Harold Rosenberg: A Critic’s Life
(The University of Chicago Press, 2021)
When, half a century ago, I began doing art criticism, I studied with care the books of the two most famous senior American writers, Clement Greenberg (1909–1994) and Harold Rosenberg (1906–1978). As time went by, Greenberg remained important for me and also for three other art writers whose writings came to interest me, Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss and Arthur Danto. But Rosenberg’s books ceased to attract my interest. I suspect that I am not the only person who had that experience. Unlike his rival, Rosenberg hasn’t been much discussed recently; this is the first full biography. And so because Debra Bricker Balken’s book makes large claims for his importance, her account deserves serious attention.
The story of the rise of Abstract Expressionism and its critical champions has often been told. In the 1930s, the New York intellectuals, most of them Jewish, who would influentially discuss this artistic movement, were Marxists. Intensely interested in political debate, but admirers of the poetry of T. S. Eliot (who was a political conservative), they came of age during the Depression. Jackson Pollock and the other future Abstract Expressionists were doing derivative paintings. Then, when these artists found themselves and became world-famous the center of the contemporary art world shifted from Paris to New York. And some art writers, too, became famous as the champions of Abstract Expressionism.
Born in Brooklyn to a relatively poor family, Harold Rosenberg spent a couple of years at City College and briefly attended law school. In the 1930s he wrote poetry and worked as an editor. Then during World War Two, because he had an injured leg, and wasn’t drafted, Rosenberg lived in Washington, DC and worked for the Office of War Information. And after the war, he was employed by the Ad Council, a Madison Avenue agency which was involved “in refashioning the US image both domestically and abroad, as it transitioned from an isolationist nation to a superpower” (p. 205). According to Balken, “his politics was considered irrelevant” (p. 208). Indeed, she suggests, because he was a Marxist, he knew how to advertise capitalism. Although Rosenberg claimed always to admire Marx and Lenin, he himself never was a political activist. A Trotskyite, at one point in the late 1930s, she says, he thought that perhaps communism had “a viable shot in the United States” (p. 71).
During the depression, Rosenberg had many contacts in the New York art world. And so, in the late 1940s when the importance of Abstract Expressionism became obvious, Rosenberg’s “combined experience of writing poetry and literary commentary, along with his omnipresence in the New York art scene,” (p. 271) made him the ideal interpreter of “mid-century American painting.” He had no academic training in art history, but at this time of course modernist painting wasn’t an academic subject. For the art critic, the most promising part of Balken’s account is the discussion of the sources of his concept of ‘action painting’, which came from Rosenberg’s reading of Jean-Paul Sartre. Life, Sartre argued, demands action. And Rosenberg “made the artist . . . a protagonist . . . who was capable of effecting possibility within the postwar United States.” She has an interesting discussion of how this concept derived, in part, from Rosenberg’s discussions with de Beauvoir.
Rosenberg was highly sociable, and amazingly contentious. And so Harold Rosenberg introduces a rich list of personalities with whom he talked and often quarreled. In the 1930s there was the writer Parker Tyler and later there were other writers, Saul Bellow, Bill Berkson, Frank O’Hara, and Susan Sontag; various European emigrants, Hannah Arendt and also Simone de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre; many other critics, including of course Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro and, later, also John Coplans, Thomas Hess, Robert Hughes, Hilton Kramer, Barbara Rose, William Rubin and Irving Sandler. Harold Rosenberg describes his dealings with various art journal editors, explaining how only very belatedly, in 1967, he got a permanent post at The New Yorker. It records his perspective on the rise of Artforum and the commercialization of the contemporary art world. And it notes that Rosenberg greatly admired Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky and Saul Steinberg, and so wrote interestingly about them.
Balken’s attitude towards her subject is not clear. At the very end of her account, she endorses Rosenberg’s view that he was “an outsider,” who never really fit into the art world. But if the much published critic for The New Yorker who taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago was “never part of the ‘Art Establishment,’ as he had called it,” then who was? She asks a good question: why has Greenberg become so much studied, while Rosenberg is marginalized? One answer to that question is that for all of his limitations, Greenberg inspired both Fried and Krauss to rebellion against his theories. And Danto, one of the men to whom Harold Rosenberg is dedicated, staged discussion of his analysis of post-historical art in part in reaction to Greenberg.
Rosenberg hasn’t, so far as I know, yet had any comparable role. Balken argues that her subject’s concerns “bear striking resemblance to the debates surrounding cultural establishments such as the museum today.” Maybe, then, Rosenberg’s time has come, for his criticism offers a real alternative to Greenberg’s formalist theorizing.
Louis Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), argues that Rosenberg’s analysis “did not make an impression on artists or professional art critics,” he argues that this theory “became an existentialist manifesto for advanced American art.” Perhaps then, since we need an alternative post-Greenbergian perspective on this formative period, it’s time for critics to go back to Rosenberg’s writings, and see what they teach us. If that happens, Balken’s book will provide an essential resource. A great talker, Rosenberg was on her account a fascinating personality. And so this account of his rich social life could provide a richly suggestive perspective on this period of American art history.