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Harold Rosenberg

Art Historian and Critic

Harold Rosenberg Photo

Born: February 2, 1906 - Brooklyn, NY

Died: July 11, 1978 - New York, NY

"Today, each artist must undertake to invent himself, a lifelong act of creation that constitutes the essential content of the artist's work. The meaning of art in our time flows from this function of self-creation."

Summary of Harold Rosenberg

Harold Rosenberg is remembered as one of the most incisive and supportive critics of Abstract Expressionism. His famous 1952 essay, "The American Action Painters," effectively likened artists such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline to heroic existentialists wrestling with self-expression. And his stress on the expressive and thematic content of their art ultimately made his writing more popular - at least in the 1950s - than the formalist criticism of his rival, Clement Greenberg. Originally a contributor to fringe, leftist magazines such as The Partisan Review, Rosenberg went on to the influential post of art critic for The New Yorker. His reading of gestural abstraction as Action Painting also proved important for early promoters of happenings and performance art, such as Allan Kaprow.

Key Ideas

Harold Rosenberg was the most influential critic and supporter of the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s. His description of them as "action painters," and his stress on their dramatic and personal confrontation with the canvas, provided a compelling image of their creative process, and one that also proved popular with the artists themselves. He believed that the action painters worked almost without regard for conventional standards of beauty: their achievement was an authentic expression of individuality and humanity.
Rosenberg saw Abstract Expressionism as a major rupture within the history of modern art. As he put it, "At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act... What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event." Rather than strive to produce a perfect finished picture, Rosenberg believed the new American painters threw all their energies into the charged moment of creation - what was registered on the canvas was merely a record of that moment.
Even though Rosenberg proclaimed that with the advent of the New York School Paris had been eclipsed as the fount of new art, his writing was strongly marked by the Existentialist philosophy prominent in Paris at the time.
Although Rosenberg was the dominant New York critic in the 1950s, he lost out to Greenberg in the following decade, when the artists he championed, such as de Kooning, began to be sidelined in favor of Color Field Painting.


Harold Rosenberg Photo

Childhood and Education

Born Abraham Benjamin Rosenberg, Rosenberg spent his childhood in Brooklyn. For a brief time, he attended classes at City College (1923-24) before enrolling in St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York) from where he would graduate in 1927 with a law degree. Shortly thereafter, he contracted osteomyelitis, a bone infection that would force him to walk with the assistance of a cane for the rest of his life, and which also kept him from military service during World War II.

Harold Rosenberg Biography Continues Harold Rosenberg Biography Continues

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