MEYERS ROHOWSKY (1900-1974)
A painter, sculptor, and muralist, Meyers Rohowsky created realist, abstract, and semi-abstract imagery, resulting in evocative, imaginative, and often emotion-laden works derived from his experiences of the world and his interior life. In the mid-twentieth century, he was at the center of the New York art world, associating with artists from traditional as well as avant-garde contexts. Among his friends were Harry Bertoia, Philip Evergood, William Gropper, Robert Gwathmey, Riva Helfond, Helen West Heller, Herbert Kallem, Louis Lozowick, Louise Nevelson, Irene Rice Pereira, Ad Reinhardt, Philip Reisman, and Moses and Raphael Soyer. Rohowsky was also an art teacher, and he raised public awareness of art in New Jersey by serving for many years as president of the New Jersey Chapter of Artists Equity. He was on the organization’s national board and was chairman of the Association of Veteran Artists.[i] His work was presented in a retrospective in 1975 at the Montclair Art Museum, and he is represented there as well as in numerous other public and private collections, including Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine; the Museum of the City of New York; New Jersey State Museum, Trenton; the Albertina, Vienna; and Trinity Lutheran Church, New York.[ii] During his lifetime, his work was represented by the Roko and Chapman galleries, both in New York City.
Throughout his career, Rohowsky used the art world influences to which he was exposed not to emulate his peers, but to bring together his visual and emotive responses to his surroundings. In Maine Island Pines, ca. 1940, the shapes of pale evergreens are centered as if in a community-wide meeting. In NJ Structures, Sunset, ca. 1960, Rohowsky turned industrial New Jersey into a futuristic vision of mechanistic forms growing with organic vitality, in which tiny figures are cog-like. In Post Fire, ca. 1955, he channeled his grief at the fire in his studio in the previous year into an apocalyptic vision of smoldering industrial detritus under a dying sun. In Monhegan, Rocky Shore, ca. 1960, the island’s rock outcroppings are like sharp-edged jewels, keeping the viewer from the placid sea that melts into the sunset. Monhegan Rocks, ca. 1965 is more vital, as if combining the natural world with the stalactite-like shapes of magic rocks. In his iconic portrait of his wife, Dorothy, ca. 1955, Rohowsky uses flattened areas of colors in a stylistic manner similar to his friends, Milton and Sally Avery. Rohowsky’s sculptures similarly combine organic shapes, childlike fantasies, and symbolic icons.
Rohowsky was born in Norwich, Connecticut, and moved with his family when he was nine to Hartford, where his father was a machinist and his mother ran a grocery store. He began to study art in his teens at the Art Society of Hartford, where a classmate was Milton Avery. The conservatism of the Art Society led a group of students, including Rohowsky, to rent a loft in which to paint.
In 1916, after graduating from high school, Rohowsky enlisted in the Marines and was deployed to Santo Domingo, which was then under American occupation. There he watched out for German U-Boats but was appalled by the brutal treatment of the civilian population by the American forces. At the end of World War I, he traveled in the Caribbean and Mexico before moving to New York in 1921. That year, he was in the chorus line of Sigmund Romberg’s “Blossom Time,” a play with music by Franz Schubert. In New York, he pursued his studies at the Beaux Arts School and the Art Students League, while supporting himself by working as a cartoonist for the Fleisher Studios, which produced Koko the Clown cartoons and later Popeye and Betty Boop.
During the Great Depression, Rohowsky was employed by the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. At the time, he worked on murals with the Soyer brothers, Reinhardt, and Burgoyne Diller. During World War II, he again enlisted, and served in the 4th armored division, 3rd Army. Wounded during the Battle of the Bulge, he was sent to Paris. There, bearing a gift consisting of several cartons of American cigarettes, he introduced himself to Pablo Picasso, and the two communicated through drawings.
When the war ended, Rohowsky returned to New York, establishing his residence in the garret of one of the old Rhinelander brownstones overlooking Washington Square Park. His first marriage had lasted from 1923 until the Great Depression. He was married again in about 1935, and returned with his wife, Dorothy, to Europe in 1949. The couple traveled in England, France, Germany, and Italy. During the sojourn Rohowsky enrolled at the Académie Julian, Paris, and at the Graphische Lehr, Vienna, where he studied lithography. The result was a series of lithographs of miners in the coalmines of Metz, France. In Paris, Rohowsky and his wife were joined by Bob and Rosalie Gwathmey and met Georges Rouault, with whom he exchanged artwork.
After returning to New York in 1950, Rohowsky established a studio at 7 Washington Place, which he shared for a time with Reinhardt. On Thanksgiving Eve 1954, the studio—with a show of his work packed for shipment to Washington, D.C.—went up in flames. Afterwards, Rohowsky traveled to Mexico before relocating to New Jersey, where he continued to paint and conduct private classes. In 1957, Rohowsky’s work was exhibited in Bridgewater, New Jersey, where a reviewer commented on the cubist influences in his lithographs, his bold use of color in paintings, a Daumier-like social commentary in a genre scene, and a charming painting of city skyscrapers.[iii] In 1960 he began creating sculpture, first working in cast bronze and then in welded steel. At times, he produced bronze sculpture in the Brutalist style, using industrial found objects. At other times, his sculptural work was in a realist mode that was lyric and humorous. When Rohowsky’s sculptures were featured posthumously in 1977, in a three-artist show with former artist-friends, Michael Lenson and Louis Lozowick, a critic praised his varied “range of styles and approaches,” equating his work to the “imaginative gifts” of Paul Klee.[iv]
Over the course of his career, Rohowsky produced many murals and sculptures on commission from organizations including DeWitt Clinton High School, Bronx, New York; U.S. Naval Reserve, Whitestone, New York; Architects Display Building, Mountainside, New Jersey; Lockheed Electronics, Plainfield and Metuchen, New Jersey (with W. Carl Burger); Bloomfield State College, New Jersey; Calvary Lutheran Church, Cranford, New Jersey; Temple Israel, Union, New Jersey; Ridge High School, Basking Ridge, New Jersey; and New Providence High School, New Jersey. Rohowsky participated in numerous group exhibitions in museums and art centers. Among his awards are Sculpture Prize, Annual New Jersey State Exhibition, 1967 and Governor of New Jersey Purchase Award, 1969.
[i] Other organizations to which he belonged are the Mural Painters Guild; Associated Artists of New Jersey; and Audubon Artists Art Society, New York.
[ii] Rohowsky’s papers are being donated to the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
[iii] Frederic Cassin, “Westfield Artist’s Work Features Different Styles,” Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey), April 23, 1957, p. 8.
[iv] Anne Betty Weinshenker, “A Triple Excellence,” New Jersey Music & Arts 32 (March 1977), p. 19.
President, Artists Equity Association, New Jersey Chapter
Member, Mural Painters Guild
Chairman, Association of Veteran Artists
Associated Artists of New Jersey
Audubon Artists Art Society, New York
Selected Murals & Sculpture commissions:
DeWitt Clinton High School, The Bronx, NY
U.S. Naval Reserve Building, Ward Room, Whitestone, NY
Architects Display Building, Mountainside, NJ
Lockheed Electronics, Plainfield/Metuchen, NJ (with W. Carl Burger)
Bloomfield State College, Bloomfield, NJ
Calvary Lutheran Church, Cranford, NJ (baptismal font)
Temple Israel, Union, NJ
Ridge High School, Basking Ridge, NJ
New Providence High School, New Providence, NJ
Selected Group Exhibitions:
United States Information Agency, traveling exhibition of graphic art in post-war Europe.
1964 World’s Fair, New Jersey State Pavilion
New York City WPA Art, Parsons School of Design, 1978.
United States Senate Office Building, Washington, DC (revolving exhibitions during tenure of Senator Harrison Williams, Jr.)
Painting the Town, Cityscapes from the Museum of the City of New York, April 13 to June 23, 2000, Paine Webber Art Gallery, New York, NY.
National Academy of Design, New York, NY
Hunterdon County Art Center, Clinton, NJ
Whitney Museum, New York, NY
This is Our War, Artist’s League of America, Wildenstein & Co., New York, NY
Selected Public Collections:
Colby College Art Museum, Colby College, Waterville, ME
Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, NJ
Museum of the City of New York, New York, NY
New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, NJ
The Albertina, Vienna, Austria
Trinity Lutheran Church, New York, NY
Selected Prizes, Awards and Honors:
Sculpture Prize, Annual New Jersey State Exhibition, 1967
Governor of New Jersey Purchase Award, 1969
Selected Publications, Published Pictures, Catalogs & Reviews:
Architecture, The New Jersey Society of Architects, vol. 5, no. 1, illus. p 12, 1971
Art News, January 1947, p. 54
House and Garden, February 1962, p. 99
Lundy’s, Brooklyn’s Legendary Restaurant, Robert Cornfield, Harper Collins, New York, 1998, p. 85, illus. (portrait of F.W.I. Lundy)
Montclair Art Museum Bulletin, February 1969
New York Times Book Review, August 25, 1968, p. 5
Newark Star Ledger (numerous reviews of one-man and group exhibitions)
New Jersey Music & Arts, “A Triple Excellence”, vol. 32, no. 6, March 1977, pp. 18-19.
New Jersey Music & Arts, vol. 24, no. 7, March 1969, p. 13
New Jersey Music & Arts, vol. 18, no. 9, May 1963, pp. 15-16, 24.
New York City WPA Art, Then 1934-1943 and now 1960-1977, Parsons School of Design, New York, 1978, p 74, illus.
Our Town, Images and Stories from the Museum of the City of New York, Harry N. Abrams, New York, NY, 1997, p. 185, illus.