Art in America, January 2003, p. 112                                         Back to Bibliography

Deborah Rosenthal at Bowery

Lance Esplund

Deborah Rosenthal's seventh one-person show at Bowery was her best yet, and one of the most compelling shows by a living artist I have recently seen. Rosenthal is a painter of abstract figures. Adam and Eve, inspired originally by the Romanesque tympanum sculpture of Eve on the cathedral of St. Lazarus at Autun, have been prominent in Rosenthal's work for over a decade. But she has consistently transformed her subjects, which feel extremely personal, into universal themes of poetry and myth.
      It is rare that an artist can work successfully in multiple mediums, and even rarer that an artist working in a previously unfamiliar form surpasses herself. Rosenthal did just that with a stained-glass commission permanently
Deborah Rosenthal: Episodic, 2000, oil on linen,
45 by 33 inches; at Bowery.
installed in New York's Ansche Chesed Synagogue in 2001. Included in the Bowery show were small studies for the two 5-foot-high abstract windows, one of a pomegranate and one of the tree of life, in which Rosenthal fused medieval and modernist traditions to create spiritual art of the highest order.
The current show, of easel paintings and conté drawings completed mostly in 2001 and 2002, moved away from religious themes. In the latest paintings, many of which appear to investigate familial relationships, heads and bodies are in constant states of metamorphosis and reflection. The mirror and the portrait are explored in paintings that collectively immerse the viewer in a brightly colored garden, where figures appear to blossom or to swim, to burn like torches or, like phantoms, to emerge.
      Rosenthal's surfaces vary greatly, and with each work she sets a different tone. Woman Inside, a beautifully stark painting in reds and greens, suggests an eviscerated figure, flora, vaginal openings and a portrait page in an illuminated manuscript. In the elegiac Gravestone of the Old Couple, impastoed reds, browns,grays and violets, scratched with line, reveal a carved dual portrait, the figures merged as one, on a grave stele. The surface is worn in feel, yet colors rise at times like sprouts or flames. The faces appear to be made of stones and letterforms, earth and flesh, architecture and memories.
      Episodic, an expansive field of blue in which enigmatic forms and faces are embedded or buoyant, has the frank frontality of a playing card. It is as fluid as choral music, and its shimmering, murky light ranges from dusty, Greek terra-cotta red to bubble-blown airiness. The part-to-whole quality of Episodic, with its doll-like masks, flora, vases and emblems, exists somewhere between a children's book, a game board and a living organism.           

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