Phrases like “statistical sampling,” “crowdsourcing” and “time-series graphs” aren’t usually germane to a discussion of fine art and paintings on canvas. But artist Diane Rosenblum, whose work draws upon concepts and methodologies that hark back to Silicon Valley technologies, has delighted in pushing boundaries since childhood.
“When I was 11 or 12 years old,” the San Francisco native recalls, “I made my first painting on canvas in art class at Marin Country Day School. I painted yellow and orange squares descending from a green horizontal bar running along the top of the canvas to a blue horizontal bar at the bottom. Some adults on a school tour came to the art room, and one said how remarkable it was that among all the students’ paintings, one of them — mine — was an abstract.”
SFMOMA and LACMA are among the institutions that own pieces by Rosenblum. One of her most thought-provoking works is a series called A Measure of Art, for which she did a deep dive into the teachings of Edward Tufte, pioneer in the field of data visualization. Each print in the series is a representation of the dollar value of sales at auction, over time, of the works of a particular well-known contemporary artist, such as Damien Hirst or Edward Ruscha. Bar charts and data points distributed along x and y axes are among the aesthetic tools Rosenblum uses to communicate the fluctuating market for the artist at hand, while also cleverly appropriating his or her style. Each of the works in the series is visually striking in itself, but once a viewer has the “key” to understanding the meaning, the experience becomes deeper.
“Few artists integrate financial or statistical models into their artistic process, or make work that relates to business and markets,” she says. “At some level, the history of art can be related to the history and desires of the wealthy class. What is it that they want to show? And how is it that they express power?” At this particular moment in history, it is data that represents power within society, so data itself is a focus of her work.
Diana Daniels, who was curator of contemporary art at the Crocker Art Museum when Rosenblum’s work was first acquired for its collection, recalls the relevance of her art in the context of the zeitgeist of the Bay Area as a technology hub. “There was so much growth in apps and how we consume information. I thought it was genius how she was mining data and using it with a careful eye to artistic merit. When you have really effective displays of quantitative or qualitative information in charts and graphs, there’s a beauty to it. That’s what you see in Diane’s work in that series.”
Rosenblum studied history at Oberlin College, in addition to studio art. She continued her studies earning a master’s degree at the (now-defunct) Brooks Institute of Photography in Ventura, which she recalls as “a very technically oriented program that got me thinking not only about light but also about chemistry.” It also made her decide to pursue an artistic career rather than commercial photography.
During her time in Southern California, she frequented museums and can point to exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles that influenced her work, including Richard Wilson’s 20:50, an installation piece, which Rosenblum describes as a “a vast raised pool of motor oil.” At LACMA, she was also moved by the transcendental experience she had with three friends in a James Turrell light installation, recalling, “We sat on the floor for a long time as the color of the light around us changed and we stared off into infinity.”
Staring off into far skies in search of interesting formations to photograph came later, for her series Clouds for Comment. She first posted her cirrus and cumulus sky pictures to an online (“in the cloud” as the expression goes) gallery, soliciting viewer comments. Then when it came time to print, she selected some of the more eccentric or thoughtful comments and superimposed the crowd-sourced words onto the image.
In 2016, she began collaborating with noted abstract illusionist painter Joe Doyle (who died last year). The two had met years before when they were independently working with large-format digital prints on canvas. “He saw one of my prints on canvas at Rubars, a stretcher bar business in Oakland, and asked them to introduce me to him,” says Rosenblum. The duo’s series includes paintings and photographs modified with computer technology and 3D imaging software. “Collaborations among visual artists are rare,” she reflects, “especially between a man and a woman a generation apart.”
Rosenblum was selected in 2018 to participate in Takt Kunstprojektraum, an artist residency program in Berlin, which she calls “an inviting and comfortable city with a dark history.” She rode her bicycle over cobblestones past remnants of the Berlin Wall to visit local artists’ studios. “It’s like reading living biographies. The aesthetics of the Bauhaus — a grit to the minimalism and a willingness to experiment in that city full of artists — is there for the taking.”
Minimalism as well as visual allusion to mathematics and music notation can be seen in her spare Snap Chalk Drawings, which she creates by pressing a charcoal-dipped string against paper in parallel horizontal lines, measured by eye. To some images she adds vertical lines, and the canvas thereby becomes … a grid, a meeting of the visual vernacular of the left brain and right brain. “Geometry and structure are my fundamental visual language, the way I think,” she says. “It’s always been the case, but now I have a richness of experience and feeling that I bring into the geometry.”