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Interview: Michael Ward-Rosenbaum

Sculptural Painting series by Michael Ward-Rosenbaum

1. Can you introduce yourself? Where are you from and where did you study art? When did you first become aware of the fact that you were an artist?

My name is Michael Ward-Rosenbaum. I’m from Philadelphia, PA. My BFA is from The Maryland Institute College of Art and my MFA is from The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. I’m not sure when I became aware. My earliest memories are of drawing underneath my grandmother’s kitchen table. My mother says I was drawing before I was walking or talking. It’s always been a part of who I am.

A work from 2015-2016 Painting series by Michael Ward-Rosenbaum

2. What was working for you when working on your paintings from 2015 to 2016? What was not working for you? Why did you change the visual language of and way of thinking towards your painting?

The works from that era were about exploration and spontaneity. They were fun. I learned a lot about painting from making those pieces but wanted to develop and refine the parts of my work that most excited me. I started to see paintings as constructed objects, not just images. That mode of thinking triggered a gradual and organic transition into the sculptural paintings you’re referring to. I didn’t Intentionally change the way I saw or made my work, I just followed my interests.

Sculptural Painting series by Michael Ward-Rosenbaum

3. What was the breakthrough moment when you realized that you were not interested in paintings as imaginary worlds but as physical objects?

Just to clarify, I’m not disinterested in the painted image. It’s just not what excites my studio practice right now. The absence of image is an obstacle that inspires me. There’s a lot to painting that isn’t about image. I want to explore that. Back in 2016 I made a painting that somewhat inspired this method of working. The face of the painting was a flat chalky piece of pink dyed canvas. The edges were frayed and it was adhered to the supports with thick globs of red acrylic paint that evenly oozed slightly over the edges. The sides of the canvas were thick, roughly 3 or 4 inches. I made the stretchers from recycled palate wood. The wood was a little warped and as a result the canvas wasn’t a perfect rectangle. The sides of the stretchers were painted with a green gradient. The painting felt more like an object with its own character. It was funky controlled chaos. It reminded me of a square watermelon. This sparked the new approach, I think. Maybe that’s when I realized there was more to my painting then just image.

Sculptural Painting series by Michael Ward-Rosenbaum

4. How would one see a sculptural painting differently than a flat painting?

I think that depends on the viewer. Personally, I like walking around a painting. Seeing the sides and edges of the surface. Trying to understand how the surface was constructed. I get excited about shaped canvases and works that engage physical space in ways that feel deliberate. I like thinking about scale and character. Maybe there’s more opportunity for those things in “sculptural painting”. Maybe all of those things are a distraction from the image in a “flat painting”. I’m sure the answer is different for everyone. What do you think?

Painting series by Michael Ward-Rosenbaum

5. On your website, the works listed under the title “Painting,” which is separate from Painting 2015-2016 and Sculptural Painting, shows small works featuring flat slabs of a rock or paint-like material. The absence of certain kinds of details typically to be visually consumed by the viewer entices the viewer to look more closely at the surface texture, the material quality, the light’s interaction with the surface, and the shapes that vary spatially based on the angle of view. What is the significance of your work in the age of Instagram and mass media, in which images are spammed at us 24/7?

That’s a multilayered question and I’m not sure where to start. I think you accurately described the works you’re referring to. Those slabs are actually sheets of purple foam. You can get it at home depo. I usually find it discarded on the street near construction sites. I like to carve into it or rub it against concrete to give it some surface texture. Then I paint it and adhere it to a canvas. I wouldn’t say it lacks detail. There’s a lot of detail, it’s just subtle.

I don’t really look at my work as being significant in the age of Instagram or mass media. The work is significant to me and some of my friends, peers and acquaintances. Most people see my work through a screen. I think that’s just a symptom of the times. It’s how a lot of people consume art these days.

Sculptural Painting series by Michael Ward-Rosenbaum

6. There appears to be a split within the public between the laymen and the art-educated crowd. The laymen cannot appreciate the kind of work that you make because s/he or they are used to the idea that art is Greek sculpture and Renaissance paintings. S/he or they may lack the knowledge of art history and theory in order to appreciate the kind of work that you create. How might your work survive something like a third world war or a people’s rebellion, after which there might not be an intellectual ecosystem to support works such as yours that require a certain level of inaccessibility and knowledge?

I believe the general public knows that art isn’t just Renaissance paintings and Greek sculptures. Personally, I think theres an entry point for everyone in my work. Sometimes I make drawings that look decorative. Other times I make colorful paintings that look playful. My wooden wall pieces are more conceptual but understanding them isn’t a prerequisite to enjoy them. Someone once bought one of my pieces and asked if they could use it to frame a photo of their grandchildren. It completely negated the point of the piece, but I didn’t mind. I thought it was endearing. That gesture seemed more important then what I was trying to do with the work. That was their entry point.

I’m not wondering if my work will survive a Third World War or a people’s rebellion. I’m moving out of my studio next month, most of my work won’t even survive that. I don’t make work to exist in an intellectual ecosystem. I make work because I have a drive to make work. My hope is that It inspires my friends and encourages them to follow their passion. For right now, that’s it.

Drawing series by Michael Ward-Rosenbaum

7. What defines art as art? Does the artist get to decide? Or the viewer? Or both? Is there some kind of negotiation between the viewer, the artwork, and the artist? Or does art define what is art, if art was truth, and truth were a person? Is art a purely human invention and experience? What about aliens?

That’s a big question. The answer changes all the time. Anything can be art, technically. Whether or not it’s any good is a separate conversation.

Sculptural Painting series by Michael Ward-Rosenbaum

8. For traditional paintings that depict visual images, there is usually a frame that accompanies the image, setting a ritualistic, man-made boundary that simultaneously designates the image as a work of art and declares the fictional, fantasy-based or imaginary space of the picture. Your work defies all of these protocols and declares that the frame itself is the work of art. You are essentially saying that life and the world outside the work of art are also a work of art. What do you think about this commentary, and is everything a work of art? Or does everything have the possibility to become a work of art?

At first my work addressed the construction of the painting surface. Then it addressed the frame. Through negative space, the work pointed at the wall it was hung upon. Presumably, the work would be hung in an art viewing space (gallery, museum, etc). The work is asking the viewer to consider the space. How does this space influence your perception of the work? I want people to explore the ideology of the gallery space. Now that the work has been featured in online exhibitions and in print, I hope it will pose questions about those spaces as well. I’m not saying everything is art. I’m just asking the viewer to consider the space that contextualizes the art they see.

Sculptural Painting series by Michael Ward-Rosenbaum

9. What are some visual and cultural influences that contributed to your sculptural paintings? For example, mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism or symbols of Christianity? Or even Piet Mondrian’s paintings?

The work of Robert Rymon and Carlo Scarpa. They’ve been the primary influences on the works you’re referring to, I think.

Sculptural Painting series by Michael Ward-Rosenbaum

10. Who are some of your favorite artists that directly influenced your recent bodies of work?

I’m focusing on a series of ink drawings right now. I’m not looking at anyone in particular. I’m mostly referencing my old sketchbooks. I’m trying to loosen up and let my hand make the marks it wants to make. Music is influencing the drawings more then anything. I’m listening to a lot of Bill Evans, Chet Baker, Adrianne Lenker, The Carter Family, Crumb, Vashti Bunyan, Young Thug and Playboi Carti.

11. Where do you go from here? Do you incorporate Arduino, Processing, and electronic components to introduce greater systems-based interactive aspects or mathematical outcomes? Or is less actually more? What do you think about the artwork of absolutely nothing by the Italian artist Salvatore Garau?

For me, less is more. At least for right now. I keep a nice pen in my pocket and several sketchbooks with nice paper in my backpack. Thats my go to right now. I still have all my saws and plenty of select pinewood on hand. I spend money on paint every other month even though I haven’t used any in three years. I know eventually the time will come. My practice changes every few years.

I don’t know much about Salvatore Garau. I think his invisible sculpture reminds me of Maurizio Cattelan's “comedian”.

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