We were introduced to Richard Rosenblum by Dr. Elias about a year ago. It was during a period in which we were intensely studying Chinese viewing stones. You can visit Dr. Elias’ web site Viewing Stone Association of North America. We had found a book that we wanted to purchase written about Richard Rosenblum’s collection: Robert Mowry. 1997. Worlds Within Worlds: The Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholar’s Rocks. A superb book but very difficult to find.
Mr. Rosenblum was one of the very early American collectors of Chinese scholar rocks and had a prolific collection. We thought you might be interested in his web site which can be found here: www.rosenblumcollection.com.
Let us forewarn you that the navigation on this site is frankly extremely difficult. It is flash-based, so likely will not work on an iPad (we really don’t like Flash) and the design of the menus make it labor-some to navigate around the site. Don’t let that discourage you though as there is excellent content to be found.
“In the Asian art world, Richard Rosenblum is famous as a collector of Chinese scholar’s rocks, but he was first and foremost a sculptor. He appreciated the works he collected for their beauty and their history, but he also investigated them with the sculptor’s eye for form, and most of all for the processes by which form was brought into being.
For over 25 years, Richard has been fascinated by a genre of Chinese literati art that, in his own words, “traversed the border between culture and nature.” His engagement with this art, which includes scholar’s rocks, root sculptures, and other objects fashioned from or emulating natural forms and materials, occurred on many levels. Ultimately, this engagement affected him throughout his being, transforming not only his approach to his own art, but informing his vision of the world. Last year, on the day before Christmas Eve, Richard raised a glass to his wife, Nancy, his daughter, Anna, and a small group of friends gathered at his home in Newton, Massachusetts in celebration of the completion of the manuscript of his new book, Chinese Art of the Natural World. The creation of his book, which had occupied him intensely during the last eight months of his life – even during the most devastating stages of his illness from cancer – was Richard’s best means of communicating the aesthetic insights and philosophical vision he had gained from his engagement with the art.
A prodigy who was making cast-bronze figural works by the age of eight, Richard was also an iconoclast: coming of age in the America of the 60s, he persisted in an investigation of the conceptual possibilities of the natural and the figural at a time when such things were hopelessly out of fashion. He wandered through three different art schools before resettling briefly in his native New Orleans, where he would sculpt all night and then go out for coffee to the art studios of nearby Tulane University, looking for aspiring Minimalists and Pure Abstractionists to pick rhetorical fights with. It was here that he met the sculptor Richard Fishman, a convicted modernist who became a lifelong friend and sparring partner in an ongoing, 35-year debate about art. “I thought Richard was a reactionary,” Fishman now says, “but he was a visionary.”
“Leonardo warned us that art divorced from nature is going up a dead end,” was one of Richard’s favourite admonishments. His dislike of pure abstraction was above all rooted in a conviction that the modernist sense of form failed to address the significance of the inherently abstract forms of nature. In Chinese scholar’s rocks he discovered an art which recognized and embraced the paradox.”‘Chinese rocks aren’t abstractions of anything,” he once said. “They don’t represent their formal qualities. They are their formal qualities.” Richard sensed that the formal elements of nature contain within them the code to a vast and rich conceptual universe, and in this understanding he came uncannily close to the views of the great masters of Chinese literati art. But the extraordinary thing about him is that he came to this understanding by his own path.
When Richard first discovered Chinese scholar’s rocks in the late 1970s, he was trying to solve a sculptural conundrum in his own figural work: how to create a volumetric sense of deep space though sculptural composition. Seeing photographs of Taihu garden rocks, Richard was fascinated by the way their perforated natural forms, isolated into art by the connoisseur’s eye, conveyed conceptual depth. He sought to learn more about Chinese ‘fantastic rocks’ (guai shi), and when he discovered scholar’s rocks on their mounted wooden stands he was doubly amazed. Recognizing that as essentially ‘found’ objects, scholar’s rocks spoke to the most radical aspects of modernism, he also found in their extraordinary, dynamic forms compositional echoes of the bronze figural sculptures he had been experimenting with. Richard just had to learn more, and that is how his collecting began.
Specialists have called the Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholar’s Rocks the largest and most comprehensive assemblage of traditional scholar’s rocks in the world. Richard has been credited with reviving interest in an art form that had in modern times fallen out of favour or fashion – indeed, had never been in fashion in the Western world – and for having re-established, however inadvertently, its importance as a collecting field. Far from being an esoteric art form, Richard always believed that Chinese scholar’s rocks, and indeed the entire ‘art of the natural world’ of which they were a part, held an open and direct appeal for a modern audience uncomfortably distracted and disengaged from nature, inhabitants of an intellectual ambience typified by Sartre’s view of nature as an irrational and alienating force (Richard loved to bring up Sartre’s description in his novel, Nausea, of how the contemplation of a ‘knotty root’ made his protagonist feel physically sick). As if to prove Richard’s point, a major exhibition of his collection, Worlds Within Worlds: The Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholar’s Rocks, recently completed an international three-year tour, and in the process generated an audience and an impact far beyond the bounds of the Chinese art world. Artists in particular were fascinated by it, and Worlds Within Worlds must surely be the only show of traditional Chinese art ever to have received a rave review by the modern art critic of The New York Times.
Richard’s intense and artistically informed scrutiny of the objects in his collection allowed him to see distinctions and understand principles that seemingly had been lost or displaced in the modern world. His sculptor’s gaze would crawl all over every aspect of the material, looking in the ‘darks’ for hints of patina, investigating the formations of texture. He was also determined to add to knowledge by using whatever tools modern science had to offer, and commissioned geological testing to help determine provenance of scholar’s rocks and radio-carbon testing of stands and other manufactured objects to aid in establishing a chronological and stylistic sequence.
But Richard’s investigations also moved beyond the surface, leading him to a discovery and understanding of interior conceptual worlds. It was as though he had been transformed through his gaze into a tiny presence walking through a vast landscape, like a figure in a Chinese landscape painting. This quality of perceptual transformation became central to Richard’s artistic endeavours. In his sculpture he began to make use of found natural materials such as tree roots and pebbles to create anthropomorphic figures seemingly in the process of transforming. He experimented with perceptions of scale and internality, making use of computer technology to create ‘cybermontages’ that attempted a further articulation of the concept of worlds within worlds. In the last several years he created a series of works he called his ‘identity pieces’, his own interpretation of scholar’s objects created from found materials from sources both natural and cultural. One of his favourite identity pieces was created by transforming a small, sea-pocketed root from a beach in Costa Rica into a scholar’s rock mounted vertically on a miniature stand.
To Richard, direct and playful engagement with the scholar’s objects he collected and the conceptual worlds they contained was his truest means of continuing the tradition of seeing and of making which they represented. There is much more to this story, and Richard has guaranteed our access to it by donating significant objects from his collection to The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Continued exhibitions of the main body of the collection are ensured by the commitment of Richard’s daughter, Anna, who shares her father’s enthusiasm for the art and who has assumed stewardship of the collection in keeping with his wishes. But most of all he has left us his book, which, when it emerges will be sure to illuminate or even to transform some part of our world’s inner landscapes.”
by Valerie C. Doran