Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NYC
Dan Rosenbaum was in Williamsburg before it was cool, way before it was cool, and he has the studio to show for it. I had the pleasure of talking with Dan in his studio, and gained some insight into his other-worldly canvases. The colors and textures used in work are intended to evoke the images witnessed only on the Astral plane- literally, in Dan's dreams. With an overwhelming calm, and spirituality grounded in his practice of Tai Chi, you'll find yourself nodding in agreement as Dan underscores the necessity of flying in your dreams. Don't believe me? Read on.
You’ve had an extensive career as a professional artist, how did you end up here?
Well, my father was an artist. You could say he inspired me, he taught me how to paint when I was ten or so. I was always the class artist, so I just rolled with it and by the time I got to high school I realized I didn’t want to go into academics, even though I was good at it. I went to the High School of Art and Design in New York, which at the time was a pretty good school, it was sort of like a college because everyone there came from all over the City. They had three or four art classes a day. From there I went to the Rhode Island School of Design for two years, got bored up there. It wasn’t really a painting school, the focus was more sculpture and architecture.
I moved back to New York and went to the Studio School for a semester and I got what they had to teach. I don’t know why people stay there for so long- I got the thrust of what they were trying to teach in one semester and left. People stay there for all kinds of times, I know a guy who was there for ten years. After that, I spent a year or two at the School of Visual Arts where I studied with Elizabeth Murray and Jennifer Bartlett. Then, I made a lot of money selling t-shirts one summer, and moved to Colorado. I moved to Denver and began studying Tai Chi there, and painting. I stayed there for four years, sold the business, moved back to New York.
I began teaching at the High School of Art and Design for three years, while I was getting my MFA at Brooklyn College, then I quit, and continued teaching art and working for non-profits for a long time. The whole time I was showing in different galleries, group shows and all that. I got a grant in 1996 for my drawings, drawings that were based on Superfund sites (pictured). People know what they are now, but when I did it nobody knew what the hell they were back then. I got into ceramics when I was in Colorado, and I started doing them massively as you saw in the other room (pictured). I got a show in SoHo and this Australian artist, David Rankin, saw them, and I started doing giant ceramic pieces for him. Actually, they were put in the World Trade Center in a hotel there, which went down with the towers, so my art was probably evaporated. Now I’m working on another series for a hotel in Australia.
So, what actually gives me the impetus to create art is kind of a mystery. It’s exploring. It’s like traveling, it’s sort of like being a scientist in a way, exploring different processes and materials.
You had mentioned in your artists statement that your work refers to lyrical abstraction, and moves beyond it- where does it take it?
I draw a lot from nature, and my experience travelling to different places. I am very intrigued by geological formations and ancient ruins, whether those formations are under water, or on top of mountains, or in rain forests, I combine the organic structure of those things with the spontaneity of automatic drawing, where they used to just spontaneously draw or paint- there’s a different word for it but it escapes me, it was a surrealist process that informed lyrical abstraction to some extent. Right now I combine aerial photography and map making, so you get a birds-eye view, which I actually I think was the early inspiration for the first kinds of abstraction. This comes in part from my dreams, because I often have flying dreams. I fly over the earth, and I see things in an abstract way because of that. Whenever I look at painting often, in a museum or gallery, even if it is realistic, I see it abstractly first.
Some of your work that will be shown at Seton Hall University uses imagery of man-made and natural catastrophes, where did this concept come from?
Well, they are usually aerial views. I’ve always been concerned with the environment because I’m very much into nature and I find that nature is sort of quickly leaving us. I like to bring attention to it somehow, and to celebrate it at the same time. The natural disasters seem to be piling up a lot these past 20 years- more than I can remember. And that seems to be happening with alterations of humans freedoms, so its like the weather is rebelling alongside the people.
Are the catastrophes or disasters that you reference handpicked for a certain reason?
I was attracted to Katrina because it was so botched by the Bush Administration, but generally I’ll research it and see if there are images that appeal to me. If there aren’t, I’ll skip it pretty much. With Katrina, I found that the Superdome complex had a very intriguing look from an aerial point of view. With the toxic aluminum spill in Hungary, it just happened to be in a beautiful location from an aerial perspective, the way that the ground was divided up into sections as farmland. I like making things beautiful, even if I’m working with a morbid subject. It’s about transforming ugliness into beauty.
Are the bright colors a deliberate choice?
Yeah- the traditional Renaissance or European colors, the earth tones and stuff just bores me to tears. I’m much more interested in the colors that you would see in a dream, or on an astral plane, or on another planet. You know, when the spacecrafts take those photographs of the celestial bodies, they have all those wild colors of the gasses.
Has topography in your recent work been something that’s always interested you?
It’s always interested me. I did a series a long time ago based on nautical maps that were from around the coast of the United States- those were collages, pretty large scale. I did those in the late 1970s. I’ve done all kinds of things with maps. The drawings that I got grants for were drawn right on maps. I was able to locate the Superfund sites within a couple of square miles that a topographical map usually covers, so it was a bit of research on my part, then I purchased the maps, and had some fun drawing on them (pictured). The lines of all of the maps make my mind see things, just like when you look at the clouds- you can see animals and figures. One of my things is that I’m constantly seeing figures in everything, anywhere from a crack on a wall to a splash on anything, my mind just starts seeing things. In a way, in my paintings I create Petri dishes for these figures to jump out from. So anyways, in the environmental disaster series, they start out as a social commentary, but they end up as an aesthetic experience for me.
Pure conceptual art doesn’t interest me. If I wanted to get some ideas, I’d read a book. Usually artists that are just conceptual people, they bore me. I believe that art is like a magical performance in a way, and what you are creating is akin to an African object. I’m imbuing the piece with my energy and my consciousness, so that it can reverberate a similar thing for other people if they can look at it in the right way. I’m hoping it’s a doorway for them to be able to perceive something they wouldn’t normally see. Whether it’s shifting planes, or shifting colors, or a figure or a landscape, whatever they are able to pull out of it, to me it can develop a person’s subconscious. All the arts are like yoga, if you do it in the right spirit it becomes a selfless activity.
Have you always been particularly spiritual?
Yes- I’ve had that bent. In part, because of my dreams, I haven’t really been able to avoid it. When you wake up in an astral plane, it’s not something you forget. It changes your life, permanently. It’s sort of like getting in a rocket ship and leaving the planet by yourself, and then when you get there the rocket ship is gone, but you’re still there. The first thing that went through my mind was “how the hell am I gonna get back to Earth? Because this ain’t it.” And it was pretty frightening actually. I experimented with the physics, flew around the room, and found that I got pretty good at flying in my dreams, and developed that as a reflex to escape from dangerous situations in my dreams, because you know, it’s not all positive out there. These creatures, some of them are pretty....just like it’s survival of the fittest on the earth, it’s survival of the fittest on the astral plane. If I hadn’t been a painter, I probably would have been a martial artist, a more serious martial artist.
How do the martial arts tie into your spirituality?
I’ve practiced Tai Chi for the past 30 years. In Tai Chi you’re working the spirit on a more physical level, where you’re directing, controlling, and developing the Chi in your body. The more you do it, the more it starts to affect your mind. I’m not sure how that works, but it does. I was fortunate enough to find an instructor who is extremely good. He met me the year before I got my back operated on, because I had scoliosis. He decided to teach me the inside of the form in that year, and I was very luck in that, he did a lot of body work on me, pulling the blocks out, and he’d shoot his Chi into me by doing shiatsu and acupressure, and it worked- I had a very successful operation.
What aspirations do you have for the future of your work?
Of course I’m interested in being shown in more galleries and in museums, but I can’t create work based on fads and trends to see what is selling to best, I just can’t do that. I mean I see whats out there, I know people that do. I guess it’s easier to sell out if you’re just interested in money. I’m interested in Tai Chi and to develop that way, so painting is just another tool for developing myself really. The fact that some people might want to buy it is great, but even if they didn’t, I’m doing it anyway. I’ve ordered my life around it. That’s why I have this loft. Painting has tempered me. My emotions used to be more extreme, now I’m mostly interested in being stable.