cold-war politics. Pablo Picasso’s delicate lithograph of the faces of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg brings the notoriety of the case down to an intimate, personal scale. Fernand Leger’s silk screen, “Liberty, Peace, Solidarity,” approaches lyricism with its hovering streaks of lavender, yellow and red, its tender depiction of the Rosenbergs beside a dove and the gentle meeting of two hands, one handcuffed and the other free.

Beyond humanizing the Rosenbergs, many artists from both the past and present attempt to portray the beleaguered couple as heroes. Rupert Garcia’s large pastel portraits of Ethel and Julius are monumental and sympathetic. Newspaper photographs of the pair kissing and being carted off in a police van recur in other works with the frequency and often the reverential treatment of icons.


Sentimentality Dissipates

Most of the sentimentality that crops up in the work of the 1950s has dissipated by the 1980s, and the contemporary artists invited to participate in the show regard the Rosenberg case with keen scrutiny and a sharp sense of its ramifications for the present. Their work tends to be more analytical, but no less gripping.

Although portraits such as Picasso’s and Garcia’s humanize the Rosenbergs, many of the contemporary works focus on the forces and strategies that dehumanized them in the first place. Deborah Small’s “Witch Hunt” blares out a cacophonous cry of labels used to brand those who deviate from the political mainstream. “Pinko,” “provocateur,” “pawn,” “dupe,” “devil” and “Judas of democracy” are spelled out in painted blocks and arranged in rows across the wall, interspersed with communist symbols, blacklists and historical references to the hunting down of witches.

Robert Arneson sets his bronze double-portrait of the Rosenbergs on the floor, their open mouths and hollow eyes giving them the appearance of falling down a deep well. Across their foreheads runs the label, “2 Fried Commie Jew Spies.”

Such disturbing images shift attention from the crime purportedly committed by the Rosenbergs to the crime inflicted on them. Sue Coe’s haunting painting of truth strapped into the electric chair suggests the importance of martyrs in fulfilling the “Needs of the State.”

Touring Through 1991

This show has been touring nationally for a year already, and will stop in four more cities through 1991. Its presence in San Diego is particularly timely, for it adds fuel to a local debate over government censorship of the arts. Installation gallery, which originally planned to host “Unknown Secrets,” recently was denied public funding for its exhibition program after sponsoring a billboard critical of the city. This show not only argues against such censorship but also makes a strong case for renewed support of Installation’s program.

On a national level, Congress is grappling with the issue of arts censorship. A proposal to temporarily “blacklist” two arts institutions for having promoted work deemed offensive and obscene is under discussion, as is an amendment to bar such work from receiving federal support. Many of the works in “Unknown Secrets” certainly would be denied funding under the proposed criteria simply because they use religious imagery or the symbol of the flag to empower their message.

At the heart of both the current show and the congressional debate is art’s power to affect society. By teaching, provoking, posing questions and rubbing raw our blind faith in the system, “Unknown Secrets” asserts the positive impact of that power. Many of today’s leaders fear that power and are therefore attempting to control it and legislate its boundaries. Maybe some nations never do learn their lessons.