Harold Rosenberg: A Critic’s Life
by Debra Bricker Balken
University of Chicago Press, 2021, 656 pp.
There was a cultural moment a few decades ago, capped by the absorbing 1998 documentary Arguing the World, when scholarship of and nostalgia for the so-called New York intellectuals was at its acme. A groaning shelf of titles spotlighted one or another aspect of this august midcentury group, which was analyzed, fawned over, and (far too hastily) lamented as the last great gasp of public intellectuals in America. The bold-faced names of the so-called Partisan Review “crowd”—Dwight Macdonald, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Lionel Trilling, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag—had all been associated with a handful of small-circulation literary journals and were celebrities to a select few.
Amid the glorification, one name seemed to fall through the cracks, or at least not fit as snugly as the others into the lineup of those deemed worthy of sustained attention. Despite being a widely respected intellectual and writing prodigiously on arts and ideas for those same small publications, critic Harold Rosenberg received only a single, parenthetical mention in one of the central books of the period, David Laskin’s Partisans. Granted, Rosenberg was probably the hardest to pigeonhole among that complex group. He was in it but not necessarily of it, and he was intellectually nourished by his own independent and aggressively held political positions. Bolstered by a Marxism in which the structural challenges of commodification and capitalism were front and center, Rosenberg was nonetheless fiercely dedicated to the notion of autonomy and agency in culture.
Debra Bricker Balken’s insightful and admiring biography seeks to reclaim Rosenberg for the pantheon. Through an intellectual history, Balken skillfully recounts the range and depth of this unusual man, who sustained commitments to a panoply of subjects—art, aesthetics, criticism, poetry, Marxism—without ever succumbing to any party line.
One of Rosenberg’s most celebrated essays skewered those whom he dubbed “The Herd of Independent Minds”: scholars and critics who roundly dumped on an ascendant popular culture, claiming it inspired a sameness of thought. Rosenberg showed that this malady equally afflicted high art, and that it was silly to assume that the minuscule audience for intellectual journals somehow endowed them with higher quality. Rosenberg believed that art’s politicization happened across the spectrum, whether in its kitsch, “midcult,” or elite variants. High art was as susceptible as demotic art to gross manipulation and consensus views.
In the art history world, Rosenberg is remembered for his concept of “action,” best expressed by his labeling of the burgeoning Abstract Expressionist movement as “action painting.” This American movement was an individual response to the hegemony of European art in the aesthetic realm and the specter of collectivism in the political. It was a heady cultural moment that shined a light on the creative ferment in the United States, a period vividly captured by Louis Menand in last year’s door-stopper The Free World. Rosenberg was not just present at the movement’s creation but actively participated in its formulation. It represented a conjoining of his intellectual pursuits across arts, ideas, and politics.
Willem de Kooning’s work became Rosenberg’s exemplar of action painting, and de Kooning himself would become a lifelong friend. The qualities Rosenberg admired in his paintings—the focus on the instinctual, on the force and sensuality of unmediated gestural brushstrokes, on human agency and personal identity—were emblematic of the Dutch “new master.” Rosenberg and de Kooning together proselytized for the role of performativity and subjectivity in art, thereby opening it both to political context and to the painter’s immediate psychological or emotional states.
In an acclaimed piece published in Art News in 1952, Rosenberg advanced the action-painter idea: “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event. . . . The big moment came when it was decided to paint . . . just to PAINT. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from Value—political, esthetic, moral.”
Rosenberg’s shot across the bow was tantamount to a Port Huron Statement (avant la lettre) in the world of arts and ideas. It signaled a new way of conceiving art that focused directly on human agency, spontaneity, and the process of creation. His leitmotif of action liberated painters and audiences from a singular, positivist fixation on the artist’s end result.
This epistemic shift had its naysayers. Its sharpest antagonist was Clement Greenberg, a name that once incited either hero worship or outcry. Greenberg, the (literally) pugilistic defender of American abstraction, believed that the movement emerged out of historical necessity; it wasn’t a radical departure in art history but its overdetermined continuation. With abstract art’s stress on aesthetic purity, nothing outside the canvas mattered. Rosenberg’s talk of the artist’s “action” and their participation in an “event” was hyperventilated nonsense. For Greenberg, abstract art, and Abstract Expressionism particularly, “rested on rationality” and historical inevitability. Art’s duty was to itself. Moreover, as Mary McCarthy once remarked, “You can’t hang an event on a wall.” The critic Robert Hughes concurred: “acts, once finished, have a way of turning into pictures.”
Those who stood behind Rosenberg or Greenberg asked members of the art world to take sides through a sparring match carried out in establishment publications like the New York Times and art journals like Art News, Art International, and, later, Artforum. But while Abstract Expressionism reigned over American art, it’s easy to forget that the movement and its celebrants had vocal and notable detractors. John Canaday, a critic for the Times, found the movement rubbish. Esteemed painters like Edward Hopper, Jacob Lawrence, and John Marin maligned it (and the critics associated with it) in a signed editorial statement, calling it a “disease that is destroying the artistic life of the present . . . and that is promoted by theories . . . fixed in a ritual jargon.”
Rosenberg fought back. The heady days of left struggle in the 1930s and ’40s had armed him with the protective gear to go toe to toe with those upset about the farewell to figuration. He was particularly offended by the claim that action painting was somehow anti-humanist. He refused to let art speak for itself, walled off from the creative dialectic between making and thinking. For Rosenberg, this was the humanist project.
Harold Max Rosenberg, a Brooklyn kid, attended City College for a spell, but he wasn’t a product of the swashbuckling debates in the cafeteria alcoves where Stalinists and Trotskyists (including figures like Irving Howe and Daniel Bell) once squared off in disputation. Rosenberg also received a law degree, which he forgot about as soon as he claimed it. He was an imposing presence at six-foot-four and was never hampered by a shortage of self-confidence. McCarthy once said that the mustachioed critic reminded her of a pirate or a buccaneer. His first love was poetry, which forged his literary and allusive style, produced his first book, and paved the way for his entrée into the Partisan Review world in the late 1930s. But it was the bonanza of opportunities for striving cultural producers provided by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that set his path and anchored his friendships. Rosenberg exploited what the WPA had on offer. He spent time with the Mural Division of the Public Works of Art Project in 1934 (his relationship with the troubled, brilliant painter Arshile Gorky began here) before becoming national arts editor of the WPA’s American Guide Series, where he began a lifelong friendship with the painter Barnett Newman (the subject of Rosenberg’s final book)
His first foray into art criticism was as a writer and editorial board member of the publication Art Front, which he pushed to reconcile its political commitments with aesthetics. During this time, he fell in, as so many did, with those Fourth Internationalists who took Trotsky’s side in the battle with Stalin (he called them, at least partially affectionately, “our political cubists”). But he never became a Communist Party fellow traveler, let alone a member. He was always reluctant because he believed the Communists were unable to accept irony and paradox—two cardinal features of the intellectual’s personality. He was, to the last, a nonaligned Marxist.
Rosenberg’s focus on action and human agency had an elective affinity with Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism in the 1940s. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre wrote, “To act is to modify the shape of the world.” What he saw as authenticity resonated with Rosenberg’s notion of the painter’s authentic subjectivity. Rosenberg became friendly with the crowd around Les Temps Modernes, the monthly French journal founded by Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who at one point suggested that Rosenberg pen a monthly column on American culture for their vanguard publication. In the end, sectarian politics proved fatal: Sartre’s rigid defense of the French Communist Party, and what Rosenberg felt was the French writer’s didacticism about the role of the working class, torpedoed their relationship.
Rosenberg was also uncomfortable with Sartre’s famous dialectical assertion that the anti-Semite instantiated the Jew. Parts of what became Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew appeared in Commentary in 1948, as did Rosenberg’s response in 1949. Rosenberg wrote that “for all his viciousness and ‘mediocrity,’ Sartre’s anti-Semite is more human,” and more authentic, “than his Jew.” Although he had an ambivalent relationship to Jewishness, Rosenberg never papered over it—unlike Philip Rahv (born a Greenberg), Irving Howe (Horenstein), Daniel Bell (Bolotsky), or William Phillips (Litvinsky). His sensibility resembled Isaac Deutscher’s “Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry.” Like Deutscher, Rosenberg’s preferred register was detachment: “The Jew exists,” he wrote, “but there are no Jewish traits.” He was uncomfortable with the idea that there could be a “Jewish art.”
Sustained attention to dialectics in culture and society kept Rosenberg’s work fresh and tethered it to the Marxist tradition. Dialectical tension, for him, complicated lazy generalities. But he also resisted mechanistic thinking; agency and contingency were too much part of the human experience. The degree of deterministic certainty expressed by the Greenberg school was anathema to Rosenberg. Fellow art critic Dore Ashton observed that Rosenberg “brimmed with the most fruitful doubts.” The felicitous titling of his books, whether The Tradition of the New or Discovering the Present, reflected a subtle appreciation of contradiction and paradox.
Rosenberg advocated action not only in art but in politics as well. The idea of the engaged citizen, involved in both intellectual and political life, excited Rosenberg and fortified his belief in political change. He praised and defended McCarthy’s sojourns to Saigon and Hanoi during the Vietnam War as acts not just of reportage but of political action. He cheered her unapologetic engagement, believing that anything short of total immersion would cast her net short.
What followed Abstract Expressionism was only intermittently of appeal to Rosenberg. He began to see the art world’s need to market itself taking primacy. The art market “has a very insidious quality,” he wrote, “a very destructive effect on artists. . . . All the intellectual solidarity that was developed in the 1930s and 1940s began to dissipate with the appearance of cash. It was like an explosive.” Equally troubling to Rosenberg was the cheapening of the avant-garde through what he saw as crude sleights of hand. Exemplary here was Robert Rauschenberg’s literal erasure of Rosenberg’s action-painting poster child in the notorious 1953 work Erased de Kooning Drawing. Unlike, say, the work of Marcel Duchamp, who he thought contributed to a subversion of art as an institution, Rauschenberg’s gambit was, to Rosenberg, distinctly conservative. “The bland display by conservative curators of relics of subversion,” he wrote, “has the effect of heightening the cohesion of the art world.”
Rosenberg worried about the anti-intellectual currents in art that began to express themselves after action painting seemed to run its course. He saw how easily some of his own assertions could be twisted to allow for cheap, indulgent, and hollow cultural productions. The apolitical and amorphous “Happenings” of the 1960s were a case in point. Rosenberg cautioned that “in art it is always a mistake to push a concept to its logical conclusion,” understanding, perhaps implicitly, that his own signature concept—action—had reached its terminus. You could locate that endpoint in the 1975 publication of Tom Wolfe’s send-up of modern art, The Painted Word, in which Wolfe unforgivingly satirizes the Rosenberg–Greenberg debates. (Undoubtedly, Rosenberg loathed the anti-intellectualism coursing throughout Wolfe’s satire.)
Before his death in 1978, at the age of seventy-two, Rosenberg was widely considered the dean of American art critics. His columns for the New Yorker, where he was the chief art critic for a decade, are collected in several volumes of his writings. His championing of Arshile Gorky, particularly his creative appropriation of other painters, anticipated later appreciation of what became postmodernism. And his close friendship with the cartoonist and illustrator Saul Steinberg, who was the subject of his final catalog essay, further affirmed Rosenberg’s recognition of the subversive power of drawing.
Some years after Rosenberg’s passing, his friend Saul Bellow—who, with Hannah Arendt, was instrumental in bringing Rosenberg to the University of Chicago from 1966 to 1978, where he taught everything from Dostoyevsky to Valéry for the Committee on Social Thought—published What Kind of Day Did You Have?, a roman à clef that was unmistakably based on Rosenberg. Bellow, who was known to place his friends (and ex-friends) in his stories, detailed a long affair Rosenberg had had, resulting in a rather mean-spirited portrait of the art critic as an old man. The Rosenberg-inspired character, Victor Wulpy, was “so commanding that he often struck people as being a king, of an odd kind.” Bellow nonetheless eulogized Rosenberg after his death, praising his critical, independent mind: “Without a trace of pettiness or ill-nature, you were invited to take a cold drink of objectivity. He never objected, when his own turn came, to swallowing the same beverage.”
Rosenberg often fielded questions about what “the next decade” in art was going to look like, and he usually gave the same answer: it depends. How the economy, the political environment, and society stacked up would have every effect on what art would emerge. Rosenberg’s Marxism always kept his perspective in check, and predicting that one artist or another would continue to be celebrated in a century’s time was a game he refused to play.
Rosenberg was distinct among the New York intellectuals in being unencumbered by a need to always claim victory. “Harold never wanted to win an argument. He only wanted the argument to get better,” Rosenberg’s literary executor, the editor Michael Denneny, told me. Balken’s book gives a panoramic view of Rosenberg’s complex arguments, and does so unimpeded by jargon. Where the biography falls short is in not offering much of Rosenberg’s interior life. There is almost no mention, for example, of music in the book. Can it be that music didn’t enter Rosenberg’s life? After such a careful dissection of his manifold work, hundreds of interviews, and a fifteen-year effort studying the man, it’s a surprising and unfortunate lacuna.
But Balken provides an acute portrait of Rosenberg’s fiercely held intellectual independence. His own self-description in the “The Herd of Independent Minds” (turned down by Delmore Schwartz for Partisan Review!) is indicative: “The rhythm of my experience is broken and complicated by all sorts of time-lags, symbolic substitutions, decayed absolutes, experimental hypotheses.” For Rosenberg, there was never any through line to history.
Rosenberg’s New York Times obituary called him a philosopher and committed critic, which would have pleased him to no end. So, too, the words of writer and gadfly Seymour Krim, who said his friend “never wrote at a level beneath his thinking.” One could not dream up a better epitaph for this intellectual’s intellectual.
Leonard Benardo is Executive Vice President of the Open Society Foundations and co-author with Jennifer Weiss of Brooklyn By Name: How the Neighborhoods, Streets, Parks, Bridges, and More Got Their Names and Citizen-in-Chief: The Second Lives of the American Presidents.