Orderly lines form at Rothschild retrospective

During her long career as a sculptor and painter in Baltimore, Amalie Rothschild developed a distinctive take on geometric abstraction. You can follow the arc of that career in a gallery-filling retrospective at Towson University's Center for the Arts Gallery.

Rothschild (1916-2001) was familiar with various approaches to 20th-century modernism and responded in her own way. Henri Matisse's 1935 oil painting "The Pink Nude," which belongs to the Baltimore Museum of Art's Cone Collection, directly inspired two works by Rothschild in the present exhibit.

Following through on Matisse's treatment of a reclining nude woman as a schematic pink form, Rothschild's acrylic painting "Pink Nude" (1983) only relies upon a few pink rectangles and thin bars to suggest a woman's body; however, this painting also has two cast handmade paper domes strategically and humorously placed where the woman's breasts would be. For a related sculpture, "Pink Nude" (1984), Rothschild applied acrylic paint to pieces of particle board linked together to resemble a reclining nude, and she also tied pieces of string to connect the limbs.

If the reductive figuration of a French master such as Matisse was one art-historical influence, Rothschild also responded to American influences following her education at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

You can sense the influence of the so-called American Scene rural painting of that era in Rothschild's oil painting "Abandoned Quarry" (1938); the sensually curving lines deployed to show the landscape around the quarry are especially evocative of the style of Thomas Hart Benton. The more straightforward urban realism also prevalent in that period can be seen in Rothschild's "Slum Clearance" (1941), in which two boys climb a fence at a demolition site in a rowhouse-defined Baltimore neighborhood.

It's interesting to see how Rothschild gradually moved away from standard realism over the next few years. In the oil painting "Red Sun" (1948), that glowing orb hovers over a city neighborhood in which the walls are blocky forms and there's an equally schematic treatment of a fire hydrant and a traffic signal.

The oil painting "Portrait of Me (Self Portrait with Crossed Arms)" (1948) emphasizes Rothschild's angular shoulders and arms. Sharp lines also are used in the more overtly cubist-influenced oil painting "Figures/Life Class" (1946).

This increased reliance on geometric abstraction can be seen in the oil painting "Construction Patterns" (1953). Its depiction of the metal frame for a building under construction essentially is a study in lines crossing at orderly intervals. Even a "Keep Out" sign treats those words as linked lines.

The acrylic painting "Ripening of the Oranges in Sicily" (1968) is a first-rate example of how she relied upon a gridded composition that allowed for both structural variation and representational allusion. Most of this composition is given over to blue and black triangular shapes, but their size and arrangement varies within the gridded composition. There also are 16 orange spherical shapes that qualify as the titular oranges.

Rothschild's inclination to take representational form down to its abstract essence also can be seen in many sculptures in this exhibit. In the bronze sculpture "Embrace II" (ca. 1960), two slender human figures are so elongated that their embracing forms basically merge; indeed, their feet actually are fused together. There is more breathing room, if you will, in the straight, diagonal and arcing bronze rods comprising the two figures in the bronze sculpture "Pas de Deux" (1989-1993); all it takes is a bronze circle to represent a head in this sculpture.

Her reductive tendencies and art-historical curiosity come together in several sculptural pieces inspired by ancient Egyptian art and architecture. In "Shrine-4 Part Invention" (1969-1970), geometric forms made out of aluminum are arranged on a pedestal to create what amounts to a temple complex that includes a pyramid. By selectively applying pieces of pale yellow Plexiglas to this sculptural assemblage, she suggests bright desert light hitting its surface.

A number of more purely geometric sculptures that don't directly reference ancient Egypt are made out of a characteristic combination for this artist: lowly particle board and valuable gold leaf. Her careful craftsmanship makes such unlikely sculptural mates seem like a natural pairing. And in the process of making such sculptures, she made a career that richly deserves this retrospective treatment.

"Amalie Rothschild: A Retrospective View" remains through June 16 at the Towson University Center for the Arts Gallery, Osler and Cross Campus Drive in Towson. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Go to http://www.towson.edu/artscalendar.

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