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Why Harold Rosenberg Was, and Still Is, Essential to Abstract Expressionism

  • Harlod Rosenberg
January 27, 2019
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

The post-war American art was most definitely marked by the phenomenon of Abstract Expressionism, an iconic style which changed the course of modern art. During the 1940s it was promoted by several galleries such was Julien Levy exhibition space or The Art of The Century run by Peggy Guggenheim, and a number of prominent art critics. One of the loudest was Harold Rosenberg who inaugurated the term Action Painting.

This important figure started writing reviews intensively, after he laid foundations of his approach with the exhibition The Intrasubjectives in 1949, organized alongside Samuel Kootz. The interest in subjective, mythical, and existential ideas became important in Rosenberg’s criticism, which led him to establish a lasting and influential critical practice.

Left Elaine de Kooning - Harold Rozenberg #1 Right Arshile Gorky - Aviation Evolutions of forms under aerodynamic limitation
Left: Elaine de Kooning – Harold Rosenberg #1. Image via March Madness at The Broad. / Right: Arshile Gorky – Aviation : Evolutions of forms under aerodynamic limitations, 1935 -1936. Image via flickr.

The Successful Career of Harold Rosenberg

Harold Rosenberg was born in 1906 in Brooklyn, New York. Between 1923 and 1924 he attended the City College of New York and then continued his studies Brooklyn Law School where he received his LL.B. in 1927. The critic led a bohemian lifestyle, and sadly was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, a bone condition, so he started using a cane for the rest of his life. During the 1930s, Rosenberg embraced Marxism and contributed to publications such as the Partisan Review, The New Masses, Poetry and Art Front. The American Guide Series produced by the Works Progress Administration was edited by him from 1938 until 1942, and interestingly so he converted to an anti-communist and democratic stance on art by focusing on individual creativity.

The World War II saw him as a deputy chief of the domestic radio bureau in the Office of War Information, as well as a consultant for the Treasury Department from 1945 to 1946. Since 1953, Rosenberg lectured on several universities such as the New School for Social Research (1953-1959), Princeton University (1963) and Southern Illinois University Carbondale (1965). Finally, in 1966 he settled as a professor of social thought in the art department of the University of Chicago where he remained until his death in 1978.

Jackson Pollock - Number 1
Jackson Pollock – Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist). Image via flickr.

The Proclamation of Action Art

In 1952 Rosenberg published the celebrated essay American Action Painters in a December issue of ARTnews, and seven years later it was reprinted in his book The Tradition of the New. From the contemporary stance, this writing can be considered as an agitation tool, since it centered on a prefix of national context. Namely, Rosenberg aimed to credit the United States as the center of international culture after World War II and action painting as the most important movement. This particular essay is an actual extension of the subject matter already proposed in a previous article called The Fall of Paris which was published in Partisan Review in 1940.

Nevertheless, the coined phrase action art covered gestural abstraction of only a few artists, and it did not even consider the works of Color Field artists such as Rothko or Newman. Rosenberg focused on the process of Willem de Kooning, along with practices of Pollock, and Kline in particular.

On the other hand, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, and Joan Mitchell might also have been included, but their work was not then discussed in this context. The critic claimed that for an action painter, the canvas was not a representation but an extension of the mind itself.

Finally, Rosenberg perceived the artist’s task as a heroic exploration of the most profound issues of personal identity and experience in relation to the more general of the human condition.

The Lecture About Harold Rosenberg

The Impact of Harold Rosenberg On Arts and Culture

Rosenberg’s entire activity around promoting Action Painting was marked by differences and disputes with his rival Clement Greenberg, who was another important art critic of the time. He saw a continuity between recent American art and the avant-garde heritage especially the demands of Dada and Surrealism of integrating art with life; he was convinced that the Abstract Expressionists achieved a radical break with the past tendencies in the context of treating the canvas differently.

In another essay for ARTnews titled Action Painting: A Decade of Distortion he confronted Greenberg directly by claiming that his rival is academically focused on form and that he ignored the importance of the historical shift which happened with the appearance of action painting. Nevertheless, by the 1960s, the relevance of Rosenberg’s propositions started fading due to the presence of younger critics who believed his work was conservative in its recourse to figuration and post-Cubist space.

Rosenberg was portrayed by Elaine de Kooning, which shows the acclaimed author as a distinct intellectual figure. In a book The Painted Word written by a journalist Tom Wolf in 1975, together with Clement Greenberg and Leo Steinberg, Rosenberg was described as one of the three kings of Cultureburg, a syntagm invented to underline a huge impact their criticism had on the development of modern art.

Finally, in order to underline the importance of his critical position, it is worth mentioning the other significant essay of Harold Rosenberg titled The Herd of Independent Minds, in which he analyzed the trivialization of personal experience present in mass culture and superficial political engagement in the arts. It proves how passionate this great art critic was about the role of art in society and how his critical practice in general questioned hidden agendas and banality behind the trends in painting, literature, politics, and popular culture.

notable art critics in new york 1978 painters work Editors’ Tip: The Tradition of the New

Harold Rosenberg was undoubtedly the most important American art critic of the twentieth century. It was he who first coined the term Action Painters to refer to the American Abstract Expressionists such as Pollock, Kline, and de Kooning. Rosenberg’s seminal writings on this movement, as well as on other artists such as Newman and Rothko, appear in The Tradition of the New (1959), his first and most influential book; its effects on subsequent art criticism, and the practice of art itself, are still felt today. He also discusses poetry, political and cultural theory, and popular culture. As wide-ranging, independent, and deeply probing as the essays of Walter Benjamin, Harold Rosenberg’s The Tradition of the New is a true classic of twentieth-century criticism.

Featured image: Featured image: Harold Rozenberg. Image via letsgotribe, used for illustrative purposes.