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Art Exhibit About Rosenbergs Tours Country

March 18, 1989

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) _ A year before Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for spying, Pablo Picasso did a lithograph of the couple to raise money for their legal defense.

Dozens of artists since then have been moved by the life and death of the Rosenbergs, who in 1953 became the only Americans ever executed for espionage after they refused to confess to helping the Soviets get atomic bomb secrets and were convicted of conspiracy.

A collection of 59 works by Picasso and other artists, from the 1950s to the 1980s, is touring the country in an exhibition titled, ″Unknown Secrets: Art and the Rosenberg Era.″

″There’s still an ongoing controversy. There are still questions,″ said Randy Ploog, assistant curator at Pennsylvania State University’s Palmer Museum of Art, where the show was scheduled to open Sunday in the fourth of its nine stops.

Rob A. Okun, who organized the exhibit, said that even though the Rosenbergs were arrested nearly 40 years ago, a number of galleries and museums balked at showing the controversial works. ″I did have more difficulty placing the show than I thought,″ he said.

In a telephone interview from his home in Montague, Mass., Okun said he began looking for art relating to the Rosenbergs in 1985, with a half-dozen names supplied by Robert Meeropol, one of the Rosenbergs’ two sons who is a friend of Okun’s.

″The artwork of the Rosenberg era serves as a visual diary of one of the most horrific political events of the 1950s,″ Okun wrote in a book that accompanies the exhibit.

″I wanted to raise the issue that artists can effectively address social and political issues in their art and have it be good art,″ he said.

Okun found art relating to the Rosenbergs from the United States, Mexico, Sweden, Holland, Germany, Italy and France - all of it sympathetic to the couple. He also asked contemporary artists to do new works about the couple.

Picasso’s lithograph is a simple, flattering dual portrait of the Rosenbergs. But most of the other works in the exhibition are more directly political, portraying the couple as scapegoats or martyrs, or as an example of an unjust government.

French artist Fernand Leger’s 1952 silkscreen ″Liberty, Peace, Solidarity,″ shows the Rosenbergs with a dove between them.

In Alex Gray’s 1987 work ″In Memory of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,″ two goat skulls hang on a canvas shaped in the Star of David. An American flag fills the canvas and covers the goat heads.

In Karen Atkinson’s 1987 ″Era After Era″ pictures of events such as a Ku Klux Klan rally and an atomic bomb explosion are placed on a map of the world where they occurred. A picture of the Rosenbergs is placed above New York state.

Okun said he could not find any art that was not sympathetic to the couple.

″My personal opinion is that they were framed, that they were the most severely treated victims of a dark time in our history,″ he said.

Meeropol, who was 6 when his parents were executed and is now an attorney in Springfield, Mass., said they continue to evoke strong images because they never confessed.

″Their refusal is what made them powerful,″ he said.

After the exhibit closes here, it will travel to the University of Colorado Art Gallery in Boulder, opening June 8; Installation Gallery in San Diego, Sept. 8; San Francisco Jewish Community Museum, Jan. 7, 1990; Spertus Museum of Judaica in Chicago, May 21, 1990; and Aspen Art Museum, Sept. 20, 1990.

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