Sculptor fills movie theater balcony with friends

By James Auer of the Journal Sentinel staff
March 3, 1999

If you're a friend of sculptor Adolph Rosenblatt, chances are you're looking forward with extra special excitement -- not to mention a touch of anxiety -- to the opening of his latest solo exhibit, "My Balcony, My Vision, and Other Works," from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Charles Allis Art Museum, 1630 E. Royall Place.

The excitement has to do with the first public showing of Rosenblatt's most ambitious sculptural project to date: his replication of a movie theater's balcony. The anxiety is a byproduct of knowing that he has populated "My Balcony" with persuasive caricatures of dozens of family members and pals.

Yes, this columnist is one of them. Rosenblatt invited me to sit over a year or so ago and shaped me with ferocious energy in clay, which he proceeded to fire, then paint with accuracy and pitiless vigor. The ample jowls, the snowy hair, the ruddy complexion, the rumpled jacket and trousers -- all are there, in perpetuity.

Fortunately, I'm just one of more than 80 unfortunates -- oops, I mean lucky subjects -- from all walks of life who inhabit Rosenblatt's personal movie house, watching, more likely than not, an art film with a British accent. It's Rosenblatt's most amazing achievement to date -- more complex, even, than his "Oriental Pharmacy."

I happen to like this sort of populist art. Its roots are in shared experience and communal emotion. Yet it has an expressionistic individuality that dubs Rosenblatt a free spirit and genuine original. Not for this professor of art the idealization of a Remington, the sensuality of a Michelangelo or a Rodin. Rather, Rosenblatt pays homage to age and experience, sagging muscles and creaking joints. He prefers to sculpt his "David" three or four decades after his peak, when his biceps have said, "Bye-bye," and his abs are sadly absent. Adolph treasures the wrinkles and creases that testify to living, loving and, maybe, giving.

As Suzanne Rosenblatt, Adolph's wife and a published poet and performance artist in her own right, notes in her introduction to the exhibit, Rosenblatt talked about doing the piece for years but finally got around to starting it in August 1996. His first subjects were two visitors from Israel, his cousins Ada and Avrahm. Once the cousins had been done, the project took off. "He intended to sculpt 25 or 30 figures," reports Suzanne, "but he kept running into people he wanted to include and kept adding lumber to enlarge the sculpture's stand." Finally, he realized somebody was missing: himself. So he asked Narendra Patel to model him.

"I'm not sure why he didn't try a self-portrait," Suzanne Rosenblatt says. "Perhaps it's because he never sculpted sitting down and doesn't watch movies standing up, so he'd have to do a bit of a dance to sit posing and stand sculpting. He actually does a bit of a dance, anyway, peers at his subject, gets close, walks around him or her . . . " I can testify to the truth of Suzanne's observation that Adolph turns the act of making a figure into performance art. He chatters animatedly as his fingers pull blobs of clay off a larger clump and shape them into your body, head and allied appendages. In a half-hour or less, a likeness -- "an aura," as she puts it -- materializes.

Later on, once the simple but lifelike figure created during the first session has been fired, the "sitter" returns to the studio, in the same outfit that he or she wore earlier, to be painted, again from life. In my case, the color of my jacket changed before my eyes, as Rosenblatt worked for ever greater accuracy. It was amazing.

The ineffable Adolph, 66, retires this summer after 33 years at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and his friends are hoping that one of his major works can go into a local museum as testimony to his remarkable gifts of observation and execution. Not a shabby idea, if only because it shows how a bright Manhattanite can move to a Middle American city and immortalize it.

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