Category: Obituaries

Michael Rossman: All Of Us Or None

It is not likely that many people personally knew, or even heard of, Michael Rossman - yet for those even remotely interested in the alternative culture and politics that thrived in Berkeley, California in the late 1960s, Michael’s spirit looms large. I consider myself fortunate to have known him - however briefly - and to be able to say that he was a friend. He passed away at his wife’s home in Berkeley on May 12, 2008, at the age of 68, after a short but heroic battle with a rare form of acute leukemia.

Michael Rossman

[ Michael Rossman - Photograph by Lincoln Cushing, 2002. A candid shot of Michael working at his All Of Us Or None (AOUON) archive. ]

I first became aware of Michael while visiting the University of California Berkeley in the summer of 1984. While on campus I discovered Know Your Enemy, a small exhibit of Anti-Vietnam War Movement posters then showing at the university’s Heller Gallery. The poster display was curated by the All Of Us Or None (AOUON) archive. Later I asked some of my acquaintances in the Berkeley area if they had heard of AOUON, and I was promptly put in contact with Michael - who had founded the archives in 1977.

Michael invited me to his home where he gave me access to his remarkable poster collection. We became fast friends, talking until the wee hours of the morning about all aspects of poster making and collecting. He was an animated, passionate, enthusiastic, poet philosopher who could seemingly discuss anything under the sun with aplomb. Unsurprisingly he talked about the social history of posters with great expertise, but I was astonished at how naturally he discussed everything from science and literature to political theory. As a matter of fact, he taught science to school children during the last thirty years of his life. I remember our first get together ending with Michael pontificating on the joys of identifying and collecting wild edible mushrooms - complete with his detailed descriptions of various species of fungi.

By the time of Michael’s death, his All Of Us Or None (AOUON) archive had expanded to some 25,000 domestically produced political posters and flyers from the post World War II period. Aside from L.A.’s Center for the Study of Political Art (CSPG), and Lincoln Cushing’s Docs Populi archives, only the Hoover Institution maintains as large a holding of domestic posters from earlier eras (approximately 8,700), and of these, few are from the period Michael focused on in his collection). The core of the AOUON archive focused on the poster renaissance centered in the San Francisco Bay area from 1965 to the present. But the archive’s holdings are also national and international in scope, with one-quarter of its posters coming from outside of California and another 2,000 having been produced internationally. The breathtaking collection well represents all branches of America’s modern dissident cultural and political movements.

Poster - Can’t Jail The Revolution

[ You Can’t Jail The Revolution - Anonymous Serigraphic street poster 1969. Collection of AOUON. The following caption was written by Michael Rossman: "Urging support for leaders of demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention, the poster quotes a notorious news-photo of U.S. sprinters giving the Black Power salute on the Olympic victory stand. The image then evoked the lone Black defendant, bound and gagged in court. In retrospect, it reflects the impact of the politicization of sports, and the Left's fetishism of Black militance." ]

Over the years Michael and I kept in touch through casual correspondence and occasional pop in visits. In the late 80s he came to see me at my Los Angeles studio, where I donated a number of my early prints to his archive. It was during that visit that I learned of Michael’s prominent role in Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement of 1964-1965, as he relayed that history to me in his typically dynamic and energetic manner. When he was finished recounting the tale of America’s burgeoning student movement - I felt as though I had been there.

It was only a few years after Michael’s visit that director Mark Kitchell’s documentary film Berkeley In The Sixties was released. In my opinion it is the finest movie ever made about the protest movement of the 60s, and luckily for us all, Michael appeared in it as one of 15 veteran Berkeley activists whose interviews provided the narrative backdrop to the movie’s historic footage. Michael’s insights and observations helped to make Berkeley In The Sixties the superlative filmic treatment of the period that it is. In 1999 Michael also played a central role in establishing the online Free Speech Movement archive, another invaluable source for historians and activists.

Until just recently I corresponded with Michael by e-mail, exchanging dispatches on the state of contemporary art and its possibilities - but the e-mails stopped coming from him a while back. I knew that because of his failing health he had restricted his immediate contacts to family and the very closest of friends. Still, he managed to find the strength to stay in touch with his extended family through the use of his personal web log, where he kept his associates across the globe abreast of his deteriorating condition. He did so with surprising gusto and dignity, managing to turn his end into a learning process for all. What struck me most about Michael’s final days was the calmness with which he faced his certain onrushing death - he confronted it like a lion. I would add that type of courage to all the remarkable traits that were a part of this dear man, his intellectual curiosity, open mindedness, compassion, gentleness, and belief in humanity.

Without crudely idolizing Michael - goodness knows how I detest hero worship - I attest to his having been an exemplar amongst the veterans of the 60s “movement”. He was in fact the very embodiment of egalitarian counter-cultural ideals and values. Now that he is no longer around, and I need not worry about embarrassing him, I can say in all honesty that our greatest tribute to Michael Rossman would be to live like he did.

[ UPDATE: A public memorial will be held for Michael in Berkeley on Monday, June 23, 2008, from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, in Kensington. Everyone is welcome to attend. ]

Robert Rauschenberg 1925-2008

Robert Rauschenberg died at his home on Captiva Island, Florida on May 12, 2008, at the age of 82. Unquestionably there will be many eulogies written about the iconoclastic artist, and there’s not much that I can add in noting his accomplishments or his passing - save for the following. Rauschenberg always impressed me as being one of the more significant artists associated with the Pop Art movement, and my reason for feeling this is encapsulated in two well known quotes from him; “It is impossible to have progress without conscience” and “The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.”

Collage by Robert Rauschenberg

[ Signs - Robert Rauschenberg. Collage. 1970. The artist captured the apocalyptic 60s by depicting the oppression of African Americans, the war in Vietnam, the death of Blues rocker Janis Joplin, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. ]

Rauschenberg stood apart from his Pop Art colleagues in using his skills to draw attention to social and political issues. His art activism certainly had its shortcomings, nevertheless, his many attempts at fusing art with social concerns were noteworthy. During the course of his life he created artworks that addressed the issues of war, racial equality, nuclear disarmament, apartheid, economic development, artist’s rights, and environmentalism - themes that all too few of today’s artists seem willing to tackle. While mainstream accounts of his life and art will focus upon his being a modern art innovator - reducing his achievements to mere questions of style and aesthetics - we should not forget that Rauschenberg was also a citizen artist deeply concerned with how his art could help change the world for the better.

Collage by Robert Rauschenberg

[ Earth Day - Robert Rauschenberg. Collage. 1970. As an outgrowth of 60s activism, Earth Day was first proclaimed and celebrated in the United States on April 22, 1970, when some 25 million Americans rallied across the nation to demand a cleaner, healthier planet and an end to environmental destruction. Rauschenberg created this poster, the first of its kind, to popularize and celebrate the observance. At the time the American bald eagle, symbol of the nation, was endangered with extinction due to pesticides - so Rauschenberg made the bird the focal point of his collage. ]

Rauschenberg officially announced his Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange ( ROCI - pronounced “Rocky”), at the United Nations in 1983. It was a self-financed project that had as its mission the promotion of international peace and cultural exchange through collaborative art making. Under the auspices of ROCI, Rauschenberg visited and worked with artists in countries around the globe, using materials and skills found in each nation to create arworks that were donated to and exhibited in each host country. The culminating 1991 ROCI exhibit took place at the National Gallery of Art in Washington as part of the museum’s 50th anniversary celebration. The project would eventually visit 22 countries, including Mexico, Japan, Tibet, Venezuela, Germany, and Malaysia. It should also be noted that Rauschenberg’s ROCI project openly defied the Reagan administration’s Cold War policies by visiting the Soviet Union, Cuba, and China - but it would be in the South American nation of Chile where the artist would encounter the terror and dread behind the realpolitik of the Cold War.

In the book Robert Rauschenberg: Breaking Boundaries, author Robert Saltonstall Mattison wrote extensively about Rauschenberg’s harrowing and controversial days in Chile. On September 11, 1973, the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in a military coup engineered by the U.S. government - bringing the dictator General Augusto Pinochet to power. Thousands of civilians were executed or simply “disappeared” by the military, and the bloodletting was still going on in 1984 when Rauschenberg arrived in Santiago, Chile. The artist recalled, “Armed soldiers were everywhere, and I was startled by the sounds of gunfire in the streets.” Rauschenberg had entered the country for a fifteen day visit just as Pinochet had declared a state of siege to crush popular protests.

According to Mattison, Rauschenberg “traveled to Chile without fully realizing the degree to which the dictator Augusto Pinochet’s repressive policies were tearing the country apart”, a fact that points to the artist’s naiveté. Rauschenberg “soon encountered students and political activists. He often met them secretly in church sanctuaries, where they told him of friends and relatives who had ‘disappeared.’ As a result of these experiences and against the advice of his staff, Rauschenberg went on his own to the outskirts of Santiago to photograph everyday life in the slums.” To his credit, Rauschenberg refused to be seen as a representative or agent of the U.S. government, and he shunned State Department help in arranging ROCI project details. It should be recalled that at the time the Reagan administration was moving to normalize its relationship with the military regime of Chile.

Many pro-democracy proponents viewed Rauschenberg’s trip to Chile as inopportune, and Donald Saff, a ROCI staff member in charge of logistics, recollected: “I never experienced as much anger about any artist’s project with which I have been involved as about ROCI Chile. The reactions from friends, fellow artists, and others was absolute outrage that Bob would stage a show with Pinochet in control.” Personally I would have counted myself amongst the critics, but Rauschenberg saw his Chilean exhibit as a radical gesture that would eventually help to open the path to democracy. Perhaps it did, though I’m still inclined to think of the ROCI Chile project as a mistake and one of the artist’s political shortcomings. On the other hand, I can’t deny Rauschenberg’s obvious sympathies for the people of Chile as they struggled for a free and open society.

While tributes to Rauschenberg recall the boldness with which he toppled art world sacred cows, let’s not forget the spirit he displayed in navigating the treacherous seas of national and international politics. If more artists today were willing to acknowledge and address social issues in their works - we’d all be in much better shape.

Pele deLappe: RIP

Life long social realist painter, printmaker and activist, Pele deLappe (pronounced: “Peelee Dahlap”), died from a stroke on Monday, October 1st, 2007, at the age of 91. Ms. deLappe’s art captured the life and times of her native San Francisco during the depression years and beyond, but the universal humanistic themes addressed in her artworks also gave them an eternal quality. She remained active and productive as an artist until the very end.

Painting by Pele deLappe

Self Portrait - Pele deLappe. Oil on board? Date unknown.

Already sketching the people of her city as a precocious 14 year old, deLappe met Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera when the famed Mexican artists visited San Francisco in 1930. Rivera had been commissioned to paint murals for the San Francisco Stock Exchange and the California School of Fine Art (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Undoubtedly inspired by the couple and the experience of making drawings with Kahlo, deLappe traveled to New York to attend art school. When she returned to San Francisco in 1934 at the age of 18, she threw herself into the city’s maritime strike, contributing drawings and cartoons to the newspapers of striking workers, getting arrested twice while supporting the work stoppage, and making a series of portrait paintings depicting rank-and-file union members. It would be the beginning of a lifelong commitment to creating social engaged works of art.

Ms. deLappe’s 1937 lithograph titled, Street Scene, is a stunning example of her genius as a printmaker and social commentator. The depression era image depicts a well-heeled woman as she haughtily walks by a legless beggar and a rather tough looking dwarf, who’s counting the handful of change he’s earned from selling newspapers on the street. A nun can be seen in the background - totally indifferent to her abysmal surroundings. But it is deLappe’s composition and handling of the lithograph’s delicate tones and deep shadows that makes the print so hauntingly evocative.

Lithograph by Pele deLappe

Street Scene - Pele deLappe. Lithograph 1937.

If I’m not mistaken, Street Scene, was created at the art department of the California Labor School - an institution that in the 1940’s attracted artists like Pablo O’Higgins, Louise Gilbert, Giacomo Patri, and Victor Arnautoff. Faculty from the California Labor School founded the Graphic Arts Workshop in 1952, it was a studio that provided - and continues to offer - facilities and presses to artists interested in traditional methods of printmaking, from lithography to serigraphy (silkscreen). The California Labor School was forced to close in 1957 because of McCarthy era repression - but the Graphic Arts Workshop survived as an independent artist’s printmaking collective. In the late 50’s its artists were creating prints and posters in support of the growing civil rights movement, and in the 1960’s its members turned their skills towards opposing the war in Vietnam.

Another print that I believe deLappe created at the Graphic Arts Workshop is the 1998 lithograph, The Playground, New York City. Here the artist depicted a homeless man sleeping in a cardboard box in the shadow of multi-million dollar corporate office towers. A porn shop called “The Playground” can be seen in the background, its lurid signage advertising adult videos and peepshows.

Lithograph by Pele deLappe

The Playground, New York City - Pele deLappe. Lithograph 1998.

I’m delighted to say that works by Ms. deLappe are included in the exhibition, Pressed in Time: American Prints 1905 -1950, a remarkable exhibit now running at The Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Featuring 163 etchings, lithographs, woodcuts and silkscreen prints from 82 artists such like John Sloan, George Bellows, and Edward Hopper, the exhibit focuses on the period when American modernist artists expressed a progressive idealism and social activism through their art. It is a show that I will most definitely be reviewing on this blog in weeks to come. As fate would have it, Ms. deLappe was interviewed by the Huntington just weeks before her stroke and the opening of Pressed in Time. Her narrative will be included in the show along with her featured works. A detailed obituary for Ms. deLappe appears on the San Francisco Chronicle website.

Lithograph by Pele deLappe

Lost in America - Pele deLappe. Lithograph 2006. Created in response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Printmaker and current member of the Graphic Arts Workshop, Anthony Ryan, wrote to inform me that Ms. deLappe’s 1937 Lithograph titled Street Scene, was created while she was attending classes at the Art Students League of New York and not at the Graphic Arts Workshop. A must read article about Pele deLappe appeared in the 2002 edition of MetroActive. The insightful piece, published when deLappe was 86, was in part an interview with the artist. When asked how she found the sense of urgency to respond to current events, deLappe replied: “I don’t have a choice. I’m still alive and still part of society and still an artist. I can’t stop functioning in relation to other people. And - I refuse to take it lying down.”

In 1999, Ms. deLappe published her autobiography - Pele: A Passionate Journey through Art and the Red Press.

Carlos Cortez, Chicano Printmaker -RIP

The Struggle Continues - by Carlos Cortez

Famed Chicano printmaker Carlos Cortez died of heart failure this past January 19th, 2005, at the age of 81. Jailed for 18 months as a conscientious objector during the second world war, Cortez joined the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies”), in 1947. He drew illustrations for the IWW paper, The Industrial Worker, from the early 50’s until his last days.

As a resident of Chicago in the early 1970’s, Cortez was part of the Chicano mural movement that painted its visions of struggle and pride on the walls of the windy city. He switched to printmaking after being inspired by the works of the great Mexican printmaker, Jose Guadalupe Posada -and it would be for his woodblock and linoleum prints that Cortez became most well known. He co-founded Movimiento Artistico Chicano (MARCH), the first Mexican American arts organization in Illinois, in 1975.

Around that period Aztec elders gave Cortez the name, Koyokuikatl (Singing Coyote), and ever since the artist signed his prints with an image of a coyote. As a frequent exhibitor at Chicago’s Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, Cortez bequeathed over 100 wood and linoleum blocks to the institution. The museum’s president, Carlos Tortolero said of the artist, “As an arts advocate, he argued that art is essential to the human experience.”

Cortez was exhibited in galleries and museums from Mexico to Germany, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Remaining active to the very end, his last project was involvement in a traveling art exhibit and art book on the history of the IWW called Wobblies! -A Graphic History, organized by Paul Buhle.