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Harold Rosenberg

A Critic‘s Life

Despite being one of the foremost American intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century, Harold Rosenberg (1906–1978) was utterly incapable of fitting in—and he liked it that way. Signature cane in one hand and a cigarette in the other, he cut a distinctive figure on the New York City culture scene, with his radiant dark eyes and black bushy brows. A gangly giant at six foot four, he would tower over others as he forcefully expounded on his latest obsession in an oddly high-pitched, nasal voice. And people would listen, captivated by his ideas.
 
With Harold Rosenberg: A Critic’s Life, Debra Bricker Balken offers the first-ever complete biography of this great and eccentric man. Although he is now known mainly for his role as an art critic at the New Yorker from 1962 to 1978, Balken weaves together a complete tapestry of Rosenberg’s life and literary production, cast against the dynamic intellectual and social ferment of his time. She explores his role in some of the most contentious cultural debates of the Cold War period, including those over the commodification of art and the erosion of individuality in favor of celebrity, demonstrated in his famous essay “The Herd of Independent Minds.” An outspoken socialist and advocate for the political agency of art, he formed deep alliances with figures such as Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, Paul Goodman, Mary McCarthy, Jean-Paul Sartre, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock, all of whom Balken portrays with vivid accounts from Rosenberg’s life.

Thoroughly researched and captivatingly written, this book tells in full Rosenberg’s brilliant, fiercely independent life and the five decades in which he played a leading role in US cultural, intellectual, and political history.

656 pages | 38 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2021

Art: American Art, Art--Biography

Biography and Letters

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature

Reviews

"Well-researched. . . . Balken paints Rosenberg as an outsider by design, and recreates the people, places, and intellectual movements that influenced the fiercely independent thinker from his native Brooklyn to bohemian, leftist Manhattan in the 1930s."

Publishers Weekly

“This thoroughly researched biography of Harold Rosenberg, America’s greatest art critic, vividly captures the Rosenberg I knew as an intellect and a friend—I couldn’t put it down.”

Jonathan Fineberg, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“In her mesmerizing, tough-minded, and prodigiously researched intellectual biography of Harold Rosenberg, Balken tracks the legendary art critic’s extraordinary intellectual journey through almost every major esthetic and political development—and battle—in the US and France from 1930 through the 1960s. This welcome book challenges readers to consider what it is about Rosenberg that we still need and whether there might ever be another prominent working critic with his independence, culture, and engaged and poetic imagination.”

Michael Brenson, art critic and art historian

“A most impressive achievement, Balken’s exhaustively researched biography of Harold Rosenberg constitutes a significant contribution to our knowledge of American intellectual and artistic life during this unusually fertile period.”

Charles W. Haxthausen, Williams College

Table of Contents

Prologue
1 Never had any dreams: Borough Park
2 In the landscape of sensibility: East Houston Street
3 A capacity for action: Poetry: A Magazine of Verse and The New Act
4 We write for the working class: The American Writers’ Congress
5 You would have to be recluse to stay out of it: Art Front
6 American Stuff
7 Myth and History: Partisan Review
8 Partisans and Politics
9 A Totally Different America: Washington, DC
10 The Profession of Poetry: Trance above the Streets
11 Death in the Wilderness: The OWI and the American Ad Council
12 Notes on Identity: VVV and View
13 Possibilities
14 Les Temps modernes
15 An explanation to the French of what was cooking: “The American Action Painters”
16 Guilt to the Vanishing Point: Commentary Magazine
17 A Triangle of Allegiances: Arendt and McCarthy
18 The Tradition of the New
19 Pop Culture and Kitsch Criticism
20 Play Acting: Arshile Gorky
21 Problems in Art Criticism: Artforum
22 Location Magazine and the Long View
23 The New Yorker
24 The Professor of Social Thought
Acknowledgments
Notes
Bibliography
Illustration Credits
Index
 

Excerpt

Harold Rosenberg always resisted the in-crowd. From the moment he entered Erasmus Hall in 1919, an elite high school in Brooklyn, he felt ostracized by the rivaling cliques of students who dominated the social scene. Many came from rich families—Jewish and non-Jewish alike—but he found no common ground with even the few freshmen who lived in his own dreary neighborhood of Borough Park. His father, while intellectually inclined, was a lower middle-class tailor who had moved the family from Harlem when Harold was eight to settle in a Jewish community where the way of life was decidedly conformist. Religion became anathema to Rosenberg—he  hated the long, ritualized Saturday services—along with his father’s bourgeois aspirations. By the time he attended Erasmus Hall, his anti-authoritarian streak was intact. The only place he felt at home was on the baseball field or when rowing on the lake in Prospect Park.

To compound his sense of difference, Rosenberg grew to be 6 feet, 4 inches tall. By the time he was an adolescent, he towered not only over his family but also over his teachers and fellow students. With his radiant dark eyes capped by black, bushy brows and a prominent forehead, he came across as a colossus, a sort of oddity. To add to his eccentricity, his high-pitched, nasal voice always seemed out of sync with his height. He lumbered through the corridors of Erasmus Hall, where he became more and more introverted and had little interaction with his classmates. As a result, studying became his primary outlet. In today’s terms, he was a nerd. But once Rosenberg graduated, his disdain for the in-crowd intensified,  as did his requirement for independence. These traits defined him and later seeped into his intellectual life, where he became known as a loner. He may have encountered many like-minded, progressive thinkers in New York, but there were few occasions on which he became part of a community or cohesive social group, except when he was in the company of artists.

Although Rosenberg would become one of the foremost American intellectuals of the mid-century, he was constitutionally incapable of fitting in. His aversion to the status quo had been ingrained since childhood, but as his success as a writer grew, his self-confidence soared. He became not only assertive but also combative, undaunted by power. Many of his peers were put off by what they perceived as his arrogance. Others, however, viewed his willful opposition to conformist culture as a strength, particularly when he stood up to the bullying of the American Communist Party (CP), which attempted to infiltrate publishing circles during the Great Depression just as he came of age as a writer. But even his detractors knew that Rosenberg possessed a certain brilliance—particularly Clement Greenberg, the art critic for the Partisan Review and The Nation, who became one of his primary adversaries. As Greenberg admitted, Rosenberg’s erudition was astonishing. Even though he himself would never take to the philosophical thrust of Rosenberg’s essays, he came to feel undone by Rosenberg’s prominence and reputation.

Most readers of the mid-century knew Rosenberg as an art critic and only by one essay. When “The American Action Painters” was published in ARTnews in late 1952, it caused an enormous stir. Yet Rosenberg had actually written few tracts on art. He got his start by writing poetry, short stories, reviews, and literary commentary, in the early 1930s—just as the Depression set in—and this carried his career for more than three decades. In the “little mags” of the day, such as Transition, Symposium, and Poetry, he expounded on his signature trope of action, an idea he inherited from Karl Marx but revised decade by decade until he finally abandoned the conceit when he began to write the Art Column for the New Yorker in 1967.

Rosenberg’s plan from the outset was to rewrite socialist theory by granting the individual, or “hero” as he called him, a central place in Marx’s dialectical take on history. Although he was an admirer of the German philosopher, and of disciples such as Lenin and Trotsky, he had little truck with collective action, such was his contempt for the CP,  especially once it infiltrated the Federal Writers Project where he was employed during the Depression. He was interested more in the drama of human action, or resistance to mass conformity: the ethos he believed drove the modernist period and its core investment in originality. Many of these ideas were elaborated in essays that were eventually published in Partisan Review, Commentary, Kenyon Review, and later in Dissent, where Marx is fused with trenchant, yet eloquent analysis of the trials that beset self-expression. Some of Rosenberg’s tracts, such as “The Herd of Independent Minds,” written in 1948, became scorching indictments of his peers whom he felt had forfeited their intellectual independence by remaining oblivious to “social thinking.” They had capitulated to the dogma of the New Criticism to explain authenticity in art and literature, with the result that their writing became disaffected from its context and succumbed to banality and sameness. It was no wonder that Rosenberg failed to secure a full-time appointment at any of these journals until he was approached much later by William Shawn to write for the New Yorker...

Rosenberg’s principles directed his professional life to the extent that they limited his publishing options. Though his independence was essential, diplomacy was never his strong suit. He thought it was his duty to point out the myopic mindset of the “intellectual  cap-tains  of  thousands” who oversaw magazines such as Partisan Review. It was a matter of integrity. However, he never felt unmoored by the lack of a permanent home for his writing: the edge was where he wanted to be situated…

It was an ironic stroke of fate that the most prolific phase of his career came late and was associated with art criticism. Rosenberg’s social world had always included artists. He had a short stint in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as Willem de Kooning’s assistant before being transferred to the Writers’  Project. He loved the company of painters and sculptors, and in 1948 became an early member of The Club, an artist-run gathering place that ran a lively schedule of lectures and panel discussions in which he actively participated. In the interim, he had sustained friendships with Arshile Gorky, Hans Hofmann, Barnett Newman, and Jackson Pollock...

Rosenberg remains one of the most original critics to have emerged in the postwar United States. His ideas are deeply connected to the early twenty-first century, when the museum has become a contested site, its programming deemed exclusionary and narrow. He took on these issues more than sixty years before, first in “The American Action Painters” and later in the pages of the New Yorker. His notion of a “herd of independent minds” made him a  prescient thinker. His corpus of writing yields razor-sharp insight into our current cultural predicament. No other writer on art of his generation was as fluent on the end of the modern period.
 

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