MOCRA Voices: James Rosen

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James Rosen
Release date: June 4, 2011

Main interview:

Jump to the Listening Guide for the main interview

Audio extra: "The Artist as Swimmer"

Jump to the Listening Guid for the audio extra

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Related exhibition: James Rosen: The Artist and the Capable Observer
Recording Engineer and Editor:
Listening Guide:
David Brinker
Fojammi (Daniel Stefacek)
John Launius
David Brinker

James Rosen has had a distinguished career as an artist and lecturer. Educated at Cooper Union, Wayne State University, and Cranbrook Academy of Art, he has taught at the University of Hawaii, the University of California - Berkeley, Augusta College, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He has exhibited widely and his works are in collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the Whitney Museum, and the Ashmolean Museum. Influenced by artist Mark Rothko and art historian Meyer Schapiro, Rosen's work demonstrates his keen understanding of art history, mastery of form, and ability to imbue canvases with mystery. He is represented by Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco, and the Leyton Gallery, St. John's, Newfoundland.

MOCRA is fortunate to have over 100 Rosen works either in its collection or on long-term loan. His work has been included in many of MOCRA's group exhibitions over the years and never fails to draw appreciative comments from visitors. In Fall 2010 MOCRA presented The Artist and the Capable Observer, a solo exhibition that included work from the 1950s to the present, offering viewers the opportunity to observe Rosen’s visual journey through paintings, watercolors, drawings, and prints.

In this wide-ranging conversation with host John Launius and MOCRA Director Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J., Rosen discusses his childhood in Detroit, his friendship with art historian Meyer Schapiro, the development of his distinctive wax/oil-wax emulsion painting technique, and his use of "veils" to camouflage his images.

We are also offering a short segment, not included in the podcast, in which Rosen uses the metaphor of swimming to describe his painting technique.

Listening Guide     Jump to Audio Extra: "The Artist as Swimmer"
Rosen, commenting on the term "capable observer," says that he holds something back in creating his works, so that "the painting would be painted to be completed by the observer." He says, "I had in mind always that the observer should be part of it, and I was the first observer."

Rosen uses the Aristotelian term entelechy in relation to this practice. Entelechy, as defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica, is "that which realizes or makes actual what is otherwise merely potential." Read further about entelechy in this article from Wikipedia.

Rosen was a frequent visitor to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) as a child. He mentions two works that he discovered there.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Albert Pinkham Ryder's The Tempest (1892) can be explored on the DIA website. Ryder, perhaps best known for his painting The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse), lived from 1847 to 1917, and produced moody works with allegorical subjects. Read more about Ryder on Wikipedia.


Charles Demuth, Rosen also saw Charles Demuth's 1927 painting My Egypt in a traveling exhibition at the DIA (the painting is in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art). Demuth (1883 - 1935), was known for both his watercolors and oils, and moved in creative circles with artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Charles Duncan, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin, and writers including William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Eugene O'Neill, and Wallace Stevens. Read more about Demuth on Wikipedia.


Rosen mentions two of the artists he studied with at The Cooper Union. Franz Kline (1910 - 62) is a major figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement in American painting. Learn more about him on the Museum of Modern Art website

Less well known is Nicholas Marsicano (1908 - 91), who taught at The Cooper Union for 42 years. He was friendly with Kline, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Raoul Hague, and Phillip Guston,  and his students included Eva Hesse and Milton Glaser. Read more about Marsicano on Wikipedia.

Rosen mentions in passing the great French Neoclassical painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780 - 1867), whose output included about 450 exquisite portrait drawings. Read more about Ingres on Wikipedia.


Meyer Schapiro (1904 - 96) was a major figure in twentieth-century art criticism. He took an interdisciplinary approach to the practice (he himself was well versed in both medieval and modern art), and he focused on "style" (meaning an artwork's formal qualities and visual characteristics) as a key to interpretation. Learn more about Schapiro on Wikipedia


Fr. Dempsey references a quotation from Rosen emphasizing setting aside an "ample reserve" for the observer in a work of art. Rosen draws on two sources here: the Hellenistic Jewish scholar Philo, and the Biblical book of Genesis.

Philo (20 BCE - 50 CE), active in Alexandria, Egypt, attempted a synthesis of Jewish biblical exegesis and Hellenistic philosophy. Among his writings is a a commentary on the story of Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his brothers but later became the second-in-command to the Pharaoh of Egypt. Joseph achieved his position by interpreting a dream of the Pharaoh; his counsel to set aside one-fifth of the grain harvests for seven years resulted in a sufficient stockpile for the nation to endure seven succeeding years of famine.

Learn more about Philo on Wikipedia. Or, browse a collection of Philo's writings, including the commentary on Joseph and the work recommended to Rosen by Meyer Schapiro, "On Flight and Finding."

Rosen also mentions the Classical Greek sculptor Polykleitos (5th c. BCE), who composed a treatise (or Kanon) laying out a model for representing the human form in sculpture based on ratios and symmetries of individual parts to each other and to the whole. Read more about Polykleitos on Wikipedia.


Giotto, Fr. Dempsey describes his first encounter with Rosen's painting at the exhibition Concerning the Spiritual: The Eighties, at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1985.

The work that caught his eye was an homage to the Ognissanti Madonna, a work by early Italian Renaissance painter Giotto (1266/7 - 1337), who helped to reintroduce a sense of naturalism to Western European art. The Ognissanti Madonna is a massive altarpiece painted on panel, over 10 feet in height. It now resides in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. You can see a larger image here. Learn more about Giotto on Wikipedia.

James Rosen, Madonna Enthroned, 1982Rosen's 1982 homage to this work, titled Madonna Enthroned (pictured at left), is in the collection of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive at the University of California - Berkeley.

A similar work mentioned by Fr. Dempsey, the Homage to Guido da Siena: La Maestà, can be glimpsed in this installation view of the The Artist and the Capable Observer exhibition at MOCRA. Also, read this MOCRA blog post about the uncanny presence of the work even while crated. (The source work can be seen in the Wikipedia entry for Guido da Siena.)


Marsilio Ficino (1433 - 99) was a significant humanist philosophers of the early Italian Renaissance, noted especially for his recovery of the works of Plato. Read more about Ficino, and find links to his works, on Wikipedia.

Ficino was not the first philosopher to build on the thought of Plato. Plotinus (c. 204/5-270 CE) is considered to be the founder of Neoplatonism, a school of philosophy that had a strong influence on pagan, Gnostic, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic thought in the centuries to come. Read more about Plotinus on Wikipedia.

The writings of Plotinus were organized after his death into a collection called the Enneads. Central to his thought is "the One" or "the Good," a First Principle of reality  that transcends all Being, containing no division, multiplicity or distinction. Everything else (created reality as we experience it) emanates from the One. Each emanation (and subsequent emanations from earlier ones) is an imperfect reflection of its source.  Explore the Enneads online here.


Rosen discusses how he came to meet Leonard Bocour (1910 - 93). Bocour founded Bocour Artist Colors in New York City in 1932 and became a paint supplier to many notable artists, including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland. Read a transcript of a 1978 interview with Bocour in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

Rosen distinguishes between the cold wax/oil emulsion product Bocour provided to him (similar to the product described here) and the more typical encaustic painting practice, in which pigment is added to heated beeswax (as described here).

Miscibility is a property of liquids that allows them to mix completely and form a homogeneous solution. An emulsion is a mixture of two or more immiscible (unblendable) liquids.

Yaddo is an artists' community located on a 400-acre estate in Saratoga Springs, New York, that offers offers residencies to professional creative artists.

Ad Reinhardt (1913 - 67) was an American painter who explored a number of styles but is perhaps best known for his square Black canvases from the last decade of his life. Learn more about Reinhardt on the Museum of Modern Art website.

Morris Louis (1912 - 62) was also an American abstract painter. Read more about him on the Museum of Modern Art website.

Joseph Stella (1877 - 1946) was an Italian-born, American Futurist painter. He is best known for depicting industrial America. Read about Stella on the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh website.


The Camouflaging Society of Sonoma County published a slim volume in 1971 titled, The qualities of camouflaging: that relation of man's workmanship to his perception of the world. This being an account of the experiences of the Sonoma County Camouflaging Society including a historie-geographie and field notes. A WorldCat search shows that it is in the holdings of several Art History and Museum libraries.


Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 - 89), a Jesuit priest, was among the most innovative poets of the nineteenth century, with his metrical development called "sprung rhythm" and striking use of language and imagery. Read more about Hopkins on Wikipedia.

Rosen refers to Hopkin's concept of "inscape," which relates to the individual essence and uniqueness of every physical thing. Hopkins in turn drew on the thought of medieval theologian and philosopher Duns Scotus (c.1265 - 1308). Scotus coined the term "haecceity" to denote, according to Wikipedia, "the discrete qualities, properties or characteristics of a thing which make it a particular thing. Haecceity is a person or object's 'thisness'."

Read more about Duns Scotus on Wikipedia.


Fr. Dempsey is referring to the uncanny way in which the Madonna's eye seems to capture the gaze of the viewer. This MOCRA blog post describes the experience.


North transept rose window at Chartres CathedralThe thirteenth-century Chartres Cathedral is famed as one of the best-preserved examples of French High Gothic architecture. As Rosen notes, it is particularly famed for its stained glass windows. Read more about Chartres Cathedral on Wikipedia.


Don Emblen (1918 - 2009) was a poet and teacher. He was honored as Sonoma County's first poet laureate. Read a remembrance of Emblen by author Joan Frank.

Audio extra: The Artist as Swimmer

Rosen is commenting on his 1974 painting Homage to Grünewald: The Isenheim Altarpiece. The sixteenth-century source work by Matthias Grünewald is among the best-known depictions of the crucifixion, and certainly among the grisliest. Yet in Rosen's homage, the details of the suffering are veiled and the body, while still conveying a sense of torturous pain, dissolves like wisps of incensing rising in sacrifice.

Isenheim Altarpiece at the Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France

James Rosen, Homage to Grunewald (1974)

Discover more about the Isenheim Altarpiece (1512 - 16) on the Unterlinden Museum website.

James Rosen, Homage to Grunewald (1974), detail

This detail shows the upraised arm of Christ described by Rosen. The oil-wax/oil emulsion technique used by Rosen often leaves little visible evidence of his brushstrokes.

This podcast is made possible through the financial support of the Regional Arts Commission.  Regional Arts Commission logo

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