Barbara Rossi, 1973. Courtesy of Mary Baber.
While completing her bachelor’s degree at St. Xavier College, Barbara Rossi reinforced a childhood commitment to her Catholic faith. After her graduation (1964), Rossi decided to also dedicate herself to the pursuit of an artistic career. In 1968, she enrolled in a master’s program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC); she completed her degree in 1970.
Rossi’s association with other artists referred to as Chicago Imagists may have begun in 1968, when she was included in the Exhibition by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity. This exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago included works by Gladys Nilsson, Suellen Rocca, and Ray Yoshida. Soon afterward, Don Baum, director of the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC), invited Rossi to participate in the exhibition Marriage Chicago Style along with Sarah Canright, Ed Flood, Suellen Rocca, Ed Paschke, and Karl Wirsum. Soon afterwards, she was included in another HPAC exhibition, Chicago Antigua. During her involvement with the Chicago Imagists, Rossi created paintings that resembled portraits in that the artist’s organic shapes were assembled around a central point, often mimicking a stray eye or nose.
While completing her master’s degree at SAIC, Rossi studied with the printmaker Vera Berdich and became highly skilled in intaglio printing, even making quilts that incorporated her intaglio designs printed on fabric. While a student, Rossi also began to develop what would be a lifelong interest in Indian vernacular devotional paintings. She especially admired Moghul artists’ precise coloration and treatment of space. In the 1980s, Rossi took a sabbatical from painting and teaching and traveled to India to research Indian vernacular painting traditions, eventually publishing From the Ocean of Painting: India’s Popular Paintings 1589 to the Present (Oxford University Press, 1998).
Through her dedication to her process, Rossi nurtured her own personal vision in her artwork. In 1972, she became interested in reverse painting on Plexiglas, a practice that involves painting precise lines and uniform fields of color. On this surface, Rossi paints large, flat areas of color accentuated by pointillism beads. She identifies these works as “sweat works” due to their involved process that does not allow for revision or overpainting. The converse of Rossi’s “sweat works” are what she calls her “magic works”: drawings that unfold from the artist’s subconscious. In an interview at the time of her 2016 retrospective at the New Museum in New York, Rossi reflected on her process for “magic works” saying, “I would start in the middle of the page and make a drawing that was relatively small, and I gave myself the rule of not erasing anything or making any changes, and when I was satisfied with the form at the center, I would begin attaching something that was different from what was drawn first.”
Rossi began teaching at SAIC in 1971. She lived and worked in the Chicago area until a recent move to Wisconsin.
Rill Roller (1976)
colored pencil and graphite on paper
Before her career as an artist, Barbara Rossi, who was a nun, gained the Vatican’s permission to enroll in a graduate level painting program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1968. Given Rossi’s early focus, it comes as no surprise that her work as an artist reveals a practice of devotion: the meticulous lines and patterns that emanate throughout her complex abstractions are time-intensive labors of love.
The act of drawing remains a meditation for Rossi, allowing her to get lost in the Zen-like, repetitive movement of pencil on paper. Her drawings are not planned, nor do they have a predetermined end. She starts with a small pattern, then builds upon the original form, resulting in an outgrowth of figural abstraction. Her drawing practice is also philosophical: she doesn’t erase any lines; instead she incorporates mistakes into the final composition. Rossi notes that life is like that: “You don’t get a chance to erase.”
After receiving her master’s degree in 1970, Rossi experimented with both textiles and printmaking while continuing to paint and draw. In her graphite and colored pencil drawing Rill Roller (1976), a network of knotted lines and patterns form an abstract landscape with passages of playful figuration. Humming along the horizon line is a tiny vehicle. Its knotted wheels move across the page as steam pours out and over its hood before assembling itself into a woven textile grid. The title Rill Roller could be a reference to a printing machine equipped with two rollers that apply patterns to flat surfaces. The large knot in the upper left appears to flatten the horizon line while the car supplies the printed pattern that is fed into the machine. A “rill” is also a geographic formation, a shallow channel through which water flows; this association suggests both landscape and navigation. Distinct from interpretation, Rill Roller is an optical journey of discovery through soft pattern and a labyrinth of lines allowing the mind to wander and engage in the simple, yet pleasurable, act of looking.