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Harold Rosenberg’s mixed legacy counterbalanced both Communism and formalism

Harold Rosenberg: A Critic’s Life by Debra Bricker Balken

When anyone speaks of the arbiters of artistic credibility in the rough-and-tumble New York scene of Abstract Expressionism, two names top the list: Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Of “the two bergs”, Greenberg is better known. Now, Debra Bricker Balken, an independent scholar of American Modernism, has written the first full biography of Rosenberg.

Harold Rosenberg: A Critic’s Life, Debra Bricker Balken, University of Chicago Press (£32)

Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978) was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn. The disaffected and aimless Rosenberg drifted through early life. He did not fit in with his preppy peers and studied law apathetically. He was attracted to Marxist thought, but in an intellectual rather than ideological way. Rosenberg started writing in 1929, following a period of illness that confined him to bed.

Rosenberg’s formidable intellect and breadth of cultural knowledge was complemented by an imposing physical presence. At 6’4” and with a “piercing” gaze, Rosenberg’s striking appearance made him an unmistakeable figure at any gathering he attended. He married May Tabak in 1932 but this did not impair his womanising. Balken is good at describing the political tensions in the New York writing and art circles. He had disdain for Communist artists’ support for art as a social tool, preferring Arshile Gorky’s advocacy for art-as-art as a social good.

Cultural and political sparring sometimes became 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 later years) better funded political journals such as Encounter and Commentary and the prestigious New Yorker, Esquire and Vogue. He was an employee of the Advertising Council of America from 1946-73, which provided sufficient income to maintain a Manhattan apartment and a small summer house in The Springs, an artist colony on Long Island.

In that hard-drinking milieu, cultural and political sparring sometimes erupted into fistfights at meetings and parties. Rosenberg’s indirect rivalry with Clement Greenberg never became physical but was the staple of gossip and memoirs. Rosenberg was a literary critic for Partisan Review at just the time when Greenberg was publishing his most influential art essays in the pages of the same issues of the journal. Per Marx, Greenberg asserted that a Hegelian dialectical process would lead to observable and historically inevitable outcomes. Greenberg declared that art was destined to become more itself — painting would consist of paint, without imagery, sculpture would be material of pure form, without subject and so forth. The rise of Cubism, Bauhaus, Suprematism and American abstraction seemed evidence of this.

Rosenberg came up with an alternative. His essay 1952 “The American Action Painters” situated the hero-artist as an agent of change, in control of artistic production. It is not hard to see why painters of the time warmed to Rosenberg’s notion of exceptional individuals advancing art. This was very much in line with Existentialist philosophy, with the emphasis on the morality and isolation of the individual, separated from tradition and nation. The fact that the essay included no specific artists allowed Rosenberg to speak in generalities. Pollock (whose image as a paint-flinging man of action was first disseminated in photographs and film in 1951) felt aggrieved that he had not been named. “[Pollock] stood outside Rosenberg’s bedroom window one night in The Springs and howled, ‘I’m the best fucking painter in the world!’”

His contribution is not always easy to define

In 1948, Rosenberg was appointed the first New York correspondent for Jean-Paul Sartre’s journal Les Temps modernes. Rosenberg quit his position when Sartre fully endorsed the Parti communiste française in 1952. “The American Action Painters” was due to appear in Les Temps modernes and only appeared in ARTnews because of Rosenberg’s departure from Les Temps. The essay’s appearance in the December 1952 issue of ARTnews caused it to reach more readers (particularly artists) than it would have otherwise. Apparently, in 1952 Rosenberg was sleeping with Elaine de Kooning (wife of the painter), who was also sleeping with Thomas Hess, executive editor of ARTnews, which was how Hess came to hear of this unpublished essay.

Over the 1960s, Rosenberg’s stature grew. His berth at the New Yorker may not have impressed intellectuals or artists but it paid well. Rosenberg had little to say about new art of the 1960s — Colour-field, Pop, Op, Minimalism, performance, conceptual and land art. For anyone who grew up reading reviews in ARTNews, Artforum and other American art journals (and books by those reviewers), Balken’s accounts of the internal politics and aesthetic camps of the period is a terrific read and highly informative.

In 1966 Rosenberg started teaching at the University of Chicago. His lectures, primarily on literature and art, were provocative and popular with students and colleagues, notwithstanding dissent. Rosenberg died in 1978, just having resigned from the University of Chicago, intending to teach in New York. Rosenberg had been troubled with ill health and needed an appointment that was more local to his New York residence, reducing onerous travel.

His legacy as an intellectual is mixed, as is to be expected. Rosenberg provided a necessary counterbalance to both Communism and formalism but his contribution is not always easy to define. This biography does a good job at summarising Rosenberg the man and author and bringing to life his pivotal role in the American post-war intellectual scene. The writing is commendably clear, apart from a few anachronisms. (One has the jarring impression that “Blacks” and “African Americans” have time travelled from 2021 to the 1930s.) Over 100 pages of notes and bibliography show the amount of effort the author put into this welcome 15-year project. Harold Rosenberg: A Critic’s Life is a highly enjoyable read and will become a valuable reference work for any study of the New York School.

Debra Bricker Balken, Harold Rosenberg: A Critic’s Life, University of Chicago Press, 2021, cloth hb, 640pp + xv, 38 mono illus., $40/£32, ISBN 978 0 226 03619 9

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