Seymour Rosen Biography

Seymour Rosen[i]

“There is something out there.”

With these words Seymour Rosen, Founding Director of the nonprofit organization SPACES, helped to introduce the world to the aesthetic genre of art environments[ii]—a genre that now has become broadly recognized, respected, and the subject of numerous exhibitions, films, articles, and books. In many ways Rosen was a most unlikely candidate either for parenting the institutionalization of a genre or for amassing and archiving the tens of thousands of documents, photographs, and ephemera associated with it. Nevertheless, he pursued legitimizing, preserving, documenting, and protecting these arts for some fifty years, until his untimely death in September, 2006 at the age of 71.

Born on the west side of Chicago in 1935, Seymour moved with his parents to Los Angeles in the early 1950s; his older brother, Jerry, was in the military in Germany at the time. “The 50s [were] a perfect time for a youngster of 17 to come to Los Angeles,” Seymour wrote, and, invigorated by the “new tastes and smells” as well as by “novel forms of creativity,”[iii] he asked his brother to bring him back a German camera. “No one knew what impact [Seymour] would have in the photographic community once he had a camera in his hands,” Jerry later wrote.[iv]

Rosen attended Phoenix University in Los Angeles for a couple of years and also informally apprenticed to the noted photographer Marvin Rand. Rand had been photographing Simon Rodia’s Towers in the Watts section of Los Angeles, among other subjects, and suggested that Seymour try to photograph them himself. At his first attempt, Rosen walked around and around, finally snapped three photographs, and then gave up; remembering this occasion later, he described his surrender to the Towers’ intensity as “falling in love.” Seduced by their beauty and undaunted by their complexity, he was to return again and again for fifty more years, and his photographs of the Towers have become some of the most iconic—as well as historically valuable—images ever made of these spectacular constructions. Although he was drafted shortly thereafter and sent to Korea, this experience had already determined the path for his life’s work. [Fig: Christmas Card, 1963]

Upon his return, Rosen became a photographer for the seminal Ferus Gallery, and his images of some of the most important figures in the contemporary art scene of that time continue to be referenced and reproduced.[v] He pursued his ongoing documentation of the Towers as well, and these images were soon complemented by his expanding interest in popular, creative, and folk arts of all kinds. He captured images of custom hot-rod cars, store-front churches, street happenings such as the “love-ins” of the sixties, parades, murals, neon signs, graffiti, and gang signs, reveling in the boundary-busting aesthetic expressions of those who would never describe themselves as artists. Above all, however, was his fascination—in his words, “obsession”—with the art environments, and he worked diligently in support of Rodia’s masterpiece he was beginning to be aware of the fact that other art environments—numerous others—existed elsewhere as well.

In 1962 Rosen was given his first major solo photographic exhibition, Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts, at the Los Angeles County Museum; this was followed four years later by the exhibition I am Alive, designed to “stimulate awareness of the creative and celebratory events of the life of Los Angeles.”[vi] Anxious to expand an experiential approach to the arts among the young, he became instrumental in establishing the Junior Art Center in Barnsdall Park; there, he developed curriculum and exhibitions, taught, and established an archive. He and his colleagues invented imaginative ways to stimulate creativity, using, among other media, lasers, holograms, and inflatable objects, along with the more standard paints and clay.

In 1971-72 he was given the opportunity to travel the state of California thanks to a National Endowment for the Arts grant to Studio Watts. For the first time he investigated beyond the urban areas of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and realized that the “extemporaneous individual acts of people declaring their existence” were universal, but, as so many of them were ephemeral, they were also almost universally unrecorded in a consistent manner. A second trip in 1974, sponsored by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, led to an exhibition of popular arts, In Celebration of Ourselves, that included over 700 photographs as well as materials from 34 California art environments. Most of the images and objects on display illustrated events, people, and arts that had never before received museum exposure. Rosen later published a book with the same title (1979) that documented the range of works included in that noteworthy exhibition.

Rosen’s passion for photographing these wide-ranging arts, as well as for “saving and sharing,” organically evolved into a multidisciplinary accumulation that piled up in his apartment. Plastic wind-up toys were humorously juxtaposed with boxes of photographs, increasing numbers of periodicals and books, clipping files, and objets d’art. This material—particularly the 22,000-some photographs—became the basis for the SPACES (Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments) archives, formally incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1978. The original members of the Board were Director Rosen, Vice President Allen Porter, Secretary Penelope Kullaway, Treasurer Ruth Baker Bricker, and Counsel John B. Sherrell.

Rosen conceived of SPACES as a national (and, later, an international) organization that would be concerned with the identification and preservation of large-scale art environments. From the very beginning, he included advocacy as a major responsibility, although, naively, in an early newsletter, he confessed that “we expected to be out of business in five years—after interesting groups of people around the country to take responsibility for sites in their own area.”[vii] Nonprofit status enabled SPACES to seek grant support, and it did receive significant early funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the L.J. and Mary C. Skaggs Foundation. Too, it provided a bully pulpit from which Rosen and his changing staff of volunteers could act as liaisons on behalf of the art environments to governmental agencies, in order to increase credibility and visibility for the sites, if not necessarily guarantee their eternal protection. Among his most important contributions was the successful application for California State Landmark #939 in 1978, an innovative and open-ended approach to this designation that defined a statewide historic district ultimately including ten unique and widely-dispersed sites. He worked with other national groups such as the Kansas Grassroots Arts Association[viii], and helped to form new ones, such as the Preserve Bottle Village Committee in Simi Valley, California, and the Orange Show Foundation, in Houston, Texas. Recognizing that some of the same issues arose time and again, he developed workbook materials to help communities advocate for and preserve their local sites, even “at the 11th hour when ‘the bulldozers are at the other end of the block.’”[ix]

Rosen never ceased to feel the need to convince others of the importance of art environments, and thereby the need to protect them—sometimes from the very communities that they sought to honor. Out of this concern came surveys on the records of exhibitions that included these works—seen by some 1,500,000 viewers, by his count, as of 1986—an impressive number that would serve to “counter statements like, ‘Nobody knows and nobody cares about this stuff.’”[x] He contacted all fifty state Offices of Historic Preservation and Arts Councils to make them aware of art environments and SPACES’ work on their behalf. He developed a survey meant to amass information for his newly-initiated computer database on the environments, as well as a survey of the states to determine which had mechanisms by which the artists themselves could be recognized. He was thrilled when Nevada’s first Governor’s Folk Art Award went to Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder (Frank van Zandt).

Although other private and some public archives do exist, SPACES has now become recognized internationally as the largest and most complete archives on this subject. As the founder of this nonprofit, Rosen was invited to serve on the board of directors of Raw Vision with its inception, and from its first issue in 1989 contributed often to its pages. In 1992 he was honored by the Folk Art Society of America with their Award of Distinction for his “pioneering work in the field of environmental documentation and preservation.”

Seymour Rosen died much too soon, yet he left clear directions on the tasks and responsibilities that his organization faces in future years. As the new Director, I am working with the Board to carrying on Seymour’s vision, and to perpetuate the preservation, documentation, and research on art environments as best we can.

Seymour could be crotchety and sarcastic, condescending and bossy, but he did an extraordinary thing with his life. Although not alone, he truly can be credited as one of the very few people who defined and clarified an entire genre of art. He celebrated the idiosyncrasy and the obsession, the boundary-breaking, paradigm-ignoring, wonderful excesses of these artists, and through this he has indubitably—and perpetually—changed our cultural landscape.

~Jo Farb Hernández


[i] Much of this text was originally published as an obituary in Raw Vision 58 (Spring 2007): 34–37.

[ii] Rosen himself used the term “Folk Art Environments.” However, this implies work linked to a collective heritage, reflective of shared standards and aesthetics, and transmitted across generations. In contrast, the work of builders of these monumental structures is more often based on a unique personal aesthetic; therefore, I now consistently drop the “folk” from the genre description.

[iii] Seymour Rosen, “Career History,” 1986. Unpublished papers, SPACES archives.

[iv] Jerry Rosen, Eulogy, October, 2006.

[v] See, for example, Robert Dean and Roberta Bernstein, Ferus. New York: Gagosian Gallery, 2002.

[vi] Seymour Rosen, “Career History,” 1986. Unpublished papers, SPACES archives.

[vii] Seymour Rosen, “Now We Are Seven,” SPACES Notes on America’s Folk Art Environments. Number 2 (1985): 1.

[viii] Incorporated a few years prior to SPACES, the KGAA is the oldest organization in the country devoted to the preservation and study of art environments.

[ix] Seymour Rosen, “On Preservation,” SPACES Notes on America’s Folk Art Environments. Number 8 (1988): 1.

[x] Seymour Rosen, “Who Cares?” SPACES Notes on America’s Folk Art Environments. Number 4 (1986): 1.