Barbara Rossi, artist and educator, died peacefully in her sleep on August 24, 2023.
Born in Chicago in 1940, she had planned on becoming a Catholic nun and attended Saint Xavier University. After graduating in 1964, Rossi decided that she wanted to become an artist and started taking classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1968. There, she procured “stream-of-consciousness drawings that seemed to start of their own accord,” as she said to David McCracken in an article in the Chicago Tribune in 1991. Similar to psychic and spiritual revelations that she felt in Catholicism, she painted as if it were a spiritual calling.
There were times when critics called her work “cartoonish” or “surrealist,” and though they aligned with those descriptions, Rossi’s paintings defied perspective, traditional shapes and labels. She called this “form invention” and even taught a class dedicated to this genre. “Making images with more than the eye sees,” Rossi once described in an interview.
Though she had mostly been drawing and painting from what she felt was magic, a teacher at SAIC pointed her in the direction of the Chicago Imagists, surprised that she had not heard of them. Alongside Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke and Ray Yoshida, Rossi joined a 1968 annual showcase of local art where she happened to be placed beside some of these artists. When seeing her work near Yoshida’s and Suellen Rocca’s, Rossi proclaimed “Oh! I would like to know these people!”
In the seventies, her paintings grew out of the canvas and onto transparent plexiglass, where meanings of perspective and landscape came into question. To paint onto transparent plexiglass, one has to do so in reverse, which means a more precise and meticulous process. (Some of these plexiglass paintings were recently exhibited at the New Museum, New York, in an exhibition titled “Poor Traits,” curated by Natalie Bell.)
Rossi found inspiration everywhere. She traveled extensively to India and even amassed a collection large enough to publish a book, “From the Ocean of Painting: India’s Popular Paintings 1589 to the Present.” She also published “Eye Owe You,” from photographs she took of hand-painted signs and vernacular landscapes, notably ice cream cones and shops that inspired her paintings.
Artist Thu Kim Vu, a former student and advisee of Barbara Rossi at SAIC, tells me that Rossi influenced how she thought about lines, shapes, forms and perspective. “She was teaching me that doodles are drawings, and how to think about the physicality of the painting.” After being taught traditional landscape painting in Vietnam, Vu learned from Rossi the possibility of inventing form and being playful with her work. “You need to draw with paints, not painting,” was something that Rossi would say.
Lisa Stone, former curator at the Roger Brown Study Collection, says that she would want to be remembered as much for her art as for her education. She inspired many students, and many of them even worshiped her. Speaking with former students of hers, they tell me that she never shared her opinion during student critiques, she simply observed and suggested. She was devoted to education, following the lineage of artists and educators such as Helen Gardner, Kathleen Blackshear, Whitney Halstead, as well as her own professor Ray Yoshida. Lisa Stone adds that Rossi had “no hierarchy for appreciation.”
Barbara Rossi’s collection will be housed at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center at the Kohler Foundation. Her original art has been placed in permanent collections at the National Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Fine Art Boston, Milwaukee Art Museum, Crystal Bridges, Columbia College, Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art, Plains Museum, Birmingham Museum of Art, Boise Art Museum, Denver Art Museum, DePaul Art Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art.