Robert Rosenblum, 79; teacher, curator, backer of 'high' and 'low' art

Times Staff Writer

Robert Rosenblum, an art historian, author, teacher and curator who championed both "high" and "low" art in his work on artists as dissimilar as Pablo Picasso and Norman Rockwell, has died. He was 79.

Rosenblum, a longtime professor of art history at New York University and adjunct curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, died Dec. 6 at his home in the city.

The cause was cancer, said Mariet Westermann, director of the university's Institute of Fine Arts, the school's graduate division for art history.

He was an expert in French Romantic painting and in Modern art, writing with authority about Jean Auguste Dominique Ingre of the Old World, Andy Warhol of the New.

He also revived interest in nearly forgotten artists. One of them, Adolphe-William Bouguereau, was a 19th century academic painter who later fell out of fashion.

"Bob was the most democratic art historian and critic," Westermann said. "He had a quality that is lost in this age of specialization. He could speak with equal authority on the art of the Revolutionary period in France and the art of Picasso, Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko."

Rosenblum's first major book was "Transformations in Late Eighteenth Century Art," published in 1967 and widely considered his most important work.

In it he argued that Modernism has complex roots in 18th century European painting -- an unorthodox idea at the time.

"Bob made us understand that Modern art didn't begin with Picasso," Westermann said.

He often made unexpected connections that crossed centuries and categories of art. In "The Romantic Child from Runge to Sendak," published in 1988, he compared works by the German Romantic painter Phillip Otto Runge and Maurice Sendak, the contemporary author and illustrator of children's books.

Rosenblum's "The Dog in Art, From Rococo to Post-Modernism," is another of his playful but serious academic works, published in 1988.

"Bob was never doctrinaire," said Carol Eliel, a former student and now a curator of Modern and contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "If an artwork was visually compelling and intellectually engaging, Bob was interested." His approach inspired generations of his students who now are museum curators and teachers, Eliel said.

The first major art exhibit he worked on was "French Painting, 1774-1830: The Age of Revolution." Rosenblum was one of several art historians who helped organize the show that opened in the mid-1970s, first at the Grand Palais in Paris and later at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

From the time he joined the staff of the Guggenheim Museum in 1996 for a 10-year stay, he worked on shows about artists as varied as Jacques Louis David, the neo-classic French painter, and Jeff Koons, a contemporary artist of kitsch fantasies.

He also helped bring the traveling exhibit "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People" to the Guggenheim in 2001. He had been reevaluating the artist, as he did with many others during his career.

Young artists were "flat-out fascinated" by Rockwell, Rosenblum said in a 2001 interview with the New York Daily News.

Rockwell's "vision of a germ-proof, smiling America" was something young artists could bounce off, Rosenblum said.

He compared it to the squeaky-clean movies of Frank Capra, the American filmmaker who was Rockwell's contemporary.

"Nowadays I think people say, 'If I can enjoy Frank Capra, why can't I enjoy Norman Rockwell?' " Rosenblum said.

Rosenblum was born in New York City on July 24, 1927. He graduated from Queens College and earned a master's degree at Yale University before he completed his doctorate at NYU in 1956.

He taught at several schools, including Princeton and Yale, before he joined the faculty of NYU in 1966.

He taught graduate and undergraduate level classes there until shortly before his death.

Rosenblum is survived by his wife, artist Jane Kaplowitz, and their two children.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 20, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction Rosenblum obituary: An obituary of art historian Robert Rosenblum in Friday's California section misspelled the names of several artists. The correct spellings are Philipp Otto Runge, not Phillip; and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, not Ingre. One artist's first and middle names were reversed: The correct name is William Adolphe Bouguereau. Also, the hyphen was omitted from artist Jacques-Louis David's name.
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