Art critique

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Harold Rosenberg: The Life of a Critic by Debra Bricker Balken

When everyone’s talking about the arbiter of artistic credibility on the hectic New York scene of abstract expressionism, two names top the list: Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Of the “two shepherds,” Greenberg is better known. Today Debra Bricker Balken, a freelance scholar on American modernism, wrote Rosenberg’s first full biography.

Harold Rosenberg: the life of a critic, Debra Bricker Balken, University of Chicago Press (£ 32)

Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978) was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn. The disaffected and aimless Rosenberg drifted early in life. He did not match his BCBG peers and was an apathetic student of law. He was drawn to Marxist thought, but in an intellectual rather than an ideological way. Rosenberg began writing in 1929, after a period of illness that forced him to bed.

Rosenberg’s formidable intellect and breadth of cultural knowledge were complemented by an imposing physical presence. At 6’4 “and with a” piercing “gaze, Rosenberg’s striking appearance made him a staple at every gathering he attended. He married May Tabak in 1932, but it didn’t hurt feminization. Balken is good at portraying political tensions in New York art and writing circles. He despised Communist artists’ support for art as a social tool, preferring Arshile’s advocacy Gorky for art as art as social good.

Cultural and political struggles have sometimes become physical

Rosenberg wrote poetry, reviews, and commentary for a series of small cultural journals, including Transition, Symposium, Poetry and Partisan review, as well as (in subsequent years) better funded policy reviews such as Meet and Remark and the prestigious New Yorker, Squire and Vogue. He was an employee of the Advertising Council of America from 1946 to 1973, which provided him with enough income to maintain an apartment in Manhattan and a small summer house in The Springs, an artists’ colony on Long Island.

In this environment of alcoholics, cultural and political battles sometimes degenerated into brawls at meetings and parties. Rosenberg’s indirect rivalry with Clement Greenberg never turned physical but was the basis of gossip and memoir. Rosenberg was a literary critic for Partisan review just as Greenberg was publishing his most influential art essays in the pages of the same issues of the journal. According to Marx, Greenberg asserted that a Hegelian dialectical process would lead to observable and historically inevitable results. Greenberg said art was meant to become more of itself – painting would be painting, without imagery, sculpture would be pure form material, without a subject, and so on. The rise of cubism, the Bauhaus, suprematism and American abstraction seem to be proof of this.

Rosenberg offered an alternative. His 1952 essay “The American Action Painters” placed the artist-hero as an agent of change, in control of artistic production. It’s not hard to see why painters of the day warmed to Rosenberg’s notion of exceptional individuals advancing art. This was very much in line with existentialist philosophy, emphasizing the morality and isolation of the individual, separate from tradition and nation. The fact that the essay did not include any specific artist allowed Rosenberg to speak in general. Pollock (whose image of a man of action throwing paint was first shown in photographs and films in 1951) felt aggrieved that he had not been named. “[Pollock] stood outside Rosenberg’s bedroom window one night at The Springs and yelled, “I’m the best fucking painter in the world!”

Its contribution is not always easy to define

In 1948, Rosenberg was appointed first New York correspondent for Jean-Paul Sartre’s journal. Modern times. Rosenberg left his post when Sartre fully supported the French Communist Party in 1952. “The American Action Painters” was to appear in Modern times and only appeared in ARTnews because of Rosenberg’s departure from The temperature. The publication of the essay in the December 1952 issue of ARTnews made it reach more readers (especially artists) than it otherwise would have. Apparently, in 1952, Rosenberg was sleeping with Elaine de Kooning (painter’s wife), who also slept with Thomas Hess, editor-in-chief of ARTnews, that’s how Hess heard about this unpublished essay.

During the 1960s, Rosenberg’s stature grew. His berth at New Yorker may not have impressed intellectuals or artists, but it paid off well. Rosenberg didn’t have much to say about the new art of the 1960s – Field of Colors, Pop, Op, Minimalism, Performance, Conceptual, and Land Art. For anyone who grew up reading reviews in ARTAnews, Art Forum and other American art journals (and books by those critics), Balken’s reviews of domestic politics and aesthetic camps of the time are wonderful read and very informative.

In 1966, Rosenberg began teaching at the University of Chicago. His lectures, mainly on literature and art, were provocative and popular with students and colleagues, despite dissent. Rosenberg died in 1978, after resigning from the University of Chicago, intending to teach in New York. Rosenberg had health issues and needed an appointment closer to his New York residence, which would cut down on expensive travel.

His legacy as an intellectual is mixed, as one would expect. Rosenberg provided a necessary counterweight to both communism and formalism, but his contribution is not always easy to define. This biography aptly sums up Rosenberg the man and the author and brings to life his central role in the post-war American intellectual scene. The writing is commendably clear, apart from a few anachronisms. (One gets the shocking impression that “Blacks” and “African Americans” time traveled from 2021 to the 1930s.) Over 100 pages of notes and bibliography show the effort the author put into in this welcome 15 year project. Harold Rosenberg: the life of a critic is very enjoyable read and will become a valuable reference work for any New York School study.

Debra Bricker Balken, Harold Rosenberg: the life of a critic, University of Chicago Press, 2021, hb rag, 640pp + xv, 38 mono illus., $ 40 / £ 32, ISBN 978 0 226 03619 9

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