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Harold Rosenberg papers, 1923-1984

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Rosenberg (Harold) Papers

Biographical/Historical Note

Harold Rosenberg was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1906. Like many of his generation of New York intellectuals, he was educated in the 1920s at City College, where debate about Marxism and its relationship to the arts flourished. The issues that concerned Rosenberg, and peers such as Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, Dwight MacDonald, Norman Podhoretz, and William Phillips, would generate influential journals such as Partisan Review, Dissent, and Commentary along with numerous other, often short-lived little magazines. It was in the little magazines that Rosenberg for many years found his readership. While working for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and for the Office of War Information in the 1940s and for the Advertising Council of America until 1973, he persistently published in these journals a prodigious number of poems, book reviews, art reviews, and theoretical essays. A selection of the essays were published as a book, The Tradition of the New, in 1959, when Rosenberg was fifty-three. The book reached a wider audience than the individual pieces had, and from that point on Rosenberg was in demand as a speaker, writer, and professor. In 1963 he gave the Gauss seminars at Princeton, and from 1966 until his death in 1978 he taught at University of Chicago as a member of the Committee on Social Thought. In 1962, he began publishing art reviews in The New Yorker, becoming, in 1967, their regular reviewer. These reviews, along with pieces he wrote for other prominent journals, were collected in the form of several books, including The Anxious Object (1964), Artworks and Packages (1969), The De-Definition of Art (1972), and Art On the Edge (1971). He also wrote books on individual artists he admired, such as William De Kooning, Saul Steinberg, and Barnett Newman.

Rosenberg's particular fusion of Marxist theory and modernism employed existentialism. In the late '40s and early '50s, he published in Les Temps Modernes and other French publications with the help of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Simone de Beauvoir. Rosenberg's theoretical interests and critical observation of artists such as DeKooning and Pollock crystallized in his signature piece, "The American Action Painters," published in Art News in 1952. He argued that for these artists painting was a spontaneous event in the search for individual identity, and the resultant work on canvas was but a record of that search and not an object created for the purpose of aesthetic pleasure. This argument was ever afterward associated with Rosenberg, and he continued to revise and adapt it for the rest of his career as an art reviewer.

A brilliant polemicist who loved debate and discussion, Rosenberg had many enduring friendships among the intellectual elite of his day. The mutual animosity he and Clement Greenberg felt for each other, is also, however, an integral part of Rosenberg's personal history and the history of the New York School, whose work these critics so assiduously championed. From their early rivalry over a staff position at Partisan Review, to later mutual attacks in public and in print, Rosenberg and Greenberg, equally influential, came to represent two opposing approaches to the art of their day, even if, from the vantage point of the present day, they held many assumptions and judgements in common.

Rosenberg was married for more than forty years to the late May Natalie Tabak, a fiction writer who, like Rosenberg, published in The New Yorker. They had a daughter, Patia Rosenberg, who survives them.

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