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In 1976, Art Rosenbaum took a position at the University of Georgia which permitted him to practice two of his passions: painting and folk music, pursuits that prioritize storytelling. Rosenbaum is accomplished in both fields. His art is represented in important public collections, and he has been commissioned to create several murals; he has also authored a number of books on the American traditional music with an emphasis on banjo performance. Novelist and playwright Len Jenkin paid his friend the following tribute in an essay for the catalogue of the artist’s 2006 retrospective, Weaving His Art on Golden Looms, presented by the Georgia Museum of Art: “Art Rosenbaum is a great American painter. Smart as hell, raw and beautiful, all heart, soul, and music.”

Born near the Canadian border in Ogdensburg, New York, Arthur Sparks Rosenbaum experienced a restless childhood as his father was a pathologist for the military medical corps. The family lived in Augusta, Georgia; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; and Patterson, New Jersey, before settling in Indianapolis, Indiana, at the conclusion of World War II. It was there that Rosenbaum took Saturday art lessons at the Herron Institute of Art, winning a blue ribbon at the Indiana State Fair in a student show at the age of fifteen. He immediately spent the twenty-five-dollar prize money on the purchase of his first banjo. After high school, Rosenbaum went to New York and earned a BA in art history from Columbia College (1960), followed by an MFA from Columbia University (1961). His art studies were nurtured by the city’s museums and galleries, and by an uncle who had an extensive collection of German Expressionist prints.

Rosenbaum supplemented his college coursework with a summer class led by Will Barnet at the Art Students League. A Fulbright scholarship funded a year’s stay in Paris, 1964–1965, and his enrollment at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière where he focused on drawing from live models. Between 1968 and 1975, Rosenbaum taught at the School of Art and Art History at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. A year later, he began a forty-year affiliation with the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia in Athens. During that time, he also taught abroad twice: in 1984–1985 as a Fulbright professor at the University of Freiburg in Germany and ten years later at DeMontfort University in Leicester, England.

In his 1961 exhibition for his graduate degree, Rosenbaum displayed both representational and non-representational paintings, the latter influenced by the brushwork of Philip Guston’s early abstractions. But in his mature work, Rosenbaum is more akin to Max Beckmann who painted powerful multi-paneled designs filled with individualistic imagery. Whereas Beckmann’s canvases tend to be dark, Rosenbaum’s radiate with rich colors, and whereas the German artist dealt with grim topics, his younger counterpart’s subject matter is more about the good life. Over the years, various critics have noted a resemblance between Rosenbaum’s work and that of American Scene painter Thomas Hart Benton.

Among Rosenbaum’s recurring images are banjo players, likenesses of students and friends, rustic landscapes, and nude couples. These vie for attention in multiple narrative vignettes invented by the artist, the whole of which is often unclear to the viewer. According to his late friend and fellow painter Philip Morsberger, “a typical Rosenbaum canvas is fairly teeming with figures, many of them specific portraits, often including the artist himself. Elements of landscape, of architecture, of still life (often musical instruments): all are presented in rich detail, but at the same time with bold and fearless brushwork. There is no dead space in a Rosenbaum painting. Something is going on everywhere one looks. Crammed with activity and information, which in lesser hands could lead to visual chaos, Rosenbaum’s work is always under firm control. The artist is a master of pictorial design.”

The visual intensity and dynamism of Rosenbaum’s canvases are enhanced by a particular technique comparable to the methods used by Venetian old masters. He first paints his composition in monochrome, followed by a wash of red pigment, then uses a series of transparent color glazes, slowly building the image until he applies the final colors in opaque paint. This process—which became Rosenbaum’s standard—results in vibrant, harmonious canvases characterized by “a warm inner glow” and a unity of “even the most disparate color combinations.”

Admitting that he “was a junior folky,” Rosenbaum took guitar lessons when he was about eleven. The first banjo player he recalls hearing was Pete Seeger (who later penned a foreword for Rosenbaum’s 1983 book, Folk Visions and Voices), and soon after he sought out other traditional players. He became a proficient musician and a well-regarded field researcher; his first book, Old-Time Mountain Banjo (1968), was proclaimed the most comprehensive survey of Southern banjo style ever published. A boxed set entitled Art of Field Recording Vol. I: Fifty Years of American Traditional Music Documented by Art Rosenbaum won a Grammy Award for Best Documentary Recording in 2008. 

In conjunction with the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Rosenbaum painted Athens-Northeast Georgia Olympics Spectrum, an imaginative array of local figures and iconography—fiddlers, face jugs, a gospel choir—depicted alongside gymnasts, basketball players, and track stars. Equally lively and colorful is The World at Large, a twenty-four-foot mural he created in 2001 for the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts at the University of Georgia. Rosenbaum was the first recipient of the Wheatley Professorship in the Arts at the university and in 2002 received the Governor’s Award in the Humanities.