December 30, 1925 Isadore and Bertha Rogoff gave birth to their first child, Seymour Harold Rogoff. They each brought strong pedigrees to this union. Isadore was the first businessman in the family after 9 generations of rabbis. He himself had been in rabbinical school in Vilna (now Vilnius) before coming to America. Bertha was a direct descendent of Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism. Bertha was also a first generation immigrant, coming from a small town near Vienna, and very bright in her own right. She was fluent in at least 6 languages by the time she reached U.S. shores at the age of 13. However, her road to this country had been very hard. Seymour, and his younger sister Nancy, inherited a wealth of culture, intelligence, creativity, talent, and fortitude from their parents. However, despite these inherent abilities, Seymour’s life had a difficult beginning. The 3 driving forces that forged who he would become were his mother’s perception of life, the Great Depression and serving in WWII.
Seymour served 1st Army during the Battle of the Bulge as a scout in the 18th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron Mechanized. Even amidst combat his intelligence and creativity stood out. His unconventional survival solutions caused his comrades to tell incoming replacements to watch Seymour and copy what he did if they wanted to stay alive. In a foxhole, while being shelled, Seymour prayed to God asking, “What is my life’s purpose?” Almost immediately, the thought came, “God puts His creativity into the world through the unique creative talents He gives to all people.” Concluding his purpose in life was to pursue his most creative talent he prayed, “God put my feet on the right path. Put up the signposts and I will follow.” From that moment, he dedicated his life to this commitment. The signposts came quickly, including being billeted less than a 5 minute walk from where Monet painted “The Beach of Etratat” and unexpected opportunities to visit the major art museums in London and the Louvre.
After seeing DaVinci’s “Mona Lisa” and Renoir’s “Fruits of the Midi” Seymour was hooked. Upon leaving the military, he began studying art at the University of Illinois. He asked his teachers how the Impressionists achieved such color and was told they painted with the concept of color as scintillating atmosphere. His response, which has since become his mantra was, “Color is light. Light is energy. Energy is power. I want to put the power of that energy on canvas.” In his junior year, Seymour was voted the most outstanding student in the University of Illinois art school. That same year, after realizing that many aspects of how he saw color differed from what he had been taught and what was in the text books, he collaborated with a classmate in the journalism school on an experiment to see how the eye reads a newspaper and a work of art. Without realizing it, these experiments gave him the insight he would later use to make a number of discoveries regarding the nature of human color perception. It was also while at the U of I that he began going by the name Hal in order to avoid confusion caused by another artist with a similar name.
When Albers saw the work Hal started upon arriving at Yale he inquired, “Are you a mystic?” Hal replied, “I don’t understand. I am trying to do with color what Rembrandt did with chiaroscuro. I am trying to paint the equivalent of the feelings in minor key liturgical music”. Albers gave Hal a quizzical look and Hal impulsively said, “I’m trying to paint visual poetry.” Albers’ reply: “Ah. But poetry is mystic.” After taking Albers’ now famous color course, Hal had the tools he needed to explore the questions arising from his experiments at Illinois. Albers originally rejected Hal’s graduate application on the grounds it was too theoretical. However, Hal’s determination to find answers to his questions resulted very quickly in discoveries that not only caused Albers to accept Hal but also to make him his graduate assistant. They even caused Albers to change the color orientation in his own work. Upon accepting Hal, Albers commented that he was to “set a good pace” for next year’s class. Hal took this to heart and during the following year he developed the basic concepts which define all perceptual distortion and illusion along with many new color principles. Years later, many of these concepts were incorporated into Albers’ book “The Interaction of Color” and formed the foundation of the colored Op Art movement. Beyond art, these very principles are the ones scientists and engineers used to create color television. They also caused highway safety marker colors to be changed from yellow to the present day orange (see Peripheral Pulse), improving visibility and saving countless lives.
Beyond the canvas, a random coincidence had a profound impact on Hal’s life and his view of the world. One day while passing a lecture hall, Hal became intrigued by the lecturer and decided to stop in and listen. The lecturer was none other than R. Buckminster Fuller, or as he preferred Bucky, and he was describing his octet truss. Bucky’s way of speaking was very specific but also very complex and overwhelming for most people...but not for Hal. He quickly and instinctively broke down each large word to its essence and grasped the whole...except for one part. So after the lecture, he went up and asked Bucky to explain the part he didn’t understand, the nature of a hydraulic lift. This is a fundamental engineering concept, and had Hal known, it was a very naive question. However, Bucky is noted for saying “Dare to be naive” and must have gotten a glimpse into Hal’s intellect and inquisitive nature. Whatever he saw, Bucky took an immediate liking to Hal and they struck up a fast friendship. For the remainder of that year, the two met for lunch weekly. Other students and faculty would join them from time to time, but no one could keep up with them.