ART/ REVIEW


FROM McCARTHY TO ASHCROFT
We Remember Art and the Rosenbergs
Puffin Room Gallery 435 Broome St.
Tues-Fri, Sun, noon to 7 p.m.
212.443.2881 Through July 20


The Rosenbergs and the post-9/11 era

By WICKHAM BOYLE

“The Children’s Hour” by artist Terry Berkowitz is featured in the show.

An art show currently on display at the Puffin Room Gallery fuses art and social commentary in a remarkably seamless exhibition.

The art assembled in “From McCarthy to Ashcroft: We Remember the Rosenbergs” is astonishing and the effect on the soul is chilling.

This exhibit presents work from the ‘50s to the present time and includes line drawings by Picasso done to raise funds for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and a Ferdinand Leger lithograph, originally intended to be printed as a scarf also to raise funds, but the Rosenbergs’ execution came too swiftly.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed 50 years ago after being convicted of treason on charges of selling atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. There is a wave of new research being done on the Rosenberg case — much of it pushed by the two sons that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg left behind –– who were raised as Robert and Michael Meeropol.

Whatever the final verdict of history on the Rosenbergs––and there is an emerging view that Ethel had no role in any contacts with the Soviet Union –– the paramount issue facing us in the first light of the 21st century is recognizing that personal rights, political dissent, and due process make up the cornerstone of democracy. When faced with an external threat, it is easy for government and society to forget that lesson. Sometimes the role of art is to free us to think the great thoughts about our role in society in order to shake us out of our complacency.

This show, sparely mounted with most of the pieces hung on the walls leaving a huge, clean wooden floor open for perambulation and thought, gives rise to this kind of critical thinking. One particularly compelling piece is “The Children’s Hour,” an audio and object piece done by longtime Downtown artist Terry Berkowitz. Berkowitz’s work features a child’s table and two tiny chairs collaged with newspaper headlines from the Rosenberg era. On the table are two small bowls containing red Jell-O and what may be pudding. If you sit on the tiny chairs, you can listen to a recording of the live radio broadcast from inside Sing Sing Prison on the night the Rosenbergs were electrocuted. The announcer is overwrought and takes the listener into that time and space as he gasps, “Ethel did not go as peacefully as her husband.” He then describes in horrifying detail that, thinking Ethel was dead, the attendants had released her from all the wires only to be told the execution had to begin again as she was not yet dead. The terrible power of motherhood holding a woman to life expressed itself.

“The murder of the Rosenbergs occurred in a climate of fear,” the artist Berkowitz said. “The fact that we commemorate the 50th anniversary of their deaths at this time is particularly poignant because we are as close to that same climate now as we have been since that time. The guilt or innocence of the Rosenbergs is not the point––even if they did pass information, the punishment far exceeded any crime they committed. I remember watching the McCarthy hearings with my mother when I was very young. I remember her railing at the TV in disbelief. I also remember the faces of Ethel and Julius, caught in the headlights of power gone mad. Today, hundreds, perhaps thousands, are being held against their will without access to justice because they may have had something to do with someone who did something. Their punishment is meted out without due process replicating the events of 50 years ago. It falls to us to speak out against the powers of evil that have taken full reign in this country at this time. We cannot allow them to continue to rein in our freedoms.”

Beyond Berkowitz, the show features the works of more than 20 acclaimed artists. There is also a catalog called the “Rosenbergs: Collected Visions of Artists and Writers,” in which Adrienne Rich so beautifully expressed the power of art to reflect history.

“Art can… take our unexpressed thoughts and desires and fling them with clarity and coherence on the walls, a screen, a sheet of paper, or against the long silence of history,” Rich wrote.


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