Greatest Art Critics Series
Harold Rosenberg

Biography of Art Critic of the New Yorker, Invented term "Action-Painting".


Harold Rosenberg (1906-78)


Education and Early Career
Abstract Expressionism
Art Critic

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One of the most influential American art critics in the field of modern art, during the 1960s and 70s, Harold Rosenberg coined the term "Action Painting" in 1952 for a particular style of Abstract Expressionism. A writer for Art News, and subsequently art columnist for the New Yorker magazine (1968-78), Rosenberg also wrote for a range of other journals including Vogue. In addition to his art criticism, he occupied a number of academic posts at several universities, winning numerous academic awards. He also published several books and collections of essays on art, including The De-Definition of Art: Action Art to Pop to Earthworks (1972) and The Tradition of the New (1959), as well as monographs on Arshile Gorky (1962), de Kooning (1974), and Barnett Newman (1978). Rosenberg was a close rival of fellow critic Clement Greenberg (1909-94): each held differing views on the New York School of Abstract Expressionist painting. In a nutshell, Greenberg was a formalist, more of a theoretician, who championed Jackson Pollock (1912-56), while the more emotional Rosenberg viewed art from a wider perspective, and favoured Willem de Kooning (1904-97). The English modernist critic Herbert Read (1893-1968) once described Rosenberg as the "Apollinaire of Action Painting": a reference to the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), who was one of the great propagandists of Picasso and the Ecole de Paris before the Great War. Other American critics who were also active in the area of contemporary art, include John Canaday (1907-85) and Leo Steinberg (1920-2011). In 1975, Tom Wolfe published a book entitled The Painted Word, in which he refers to the three "kings of Cultureburg", so called for the huge influence their criticism had in the world of American art. The three were: Rosenberg, Greenberg and Steinberg.



Education and Early Career

Born in Brooklyn to the scholar and poet Abraham Benjamin Rosenberg, and his wife Fanny Edelman, he was educated at City College, New York, and later graduated in law (1927) from St. Lawrence University, Brooklyn. Shortly after leaving university, he contracted a serious bone infection, necessitating the use of a cane for the rest of his life. This led into his 'bohemian period' during which he composed poetry, married teacher May Natalie Tabak (1910-1993), studied Marxist philosophy and wrote left-wing articles for the Partisan Review and the New Masses. Under Roosevelt's New Deal, he was employed in the murals department of the Federal Arts Project, where he first met the Dutch-born immigrant Willem de Kooning. But Rosenberg's interest in Marxism soon began to clash with his more deeply-held sense of individualist aesthetics, and in 1936 he was sacked as editor of the left-wing journal Art Front.

In 1938 he moved to Washington DC, to become the art editor for the American Guide Series, produced by the Works Progress Administration (1938-42). He also contributed to several other magazines, including Partisan Review, for whom he wrote one of his most prescient articles, in 1940, entitled "The Fall of Paris". In this, he proclaimed that New York had displaced Paris as the centre of world art. During the rest of the 1940s, he worked in the Office of War Information and then the Advertising Council of America, an organization he continued to work for until 1973.

Abstract Expressionism

During the late 1940s, a new movement of abstract art emerged in New York, which was dubbed "Abstract Expressionism" by the critic Robert Coates. Benefiting from the presence of European expatriates like Arshile Gorky (1905-48) and Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), and the support of critics (Greenberg) and wealthy art collectors and dealers - most notably Peggy Guggenheim, and Leo Castelli - the movement had two wings. These were the gesturalists Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Hofmann and Franz Kline (1910-62); and (2) the "colour-field" painters, notably Mark Rothko (1903-70), Clyfford Still (1904-80) and Barnett Newman (1905-70), who were more concerned with reflection and mood. Several of these artists published manifestos explaining their individual style, and the movement as a whole became the most talked about phenomena in fine art, triggering the European schools of Art Informel and Tachisme. In 1947 Rosenberg made his own contribution to the debate when he co-edited the one and only edition of the journal Possibilities.


In 1952, Rosenberg published his first major article on art - an essay entitled "The American Action Painters," in the leading modernist periodical Art News - in which he coined the term action painting to describe the gesturalist wing of the abstract expressionist movement. (For more, see: Gestural Painting.) Basing the article on his detailed knowledge of de Kooning's working methods, and on Jackson Pollock's paintings, Rosenberg explained that the gesturalists were primarily concerned with the act of painting. Thus, for the action painter, the canvas was in effect an extension of his mind, and brushwork became his thoughts. The whole process was a profound (almost existential) expression of individual identity: a sort of personal confrontation with the canvas. This essay not only christened the Pollock/de Kooning group and put the spotlight on its painting techniques, it also brought its author instant fame as an important interpreter of modern art.

Rosenberg continued writing for Art News throughout the 1950s, as well as in other journals including Les Temps Modernes and Dissent. In 1953, he commenced a series of college visiting lectureships. In 1956, the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty commissioned Rosenberg to write the chapter on Marx for his forthcoming book "Famous Philosophers". Three years later, Rosenberg brought out his first collection of essays, entitled The Tradition of the New (1959). It remains his most important statement on twentieth century art.

Art Critic

More recognition followed in the 1960s. In 1964 the College Art Association awarded Rosenberg the Frank Jewett Mather Award for Art Criticism. In 1966 - after completing a second lectureship at Princeton University (1963), and a visiting professorship at the University of Southern Illinois (1965) - Rosenberg joined the faculty of the University of Chicago as Professor of Art. In 1967 he took up the post of art critic for the New Yorker, which gave him a vastly increased audience for his views, several of which were critical of the arts establishment, as well as certain twentieth century painters - including Frank Stella (b.1936), inventor of Hard Edge Painting. In fact much of his later writing was taken up with criticizing the new abstract expressionists, along with contemporary art movements like Post-Painterly Abstraction and Pop art, whose aesthetics he disdained. This was not because he had gradually become a conformist, but because (in his view) artists had. By contrast he believed that real avant-garde art should always be disruptive and have intellectual depth, rather than merely formal (pictorial) qualities.

Later, Rosenberg published further collections of essays, including Discovering the Present (1973), and Art on the Edge (1975), as well as several individual studies of abstract painters like his friend Saul Steinberg (1978). In 1978, at the age of 72, Rosenberg died from pneumonia following a stroke. His papers reside in the Archives of American Art and the Getty Research Institute.

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