When Arthur and Marilynn Rosenberg first brought home “Black King,” the couple wondered whether Fletcher Martin’s painting of a brooding boxer would clash with their collection of country French and English antiques.
They needn’t have worried.
“Once it went up, it never came down,” Arthur Rosenberg said. “It just became part of the family.”
“Black King,” painted in 1943, remains the crux of the Rosenbergs’ private art collection in Arroyo Grande. It’s also an essential part of the exhibition “American Scene: The Arthur and Marilynn Rosenberg Collection,” which runs through March 31 at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.
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According to Ruta Saliklis, the museum’s director of exhibitions, about 30 paintings will be on display.
“The poor Rosenbergs are going to have a lot of empty walls,” she said.
Arthur and Marilynn Rosenburg developed an appreciation for art as newlyweds in the 1960s in Europe, where Arthur spent two years stationed with the U.S. Air Force in Frankfurt, Germany, before returning to the United States.
“We said, ‘One day we want to own art,’ ” Marilynn Rosenberg, 71, said. “That didn’t happen until 20 years later.”
Eventually, the couple started spending time at Loring Gallery in Long Island.
“It was a like a social club,” Arthur Rosenberg, 76, said, with proprietor Rosemary Uffner holding court.
One day, Uffner brought out a dust-covered canvas from the gallery’s back storage bin. It was Martin’s “Black King.”
“That painting is probably the most important painting we own,” he said.
That acquisition sparked the Rosenbergs’ interest in the American Scene art movement of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Like their predecessors in the Ashcan School, American Scene painters such as Jerry Farnsworth, Marion Greenwood, Doris Lee, and Moses and Raphael Soyer specialized in social realism — using their artwork to shine a light on the lives of immigrants, minorities and others.
“Basically, they were trying to portray the working man with dignity,” Arthur Rosenberg explained.
Unfortunately, Saliklis said, the movement and its left-of-center politics had fallen out of favor by the time abstract expressionists such as Paul Brach and Pablo Picasso began arriving on the scene.
“In the eyes of the New York public, (those paintings) started looking a bit more old-fashioned,” she said. “Critics were becoming apprehensive of meticulous, skillful real-life painting.”
When the Rosenbergs started collecting in 1980, “the galleries were just nibbling at (the American Scene),” said Marilynn Rosenberg, who consulted a 1943 edition of “The Encyclopedia Britannica Collection of American Art” to create a “wish list” of the 12 artists she wanted to acquire. “We were able to buy major paintings by the artists.”
Over the next 14 years, the Rosenbergs made countless weekend trips to Manhattan to visit auction houses, art galleries, antique stores and estate sales. They combed through auction catalogs, searched The New York Times classified section and even subscribed to American Art Review magazine.
“Money was always a factor early on,” said Arthur Rosenberg, who worked as a dentist for 35 years. So he and his wife, a teacher, picked pieces that fit their pocketbook and their personal tastes.
“That was the only rule we had,” Marilynn Rosenberg said. “We both had to say we liked (the painting).”
Once, a New York Times listing led the Rosenbergs to a Sutton Place penthouse owned by diet guru Dr. Robert Atkins.
Paintings covered the walls of Atkins’ apartment and nearby office, Arthur Rosenberg recalled, with little breathing space between them. They ended up buying Nicolai Cikovsky’s “Ballerina,” which depicts a dancer with her back turned to the audience.
Answering another advertisement, the Rosenbergs found themselves attending a lecture by American Scene painter Mervin Jules at a Marxist-Leninist library in Manhattan.
“I told Marilynn as we went through the door, ‘Smile, because your picture was just taken by the FBI,’ ” quipped Arthur Rosenberg, who brought home a Cikovsky watercolor, “The Park Fountain.”
Although the Rosenbergs have discovered some gems over the years — including the study for Moses Soyer’s “Woman at a Sewing Machine,” currently owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art — not every purchase has been an instant success.
When the Rosenbergs and the owners of a West Haven, Conn., gallery purchased six paintings from the estate of Ben Benn, Arthur Rosenberg wound up with “The Bather,” a crude-looking nude.
“I ended up putting it in the closet (and) that’s where it stayed for another year,” he said.
Then, while visiting what is now Driscoll Babcock Galleries in New York, he saw a similar Benn painting hanging in the owner’s office and learned it was worth as much as $80,000.
“The Bather” came out of the closet.
As much as they cherish their collection, which is insured and protected by a security system, the Rosenbergs have only purchased one painting — Edward Millman’s “Depression,” depicting a dour couple — since moving to California in 1994. (They helped their son start an engineering business in Santa Clara.) They moved into their current home about nine years ago.
“(Collecting) was something we were able to do together,” Marilynn Rosenberg said, adding that the hunt was often as exciting as the purchase itself. “It always brings back good memories.”
According to Saliklis, the Rosenberg collection proves that almost anyone can be an art collector with enough luck, patience and resourcefulness.
“You don’t have to be a millionaire,” Saliklis said. “You can find a genre that fits your lifestyle and your budget.”
Opening reception and lecture Sunday
Arthur and Marilynn Rosenberg, will speak about “American Scene: The Arthur and Marilynn Rosenberg Collection” at 1 p.m. Sunday at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, 1010 Broad St. in San Luis Obispo. Ruta Saliklis, the museum’s director of exhibitions, will also speak. The collection can be seen now through March 31 in the museum’s Gray Wing. For more information, call 543-8562 or visit www.sloma.org.