HERE WE ARE NOW: The Ecology of Seymour Rosen and SPACES

The mid-to-late-20th century curator/photographer/preservationist Seymour Rosen is by today’s standards a forgotten figure in the history of Outsider and Folk Art. “Here We Are Now: The Ecology of Seymour Rosen and SPACES,” an exhibition curated by Brian Chidester and Annalise Flynn seeks to change that.

Rosen’s star first rose in the late 1950s when he became an assistant to the architectural photographer Marvin Rand and was active in the campaign to save the Watts Towers in Los Angeles from being demolished. Once successful, Rosen was given a solo show at the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA) in which to exhibit his photographs of the Towers, they being instrumental in the preservation effort.

In 1966, his cosmology expanded greatly with a follow-up exhibition at LACMA entitled “I Am Alive.” Here Rosen combined documentary photos of the Watts Towers with functional objects from everyday life, natural history specimens, experimental photograms, and artifacts from the environments themselves. More installation, in fact, than exhibition, he treated “I Am Alive” as an opportunity to break from curatorial tradition and by extension show that creativity was ubiquitous rather than the province of a specialized few.

By the early seventies, Rosen would apply his aesthetic eye to an ever-expanding field of art environments and vernacular subjects around the state of California, which allowed them to be seen as unique and beautiful. These included: shaped architecture, neon signage, mural art and graffiti, decorated vehicles, pageants, swap meets, parades, and many others. It culminated in the 1976 exhibition (and subsequent book) held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art entitled “In Celebration of Ourselves.”

Thereafter Rosen incorporated SPACES–Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments—as a repository of archival documentation related to artist-built environments, not just in California, but across the U.S. and around the globe. He also influenced a wave of popular books and exhibitions in the 1990s and 2000s on vernacular architecture and Californiana by new historians such as Jim Heimann, Alan Hess, and Sven Kirsten. Up until his death in 2006, he was actively committed to advocating for the preservation of artist-built environments, and in encouraging folklorists, art historians, critics, and others to join forces in “coordinated efforts of scholarship and preservation” through his SPACES newsletter and various personal correspondences. The work of SPACES continues, and the Archives are now a preservation project of the Kohler Foundation in Kohler, Wis.

“Here We Are Now” is an exhibition that rekindles Rosen’s exceptional production as an artist and also reflects his work through the ecology of subjects, objects, and influences which populated his pioneering curatorial efforts. It is produced by Gigi Spratley and Jack Waltrip: artists and friends of Rosen during the last two decades of his life.

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