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Friday, May 7, 2021

Doctor’s gift adds new flavor to USC art museum

A detail of Carlos Almaraz’s “Naked Jester” (1989), oil on canvas, from the collection of Dr. Eugene Rogolsky. Photo courtesy of Brian Forrest. 

Perhaps it was Dr. Eugene Rogolsky’s belief in the Hippocratic oath that he accepted in medical school. Or maybe it was because he learned from his parents — two Jewish immigrants from Poland who raised four kids during the Great Depression — to never give up.

Whatever the case, when patients showed up at his North Hollywood practice in the early 1980s with symptoms that were virtually undiagnosable, Rogolsky didn’t turn them away like so many other practitioners in his field had.

“We just didn’t know what it was. Nobody had seen it before,” he recalled.

“This was the height of the AIDS epidemic,” Rogolsky continued, one late afternoon at his Los Angeles home located on a steep hill just above Sunset Boulevard. “It was a terrible epidemic. You saw people in their 20s and 30s wasting away.”

One of those casualties was Carlos Almaraz, a Chicano artist who died in 1989 and was distinguished by his use of vivid colors and muralistic imagery. He gave Rogolsky two of his posters, one of which was commissioned by the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

“Carlos woke me up to art,” Rogolsky, a retired AIDS research clinic doctor, said of his former patient. “He was the beginning, and then I branched out, you could say.”

Those posters were just two of around 50 pieces of art that Rogolsky ended up acquiring over the years from Almaraz, and they are a small part of what has become an extensive art collection — more than 700 pieces that he is donating to the Fisher Museum of Art at USC. The exhibition introducing the collection, aptly titled, “A Generosity of Spirit: Celebrating the Gift of Eugene Rogolsky, M.D,” includes 140 pieces and runs from Sept. 13 to Dec. 3.

“I was concerned with what would happen to the collection,” the 87-year-old retired doctor said. “It took such a burden off my mind because there’s a relationship between you and the art. I am grateful to [be] giving the work a home.” (The museum will acquire the full collection after his death.)

His collection of contemporary art ranges from Chicano to Czech. The artists include Jiří Anderle, Elsa Flores (Almaraz’s wife) and Jerome Witkin.

Rogolsky’s living room is an exhibition space in itself. Paintings and sculptures adorn the walls; Afghan rugs cover the floors. All of this will ultimately be inherited by the Fisher Museum, a decision he came to following several meetings with Selma Holo, the museum’s director.

“This is a freeway scene painted on wood,” he said, gesturing to a massive painting by Uruguayan artist Arturo Mallmann hanging on his fireplace mantle. “Every time I look at it, I see something new.”

Rogolsky accumulated his collection thanks to dear friendships with mentors in the art world like Chicago gallerist Anne Baruch (“She was like my adopted sister,” he said fondly) and curator Henry Klein, both of whom introduced Rogolsky to Eastern European artists.

With all the artwork Rogolsky has encountered over years of collecting, how did he decipher which pieces had the “it factor”?

“Do you know the term ‘umami’ ?” Rogolsky asked.

Umami is the Japanese term for the savory fifth taste, joining the more traditionally well-known ones of sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Umami is an elusive term, undefinable, but it’s almost funny that Rogolsky uses it to describe the way he thinks about art considering he doesn’t have a sense of taste or smell (although he swears he can make divine matzo balls, even fluffier than his mother’s).

For Rogolsky, probably the place with the most mysticism, the most profound connection, the most “umami,” would be the Altneuschul in Prague. Altneuschul isn’t flashy like its neighbor, the ornate Jubilee Synagogue (the largest and newest synagogue in Prague, which looks almost like a candy cane with its red-and-white tile work). Instead, the Altneuschul (the “Old New Shul”) is modest and bare.

“It’s a very plain building,” said Rogolsky. Built in the 12th century, the shul is one of Prague’s oldest gothic buildings. According to Yiddish folklore, it is rumored that the body of the clay-made Golem lies in the synagogue’s attic.

“It’s like walking between two worlds,” he said about visiting the ancient shul.

“Behind the Altneuschul, there’s a Jewish cemetery,” continued Rogolsky. It was in that cemetery, filled with battered tombstones and overgrown weeds, that renowned Czech photographer Jan Saudek, whom he met through Baruch, snapped a photo of a dripping faucet. This photograph will be among those on display at “A Generosity of Spirit.”

“It’s dripping almost like a tear,” Rogolsky said.

“A Generosity of Spirit: Celebrating the Gift of Eugene Rogolsky, M.D.” will be on display at the Fisher Museum of Art at USC from Sept. 13 to Dec. 3. For more information, go to https://fisher.usc.edu/a-generosity-of-spirit-celebrating-the-gift-of-eugene-rogolsky-md/ .

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