Harold Rosenberg

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Harold Rosenberg
Born(1906-02-02)February 2, 1906
New York City, U.S.
DiedJuly 11, 1978(1978-07-11) (aged 72)
Springs, New York, U.S.
  • Art critic
  • writer
  • philosopher
Alma mater

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.[1] Rosenberg is best known for his art criticism. From 1967 until his death, he was the art critic of The New Yorker.

Personal life[edit]

Rosenberg was born in Brooklyn, New York. After studying at the City College of New York from 1923 to 1924, he received his LL.B. from Brooklyn Law School (then a unit of St. Lawrence University) in 1927. Later, he often said he was "educated on the steps of the New York Public Library." Rosenberg embraced a bohemian lifestyle upon contracting osteomyelitis shortly after attaining his degree; the condition ultimately necessitated his use of a cane for the rest of his life. Throughout the 1930s, he embraced Marxism and contributed to such publications as Partisan Review, The New Masses, Poetry and Art Front, which he briefly edited. From 1938 to 1942 he was art editor for the American Guide Series produced by the Works Progress Administration. During this period, he "slowly ... converted to an anti-communist and democratic stance on art toward focusing on individual creativity and the independence of the artist."[2] For much of World War II, he was deputy chief of the domestic radio bureau in the Office of War Information and a consultant for the Treasury Department from 1945 to 1946. He subsequently served as a program consultant for the Ad Council from 1946 to 1973. Following several lectureships and visiting appointments at the New School for Social Research (1953-1959), Princeton University (1963) and Southern Illinois University Carbondale (1965), he was professor of social thought in the art department of the University of Chicago from 1966 until his death.[3] Rosenberg died from complications of a stroke and pneumonia at his summer home in Springs, New York on July 11, 1978.


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)
  • Arshile Gorky: The Man, the Time, the Idea (1962)
  • The Anxious Object (1964)
  • Artworks and Packages (1969)
  • Act and the Actor (1970)
  • The De-definition of Art (1972)
  • Art on the Edge (1975)


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.")[4] 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.[5]

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.

Action painting[edit]

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[edit]

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?".


  1. ^ Harold Rosenberg. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved February 22, 2008.
  2. ^ http://arthistorians.info/rosenbergh
  3. ^ John Russell "Harold Rosenberg Is Dead at 72: New Yorker Art Critic. New York Times July 13, 1978, D16
  4. ^ Harold Rosenberg, Discovering the Present, "The Herd of Independent Minds, University of Chicago Press 1973, ISBN 0-226-72680-0, page 23.'
  5. ^ Harold Rosenberg, Discovering the Present, "The Herd of Independent Minds, University of Chicago Press 1973, ISBN 0-226-72680-0, pp15-16.'

Further reading[edit]

  • Balken, Debra Bricker (May 2014). "Harold Rosenberg Versus the Aesthetes". Art in America. New York: Brant Publications: 49–52.

External links[edit]