Robert Rosenblum was a magnificent imp of the art-historical perverse. On December 6, this intellectual rabble-rouser, a man behind so many revisionist ideas that are now so much a part of the mix that you don’t even notice them, died at the age of 79. For more than 40 years, to the horror of many academicians and museumheads, Rosenblum deftly played the part of art historian–cum–rebel angel. He reshuffled the deck of art history, undermined orthodoxy, and twisted the clean linear progression of modernism, occasionally laying new track.
In 1967, Rosenblum linked abstract expressionism to 19th-century landscape painting rather than seeing it as the logical outcome of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In 1975, he literally wrote the book, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, connecting artists like Caspar David Friedrich and Augustus Tack to Mark Rothko and Clifford Still. In 2001 Rosenblum wasn’t alone in masterminding the Norman Rockwell retrospective at the Guggenheim, but he may have been the only one who truly loved the artist.
Rosenblum’s modus operandi was “Only subvert!” He knew the art world was embarrassed about modernism’s messy ancestry. Rosenblum looked for and found stylistic skeletons in every art-historical closet. This m.o. wasn’t merely an exercise in relativism. Rosenblum’s archaeological approach was a reminder that history is teeming with styles and subjects, that art comes from all manner of aesthetic DNA, and that we have no way of knowing what will look good in a hundred years. In his entrancing, roguish way, Robert Rosenblum was the Charles Darwin of revisionism, a cagey, promiscuous thinker who played a game of revival of the fittest.