Harold Rosenberg (February 2, 1906, New York City – July 11, 1978, New York City) was an American writer, educator, philosopher and art critic. He coined the term Action Painting in 1952 for what was later to be known as abstract expressionism. Rosenberg is best known for his art criticism. Beginning in the early 1960s he became art Critic for the New Yorker magazine.
Rosenberg was born in Brooklyn, educated at City College of New York and received a law degree from St. Lawrence College in 1927. Later, he often said he was "educated on the steps of the New York Public Library." From 1938 to 1942 he was art editor for the American Guide Series produced by the Works Progress Administration. Later he was deputy chief of domestic radio in the Office of War Information and a consult for the Treasury Department and the Advertising Council of America. Later, he was professor of social thought in the art department of the University of Chicago.
He wrote several books on art theory, and monographs on Willem de Kooning, Saul Steinberg, and Arshile Gorky. A Marxian cultural critic, Rosenberg's books and essays probed the ways in which evolving trends in painting, literature, politics, and popular culture disguised hidden agendas or mere hollowness.
- The Tradition of the New (1959)
- The Anxious Object (1964)
- Art Work and Packages
- Art and the Actor
- The De-Definition of Art
- Art on the Edge
- Arshile Gorky: The Man, the Time, the Idea
One of Rosenberg's most often cited essays is "The Herd of Independent Minds," where he analyzes the trivialization of personal experience inherent both in mass culture-making and superficial political commitment in the arts. In this work, Rosenberg exposes political posturing in both the mass media and among artistic elites (for instance, he claims the so-called socially responsible poetry of Stephen Spender was actually an avoidance of responsibility masquerading as "responsible poetry.") Rosenberg deplored the attempts at commercialization of authentic experience through techniques of psychological manipulation available to mass media producers. He wrote mockingly of mass culture's efforts to consolidate and control the intricacies of human needs:
The more exactly he grasps, whether by instinct or through study, the existing element of sameness in people, the more successful is the mass-culture maker. Indeed, so deeply is he committed to the concept that men are alike that he may even fancy that there exists a kind of human dead center in which everyone is identical with everyone else, and that if he can hit that psychic bull's eye he can make all mankind twitch at once.
The term "action painting" was first employed in Rosenberg's essay "American Action Painters" published in the December 1952 issue of ARTnews. The essay was reprinted in Rosenberg's book The Tradition of the New in 1959. The title is itself ambiguous as it both refers to American Action Painters and American Action Painters and reveals Rosenberg's political agenda which consisted in crediting US as the center of international culture after World War II and action painting as the most relevant of its cultural forms. This theme was already developed in a previous article "The Fall of Paris" published in Partisan Review in 1940.
Harold Rosenberg modeled the term "action painting" on his intimate knowledge of Willem de Kooning's working process. His essay, "The American Action Painters," brought into focus the paramount concern of de Kooning, Pollock, and Kline in particular, with the act of painting. Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, and Joan Mitchell might also have been included, though their work was not then discussed in this connection. For the action painter the canvas was not a representation but an extension of the mind itself, in which the artist thought by changing the surface with his or her brush. Rosenberg saw the artist's task as a heroic exploration of the most profound issues of personal identity and experience in relation to the large questions of the human condition.
In other works
Rosenberg was also the subject of a painting by Elaine de Kooning. Along with Clement Greenberg and Leo Steinberg, he was identified in Tom Wolfe's 1975 book The Painted Word as one of the three "kings of Cultureburg", so named for the enormous degree of influence their criticism exerted over the world of modern art.
Saul Bellow wrote a fictional portrait of Rosenberg in his short story "What Kind of Day Did You Have?".
- Harold Rosenberg. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 22 February 2008.
- John Russell "Harold Rosenberg Is Dead at 72: New Yorker Art Critic. New York Times July 13, 1978, D16
- Harold Rosenberg, Discovering the Present, "The Herd of Independent Minds, University of Chicago Press 1973, ISBN 0-226-72680-0, page 23.'
- Harold Rosenberg, Discovering the Present, "The Herd of Independent Minds, University of Chicago Press 1973, ISBN 0-226-72680-0, pp15-16.'
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- The Herd of Independent Minds: Has the Avant-Garde Its Own Mass Culture?, Harold Rosenberg, September 1948