Hung on every wall, Ralph Rosenborg's abstract canvases blend shapes and colors borrowed from nature. His small, easel-sized paintings share the uncontrolled brushstrokes and vibrant color play of giant works by other abstract expressionists. Unlike Rothko and de Kooning, however, Rosenborg never found critical or commercial acclaim. He remained influential but little known throughout his career, working in New York from the late 1930s until his death 13 years ago, in Portland.
His wife wanted desperately to validate his work.
Two years ago, she met a younger man at the Hollywood Fred Meyer, where she worked as a greeter. He asked for directions and began to court her, eventually promising to introduce the world to her late husband's art and sell enough paintings to provide her with financial security.
Instead, Margaret says she gave him at least $21,000, defaulted on her home payments and lost 58 of her husband's paintings.
She parted with her belongings willingly because she thought she would get her dreams in exchange. After a life spent supporting her husband's career, Margaret continued to fight for his reputation. Even after his death.
"I wanted these things so badly," she says. "Ralph's paintings are important. These guys-de Kooning, Pollock-became so famous. But they don't match Ralph in his knowledge of how to put paint on a canvas."
"Margaret, I may never know how [ to] paint like Michael Angelo But, I know I want to see you again, again and again. May I court you?"
May 31, 2003
The last man to court Margaret was Ralph Rosenborg, whom she met in 1949 at a sketch class in Manhattan. She had moved to New York from Portland to study voice at Juilliard, but, she says, "they didn't like me there." Instead, she pinned her hopes to an eccentric young painter who could fullfill her dream of "living the creative life," says the 1940 Lincoln High School graduate. "I always wanted to marry a painter." The wedding came two years later, and Margaret immediately put her husband's career before her own pursuits. She worked as a clerk at Chase bank and took night jobs when his paintings didn't sell. Over the course of their 41-year marriage, she endured his frequent affairs and bouts of depression. When he suffered a major stroke in 1992, she flew him to Portland, where he died a few months later.
Without children to take her in, Margaret bought a $50,000 house on Northeast Fremont Street, which she shared with renters. Before landing her job at Fred Meyer in 1999, she paid the bills with temp jobs. Strapped for cash and frustrated that Rosenborg had not received the critical attention he deserved, she befriended Portland gallery owner Mark Woolley, who staged several exhibitions of her husband's work between 1994 and early 2002.
"I took it as kind of an interesting challenge," says Woolley, who calls Rosenborg "a true pioneer in abstract expressionism."
Although Woolley managed to sell about 60 paintings over the years, the shows never earned more than a few thousand dollars. Museums dismissed Margaret's pleas to honor Rosenborg with a retrospective.
In the spring of 2003, more than 10 years after Ralph's death, she couldn't resist the enticement dangled before her by a man who brought love letters to Fred Meyer.
It was early May when Richard Valencia stopped his cart by Margaret's station near the produce department and asked for directions. Margaret was good at her job-cheerfully greeting customers and engaging them in helpful conversation. So she was with Valencia, and the two got to talking about art, his daughter and her late husband. Valencia, a rotund and lumbering man with graying hair and glasses, complimented Margaret on her hazel eyes and kissed her hand on his way out the door. Days later, he returned with the mash note.
"He wasn't exactly the type of person I like," Margaret says. His 5-foot-10-inch frame trembled under the weight of extra pounds, and he had diabetes. He knew nothing about art. At Chinese restaurants, Valencia, then 65 and 15 years Margaret's junior, refused to talk while he devoured Peking duck and fried noodles. "At first I thought, 'I can't stand this man,'" she says. "'He just eats!'"
Margaret, a practicing Buddhist, says she tried to find the Buddha in Valencia. "He's pretty intelligent," she says, laughing. "I mean, he can be." Valencia expressed more interest in her late husband than anyone had in years. He also offered romance and companionship, intimacy she'd missed since her husband died. "We became sort of friends," she says. "We went to hear music in the park together. And he asked me a lot of questions about my life with Ralph."
On the subject of his own past, Valencia offered fragmentary snippets of an intriguing life. He said he'd participated in civil-rights activism on behalf of Latinos, Native Americans and retirees. As a young boy in Los Angeles, he claimed, he'd witnessed the death of his mother, an alcoholic, when her liver suddenly failed. He spent four years in the Navy, he said, before embarking on a career as a consultant and attorney to rich and powerful businessmen.
Margaret accepted the stories without question, even though Valencia lived in a subsidized apartment in Unthank Plaza, a North Portland housing complex for the aged and disabled.
Over the next several months, they drove together to the coast and listened to jazz at Waterfront Park. Valencia paid for dinners at Saigon Kitchen on Northeast Broadway, or salads from the deli at Wild Oats. Their conversations focused on finding a way to stir demand for Rosenborg's work. "He kept saying he wanted to help me," Margaret says.
Suspicion first flickered in her mind during that summer of 2003, when on a bench in Irving Park, Valencia pulled out a sheet of paper and asked for her signature. The document, he said, would give him power of attorney. He said he was concerned about what would happen to the hundreds of paintings Margaret kept in storage if she passed away. Margaret refused to sign and let the incident pass, reasoning that Valencia just worried about her.
Throughout July and August, they sat in the backyard patio of Margaret's cluttered home and talked about how to sell Ralph's paintings. She had ideas-a website, a book, a big museum show. Valencia told her he had the experience do those things, with the right resources. Margaret also got increasingly frustrated that Woolley wasn't selling enough paintings through his gallery.
"I think Mark tried really hard for her and he was selling, but she was frustrated," says Margaret's niece, Julia Corkett, who lives in Southeast Portland. "People here focused on Northwest artists, and she couldn't get the prices she could back east."
In late August, just months after their first meeting, Valencia suggested that Margaret get the paintings back from Woolley-and she agreed. Looking back, she says, the decision was her first serious misstep. At the time, she thought Valencia had the time and passion to dedicate himself to the task.
"I thought one person could do it, and maybe he could have," she says. "You think you know people but you don't. You find out the hard way."
On Sept. 4, 2003, Woolley received a letter from Margaret: "Please be advised that demand is hereby made for the return of all artwork performed by Ralph Rosenborg...." The words sounded nothing like Margaret. So Woolley wrote back, asking for clarification. A curt reply came from Valencia. "Unfortunately your letter does not reply to Ms. Rosenborg's letter of September 04, 2003," he wrote, "in that it does not set forth the return of her property...."
Grudgingly, Woolley agreed to let Valencia come for the paintings.
"I'm still trying to wrap my brain around it. She really is a very independent woman," says Woolley. He knew Margaret had been frustrated with him before, but he chalked it up to her devotion to her husband.
"For people in the art world, there is, for better or for worse, competition for attention and competition for historical recognition," he says. "[Ralph] personally, I don't think, cared about that as much." But Margaret did, and she wanted to see some compensation for her years supporting her husband. "I think she's trying to do what Ralph was unwilling or unable to do while he was alive, to balance the scales in a way for her 40 years of sacrifice," Woolley says.
On Oct. 13, 2003, Valencia, Margaret and Corkett met at Woolley's studio, with a borrowed truck waiting to haul the paintings away. Corkett says Valencia charged into the building and started barking orders. When Margaret asked for permission to talk with Woolley, Valencia refused. They brought the paintings back to Margaret's house and stacked them up against the walls. Valencia took a few home, to "live with the paintings," Margaret says.
Weeks later, Valencia invited Margaret on a trip to visit his daughter in Palmdale, Calif. They drove down I-5 in his blue-green Taurus, speeding most of the way. When they arrived, Valencia enthusiastically rattled off his pitch for sparking an international demand for Rosenborgs. Margaret sensed a hope that Valencia's daughter and her husband, who owns a Toyota dealership, would invest in their project.
When they returned to Oregon empty-handed, Margaret says, Valencia disappeared without calling or emailing.
"He went off like a teenager and said, 'I need some space,'" Margaret says. A week or two later, the phone rang. "He called me up and said, 'I can't help you.'" Although she can't articulate why, Margaret was convinced that money was the reason. "I knew he needed money," she says.
In the winter or late fall of 2003, she spoke with a mortgage company that offered her $29,000 in cash if she refinanced her home. She called Valencia and asked if the money would be enough to start a business that would promote her husband's art. Valencia said it would help. Without informing friends or family of her intentions, Margaret signed a new mortgage in January 2004 and agreed to give the money to Valencia. He said it would go toward projects that would get the art world interested in Rosenborg's career. Margaret set her hopes on persuading a museum to present a retrospective.
"All I want is to get his retrospective, to get what he deserves," she says. "Then, whatever happens, I'm through."
Valencia instructed her to make the checks out to Pacific Business Services, a small accounting firm he ran in Lincoln City. In fact, the business exists in name only, its registry with the state corresponding to a nonexistent address and a disconnected phone number.
He also told Margaret that he used a second name, Russell Blackburn, for all his business transactions.
Over several months, Blackburn endorsed Margaret's checks, which were in $1,000 to $3,000 increments and totaled $21,000.
During the early months of 2004, Valencia continued to take paintings from her home that he said he planned to sell. At one point, Margaret says, he pressed her to give him all of her 400-plus canvases. "He was very good at making me feel like I was too psychologically attached to the pictures," she says. Valencia eventually took possession of 58 paintings.
At the same time, Margaret had become increasingly frustrated with the details of owning a home. In February, convinced that her mortgage company had automatically deducted too much money from her account, she went to Valencia for advice. He encouraged her to cancel her mortgage payments and promised he would sell her house, on his own, before she went into default.
"Richard advised me to do that," she says. "He told me to just let it go." Margaret stopped making payments in February 2004.
When her friends and relatives discovered she could potentially lose her house, they got angry but didn't interfere.
"You don't say, 'Aunt Margaret, don't do this,'" Corkett says. "Aunt Margaret is very stubborn."
Margaret's spirits lifted later that spring when Valencia unveiled a website dedicated to Ralph Rosenborg-www.ralphrosenborg.com (also online as www.the americanartist.net). The pages include a catalog of Margaret's paintings and a biographical essay full of strange declarative sentences ("Ralph Rosenborg is The American Artist, the first American abstract expressionist"). A few months later, Valencia delivered a few copies of a silver-embossed book on Ralph Rosenborg-the author, Russell Blackburn. Valencia's efforts pleased Margaret, and she waited patiently for sales to begin.
The website, however, didn't include any functioning way to buy paintings, or even a legitimate contact address. The book didn't end up in bookstores.
In the summer of 2004, Margaret, anticipating the loss of her house, moved into an apartment near Portland State University. As the summer wore on, Valencia's visits became more infrequent. Margaret sent emails that she missed him. She felt abandoned and ignored, but not suspicious. She told herself that Valencia was two people and that his business persona was the cruel Gemini twin.
Even now, she hesitates to totally condemn him. "He has some quirk in him that makes him want to take things," she says. "Some people can't help it."
Margaret says she concluded Valencia wouldn't deliver on his promises last winter, when she learned he didn't even live in Portland anymore. He eventually admitted that he'd moved in with a girlfriend in central Oregon and began to communicate almost exclusively through email. At the urging of friends and relatives, Margaret began to ask for information. His responses were by turns cruel or cloyingly sweet.
Nov. 19, 2004 "Dearest Margaret, You fail to understand that you provided the funds to Pacific Business Services so all your business receipts are to Pacific Business Services. What Pacific Business Services does with the funds is only the business of Pacific Business Services and the IRS-no one else. ... Now is not the time to get all flaky about previous funds when we are deeply involved in getting all the paintings sold to your satisfaction. Peace and happiness, Richard...."
Margaret officially lost her house in December 2004. She continued to communicate with Valencia mainly over email.
Dec. 6, 2004 You are my delight in this life, ensuring your security is my prime objective...."
Jan. 6, 2005 It's time to let past things go like the...house...and some of those negative people you knew who were not your friends. You are now embarking on a new life of liberty, with freedom to do what you really want to choose."
Valencia never sent word that he'd sold a single painting-although he often mentioned potential buyers. Two months ago, he did mail her a bill of sale dated March 2004, which shows that Margaret had sold him 58 paintings for $590. Margaret says she had never before seen, let alone signed, the document, although it does bear her signature on the last page. She also says Valencia wouldn't produce a canceled check for the $590.
In March of this year, with no word from him for nearly three weeks, Julia Corkett called the police. The police have encouraged Margaret to file civil charges, a sign that the district attorney's office may feel it cannot pursue criminal prosecution. Family and friends are angry at Valencia and disappointed in Margaret, and worry that the paintings she let him take may be lost forever.
Margaret says she doesn't know who to trust. Mark Woolley, without her permission, dropped off a letter at Valencia's Roseburg home demanding the paintings be returned to his gallery. Corkett and her sister Sybil want her to move in with their mother (Margaret's older sister), a proposition that leaves her feeling coddled and helpless. Last Friday, she went out with a friend and hired an attorney. "Richard isn't going to give the paintings back," she says. "I got myself a lawyer."
Reached at his home in Roseburg this week, Valencia denied that Margaret had given him $21,000. He refused to comment on almost every other aspect of their dealings, including whether he has any of Rosenborg's paintings or where they might be located. He did maintain that he hasn't sold any of them.
Regarding his dual aliases, Valencia explained that he was given the name Blackburn at birth and later adopted Valencia after his biological father. "It's just that I have two legal names," he says. "And I use them all the time and tell them A.K.A."
In an earlier phone conversation this month, he defended his interactions with Margaret, saying, "It's really not my concern at this point in time."
Pressed again: "I have no concern. No worries." Does he have the paintings? "Nothing illegal. Nothing important. Everything is proper and appropriate."
About his past, Valencia offers no details but confirms the threads of the story provided by Margaret. "I am proud of my life," he says, adding, "I am a person of controversy at times."
The Name Game
According to records from the Oregon State Bar and the Oregon Secretary of State, Richard Valencia, under the alias Russell Blackburn, has portrayed himself as a lawyer and registered the names of existing businesses. It's hard to tell what his motives were, whether he broke any laws and if he ever truly cashed in on a hustle.
In the late 1980s and early '90s, Blackburn, who apparently moved to Oregon from California, registered with the state for the names of an existing resort, the Inn at Spanish Head, and a nonprofit, the Friends of Yaquina Lighthouses, which had both neglected to renew their corporate records with the state. His purpose? Unclear. He might have hoped to gain access to bank accounts or seal deals on behalf of legitimate businesses. Both entities say they discovered his tinkering when they learned Blackburn had made inquiries about their bank accounts.
The Oregon State Bar investigated him three times for practicing law without a license, finally issuing a notice of warning in 1995. Valencia is not, under either name, a member of the bar in Oregon or California. He is, however, licensed to argue cases before the Siletz tribal court.
A 1992 complaint with the Oregon State Bar, which was dismissed, cited Blackburn for using stationery that appeared to be from a law firm to contact Lincoln City demanding the removal of a wooden Indian on the beachfront boardwalk. A 1993 bar complaint from the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians accuses Blackburn of offering legal services to tribe members-services that went beyond the realm of tribal court. Both of these cases were dismissed for lack of evidence. In 1995, the bar sent Blackburn a warning, stemming from a complaint filed by a Washington, D.C., lawyer who was representing a Florida shrimp-boat operator. The D.C. lawyer alleged that Blackburn had bilked his client out of about $6,000 in a bogus deal to set up an offshore corporation.
A Google search retrieves several online petitions signed by Richard Valencia as the executive director of the Oregon Chicano Coalition, an organization no one contacted by WW had ever heard of.
Valencia does have a record of legitimate activities. He went on two trips to Canada and Mexico as part of a campaign by Oregonians for Health Security to promote better access to prescription drugs. He is an active member of a Southern California chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens and served on the Lincoln County Judicial Review Committee in the early 1990s. -AV
New York art dealer Gary Snyder says Ralph Rosenborg separated himself from contemporaries like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko because he painted on small canvases and remained partially interested in representational art. "It was almost like he had a black cloud over him as an artist," Snyder says. "He was also, I think, a real genius."
Snyder, the New York art dealer, says Margaret Rosenborg also got after him for not working hard enough for her husband. "She believed in him as a great genius," he says. "She always wanted me to do more, quicker."
The abstract expressionist movement of the mid-20th century took inspiration from the idea that artists could communicate emotions and concepts by breaking down the restrictions of representational painting.
Ralph Rosenborg was a chain-smoker and painted flat on a table, often gripping a tube of paint and smearing it directly onto the canvas.
Richard Valencia's ex-wife, Rachel Carson, says they divorced in 1992 and describes Valencia as a "real activist kind of dude."
Ralph Rosenborg dated the sculptor Louise Nevelson prior to his marriage. "Their affair was legendary," Snyder said.
Rosenborg completed hundreds of paintings every year.
Ralph Rosenborg's work is part of the collections of several major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.