Creation Myths

Harold Rosenberg: A Critic's Life BY Debra Bricker Balken. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 656 pages. $40.
The cover of Harold Rosenberg: A Critic's Life

At the outset of his influential 1952 essay, “The American Action Painters,” Harold Rosenberg announced:

What makes any definition of a movement in art dubious is that it never fits the deepest artists in the movement—certainly not as well as, if necessary, it does the others. Yet without the definition something essential in those best is bound to be missed. The attempt to define is like a game in which you cannot possibly reach the goal from the starting point but can only close in on it by picking up each time from where the last play landed.

Rosenberg knew that the “game” of naming and expounding on the meanings of art was fraught. Catchalls such as the “New York School” presumed painting was sewn into distinct stylistic episodes, even though Motherwell claimed his phrase was not based on aesthetics. Rosenberg resisted the idea of a “school” entirely, believing that any explanation of the new American art should emphasize the “act” or process of painting: its unfolding in the studio, as he described, was “inseparable from biography.” Although many artists who congregated at The Club seemed engaged in a common project, the idea of a collective was illogical to him. Art could be grasped only by considering each artist’s individuality and its complex relationship to postwar society.

Like Thomas Hess, Rosenberg had wondered about derivation. Were these artists beholden to Parisian (or German) forerunners? He grappled with this issue early on in “The American Action Painters,” yet concluded that their compositions were unanticipated by earlier French modernists. As Rosenberg saw it, their originality stemmed from not having to contend with the “battleground of [art] history.” The possibility existed for the American avant- garde to forge something new by drawing from the pioneering spirit engrained in the national psyche. He had already stated that time could no longer be construed in a linear fashion and the “end of art” had been a fallout of the occupation of Paris. A tabula rasa ensued, which provided the American artist “with the adventure over depths in which he might find reflected the true image of his identity.” He likened this experience to that of Ishmael in Melville’s Moby-Dick and the self-knowledge gained from life on the open sea.

Many of the passages in “The American Action Painters” are maddeningly vague, what with Rosenberg’s romantic trope of action always defying specificity. He never mentions a single artist by name, which makes for a quandary. Who was he thinking about? The absence of names had sent both Clyfford Still and Jackson Pollock into a tailspin. They wanted to be considered exemplars of action, such was the potency of its meanings. Rosenberg does tell us midway through his essay that the American avant-garde is not young. While most of the painters were “over forty,” they were “reborn” after the crisis of the Depression and the war, which made for their dynamism. As painting liberated itself from the figure, their Marxist politics became internalized as “personal revolt.” Instead, these artists became engaged in the enactment of what Rosenberg called “private myths,” or the revelation of their interior lives.

In Rosenberg’s account, the decision to forgo the past and embark on unknown aesthetic territory was the equivalent of religious epiphany. Confronted with a blank canvas, or the void, the process of self-discovery edged toward mysticism. At least, that was the rhetoric that some of the American action painters used to describe their work. “Bits of Vedanta and popular pantheism” had seeped into their statements to convey their transcendent acts. Rosenberg was probably thinking about Ad Reinhardt and Ibram Lassaw, who were both drawn to Zen, as well as Barnett Newman, who had aligned his painting with spiritual concepts. In 1948, Newman had declared that “instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making [them] out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”

Rosenberg presumed there was no language in place for these artists to discuss their work; hence, their theological analogies. That was where the critic should have intervened, and where formalists, such as Clement Greenberg and James Johnson Sweeney, had failed them. The Club had organized a few talks devoted to Zen beliefs, most notably John Cage’s “Lecture on Somethings” in early 1951, and one by D. T. Suzuki, the preeminent Japanese translator and writer on Buddhist philosophies, who addressed the membership the following year. However, when Rosenberg sat down to write “The American Action Painters” in 1952, he felt their work was better explained as falling within the gray zone between Christian Science and the poetry of Walt Whitman. He meant that the metaphysical content of their work had precursors in the idealism of nineteenth-century American religions and the euphoric verse of Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” These juxtapositions underscored that painting the “ineffable” cleaved to “the outer spaces of the consciousness.” Not that Zen represented a contrary path, but its comparisons were too literal. If anything, an aura of indeterminacy surrounded action painting, rather than the stark self-negation associated with Eastern thinking. Not all action painters were taken with Zen.

A short way into “The American Action Painters,” Rosenberg announced that “at a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyze or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Painting was performative in his estimation, a physical activity. The ephemeral unfolding of lines, gestures, and brushstrokes all grew from the artist’s psyche. The outcome, or composition, was secondary in this drama of creation. Rosenberg dispensed with aesthetics, believing that postwar art did not aspire to a state of perfection or purity. The self-definition of the artist was all that mattered.

But what about the remnants of this encounter with the void or nothingness? How was the critic to explain what existed on the canvas? Rosenberg insisted that “anything is relevant” to art, such as “psychology, philosophy, history, mythology, hero worship.” There was one practice, however, that had no bearing on the new painting: art criticism. Here Greenberg was indirectly impugned. Although not mentioned by name, his reading of modern art as the resolution of abstract form was sterile to Rosenberg (as he had already revealed a decade earlier to Dwight Macdonald). In Greenberg’s hands, art was reduced to a discussion of taste, whereby the critic’s judgment prevailed. He had exclaimed in the late 1940s that the “dissolution of the picture into sheer texture, sheer sensation . . . seems to answer a deep- seated contemporary sensibility.” However, Rosenberg thought it was up to critics to recognize that the artist had released his inner life on the canvas through duration and spontaneity. This was key to understanding the exigencies of the postwar era.

Rosenberg believed that self-expression had become challenged by 1952. The new culture of conformity had little interest in the soul, especially as materialist values ascended. He had already written in “The Herd of Independents Minds” that mass culture posed a threat to art, and that subduing the artist’s voice through the intercession of business foreshadowed the end of modern painting and sculpture. As Rosenberg warned at the end of “The American Action Painters,” “vanguard art needs a genuine audience—not just a market.” It required an enlightened public that could read the artist’s gestures, brushstrokes, drips, and marks as extensions of the anxiety and awe he felt in the studio. Otherwise, “the taste bureaucracies,” as Rosenberg sardonically called the formalists, would continue to package art through superficial stylistic unities, a branding device tantamount to “canned meats in a chain store.”

There had been a great deal of talk about process at the “Artists’ Sessions” in 1950. Ibram Lassaw asserted that “it would be better to consider a work of art as a process that is started by the artist. In that way of thinking a sculpture or painting is never finished, but only begun.” William Baziotes observed that “American painters ‘finish’ a thing that looks ‘unfinished,’ and the French, they ‘finish’ it.” While Baziotes thought that painting aimed toward compositional clarity, making took precedent over outcome. Barnett Newman took his stance to a more radical conclusion, proclaiming, “I think the idea of a ‘finished’ picture is a fiction.” Rosenberg siphoned from this discussion, but he still felt that his conceit of action transcended the studio and was tied to a wider social context.

As the new American art became known in Europe—Hyman Bloom, Lee Gatch, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Rico Lebrun, John Marin, and Jackson Pollock were exhibited at the US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1950, and Pollock was the subject of a solo show at the Museo Correr that year—Rosenberg believed that criticism had to become responsive to the metaphors embodied in these canvases. The crisis was not about contending with illusion and the picture-plane, as Greenberg interpreted, but about the dilemma of modernism itself. How to redirect analysis of art after the revelation of the Holocaust, and the US rebuilding of Europe through the Marshall Plan? He believed the critic’s mission was to link self-expression with a changed world. And action was the best way to convey these meanings.

Reprinted with permission from Harold Rosenberg: A Critic’s Life, by Debra Bricker Balken, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2021. All rights reserved.