University of Rochester

Rochester Review
May-June 2009
Vol. 71, No. 5

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Alumni Gazette

‘A Colorist Supreme’ Rosalyn Engelman ’78 (MS) celebrates ‘art as a continuum’ in her work as a painter and sculptor. By Karen McCally ’02 (PhD)

On a crisp January evening in Manhattan, several hundred art aficionados, club members, and guests of Rosalyn Engelman ’78 (MS) poured into the National Arts Club’s Gothic Revival brownstone at 15 Gramercy Park South.

The occasion was the opening of Engelman’s solo exhibition, Soul Memories, in the Grand Gallery of the historic venue for the arts.

Drawn from her work over the past 20 years, the event was the latest exhibition in the noted artist’s half-century-long career of successfully interweaving disparate artistic traditions in novel ways.

“Art is a continuum,” she says, “and I’ve been influenced by everything I’ve seen.”

Those influences include an expansive palette of artistic traditions, from the abstract expressionism for which she’s best known, to the Asian and Japanese art she focused on while at Rochester, to the Bauhaus tradition, which captured her attention as an undergraduate at City College in New York.

While it’s not unusual for painters to evolve in unexpected ways, Engelman insists all her influences remain alive in her work. The title Soul Memories, for example, reflects Engelman’s belief that each work is about memory, and that, in turn, “memory utilizes the past and brings it into the present.”

Although she has spent most of her life in New York City, in 1966 Engelman moved to Rochester along with her husband, Irwin Engelman, who had accepted an executive position at Xerox, and their two young daughters. Continuing her arts education at Rochester, over the next 12 years, she played the roles of mother, executive wife, student, artist, and docent lecturer at the University’s Memorial Art Gallery.

She also accompanied her husband on multiple trips abroad, including several to Japan, during which she fell in love with Japanese art. In particular, she was drawn to wood block prints called ukiyo-e, which Japanese artists began creating in the 17th century, as well as to the work of the painter and calligrapher Hon’ Ami Koetsu from the same era.

“I was struck by the fact that they suggest more than they show,” she says. “And my work is also suggestive.”

In a 2005 exhibit in New York, Echo Sonata, Engelman displayed 14 canvasses that melded Koetsu-inspired calligraphy, white, silver, and gold hues, and abstract expressionist composition.

Although she describes her work as “meditative,” and strove, in Echo Sonata, to create the sense of “sheer silk caught in a breeze,” in other works Engelman uses vibrant colors to create images that are visually arresting.

Art critic Edward Rubin, writing in New York Arts magazine, called Engelman “a colorist supreme,” who combines hues to elicit not only “peace and calm,” but also “love and joy.”

Another persistent theme in her work, however, is the suffering humans impose on one another. Engelman stresses the duality of human nature, “both the beauty and the sacrilege of the human soul.”

“As a child,” she says, “the atrocities of World War II were deeply ingrained upon my psyche.”

Raised by Jewish immigrant parents who arrived in the United States early in the 20th century, Engelman has written that “graphic newsreels and worries about family were part of my earliest consciousness.”

A centerpiece of Soul Memories was an installation called Dry Tears—a phrase Engelman borrowed from Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar” that memorialized the Nazi massacre of 33,771 Jews in Kiev over two days in September 1941.

The installation was initially included as part of a larger exhibition in 2008 at Hebrew Union College Museum in Manhattan’s West Village. An exploration of the Holocaust, genocidal wars in Sudan, Rwanda, and Cambodia, and inspired also by a U.S. State Department report on global human trafficking, the exhibition was “a harrowing cri de coeur that left no wound uncovered,” wrote the critic Rubin.

Engelman says her proudest achievement is her commission in 2000 from the World Court at The Hague to create the frontispieces for the two-volume Substantive and Procedural Aspects of International Criminal Law, the definitive collection of commentaries on law relating to war crimes and other crimes against humanity.

“I’m the only artist commissioned to do that,” she says. “And I feel this is my true legacy.”