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A Lifelong Pursuit: Margo Newmark Rosenbaum Shares Vibrant Moments in Paintings and Photographs

"Woman in France with Many Cats"

Mainstays of the Athens music and art scenes, Margo Newmark Rosenbaum and her husband Art Rosenbaum have also been instrumental in documenting, preserving and celebrating American traditional music for the better part of half a century. Their shared interests have driven them to travel across the country in a quest to document ballads, blues, spirituals and fiddle tunes that may have otherwise been lost to history. Currently on view at the Lyndon House Arts Center, Margo’s new solo exhibition dedicates two separate gallery spaces to distinct bodies of work in painting and photography that explore her independent practice and other subjects more deeply.

Born in Los Angeles in 1939, Rosenbaum earned her bachelor of fine arts degree in painting at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she studied with Bay Area Figurative Movement artists Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bishoff. She later became interested in photography while pursuing a MFA from the University of Iowa. Grounded by the movement’s approach of abandoning Abstract Expressionism in favor of reintroducing more recognizable elements, her paintings center human, animal and sometimes even mythological subjects within domestic spaces. Background settings are reduced mostly to vibrant color blocks that distinguish architectural elements like floors, walls, windows and doors from one another. Though created over the course of several decades, the exhibition’s paintings are remarkably cohesive through a consistent use of an intense, saturated color palette and a loose narrative quality.

Margo Newmark Rosenbaum

“Most of my paintings are based on my stream of conscious; however, when I have been strongly struck by some event, I have felt compelled to make a painting using that subject,” says Rosenbaum. “For instance, when I was in France visiting an artist’s studio, after seeing his work, I went downstairs to his living room where his wife, who had been bedridden for two years, was sleeping. I happened to look up at her and saw an ephemeral image of her bust (head and shoulders) rise out of her, including the large hair roller she was wearing. The image then went down into her and rose again and then disappeared. Shortly after my seeing these events, her husband came downstairs to check on her and exclaimed she was dead. That experience deeply struck me, and I painted the painting ‘Woman in France with Many Cats’ to attempt to communicate the experience.”

Several of Rosenbaum’s paintings juxtapose moodiness with humor, such as “Portrait with Beagle”—which appears on this week’s cover of Flagpole—a painting of a woman covering her ears, as if in response to the framed portrait of a man playing an autoharp that hangs above her. “Woman with Dog” depicts a woman lying on the floor, feet propped up on a kitchen chair, as a dog hovers over her. It’s unclear whether the woman is restless and agitated, carefree and daydreaming, or perhaps even buzzed, but the viewer can choose whichever feels most relatable. Every painting includes at least one dog, cat, horse or bird, and these companions often coexist with dragons that add a mischievous, fantastical element. 

Margo Newmark Rosenbaum “Holding Fire” by Margo Newmark Rosenbaum

“The dragons represent thoughts that come to my mind when computers drive me nuts,” says Rosenbaum.

The Rosenbaums have spent much of their marriage and careers working parallel to one another on collaborative projects in which Art would record musicians as Margo photographed them. In addition to the Grammy Award-winning project The Art of Field Recording: 50 Years of Traditional Music Documented by Art Rosenbaum, her photographs have complemented her husband’s writings in Folk Visions and Voices: Traditional Music and Song in North Georgia, Shout Because You’re Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition on the Coast of Georgia, and The Mary Lomax Ballad Book: America’s Great 21st Century Ballad Singer. The exhibition at the Lyndon House is an opportunity to explore some of her lesser-known images. 

“I wanted to show some of my photographs that are of subjects that haven’t been displayed as much as the ones showing folk artists and musicians,” says Rosenbaum.

Many of the images included in the exhibition appear throughout the 200 pages of Drawing With Light: Photographs by Margo Newmark Rosenbaum, an intuitively arranged fine art photography book that was published in 2021. As the title indicates, Rosenbaum uses her camera as a tool for artistic expression, not unlike drawing with charcoal on paper. With an empathetic heart and a keen eye for composition, she documents the world as she sees it through unpredictable juxtapositions, subtle humor and a deep reverence for fellow creatives.

The gallery’s sequence begins with an early self-portrait, then comes full circle by ending with a self-portrait recently taken during the pandemic in which a mirror reflects the masked artist standing alongside a painted self-portrait that hangs in the background. What comes between is an assortment of experiences that offer a window into Rosenbaum’s life, such as a shot of Art reading a map in the car at a gas station—undoubtedly on a quest to somewhere off the beaten path—and a sunlit scene of Silver the cat perched on top of an armchair where a pair of banjos rest. Intimate black-and-white portraits of writer James Baldwin, painter Alice Neel, visionary artist Howard Finster and sculptor Edward Kienholz each represent special connections made over the years. 

Spanning over 50 years, Rosenbaum’s photographs collectively reflect a lifelong passion for observing and memorializing life’s unusual moments that make the ordinary extraordinary. Never seeming stiff or staged, her snapshots vibrate with life and have no shortage of stories behind them. Her paintings, likewise, are equal parts imagination and social commentary. Rosenbaum’s exhibition will remain on view through Oct. 7.

Update: Margo’s husband and longtime collaborator, Art Rosenbaum, died on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 4. Read here.