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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


"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

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
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