By Debra Bricker Balken

University of Chicago Press. 640 pages. $40. ISBN 978-0-226-03619-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

The days of the New York Intellectuals seem very distant. It’s perhaps difficult for younger people to understand why what Mary McCarthy said about Lillian Hellman attracted so much attention, or why magazines like Partisan Review, Commentary, and Encounter were essential reading. And the furore that erupted when it turned out that the CIA had been funding various publications. Not to mention the way in which that organisation backed the notion that a movement such as Abstract Expressionism represented Western ideas of freedom of thought and expression against the state-controlled artistic productions of Russia and the Eastern Bloc countries.

And why did Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg fall out? It admittedly wasn’t hard to do in the hot-house atmosphere of the New York intellectual world, where personalities competed and personal relationships often quickly soured. But the Rosenberg/Greenberg saga represented more than a simple matter of a clash of egos. Their different ideas about developments in art appeared to have significant relevance in post-1945 culture.

Harold Rosenberg was born in 1906. His father was a tailor who “loved to read and to write verse in Hebrew in his spare time”. Little seems to be known about his mother. When he was young Rosenberg suffered a “debilitating bone infection that left his right leg permanently immobilised, and he needed a cane to walk for the rest of his life”. He attended CCNY in 1923/24, and “graduated from Brooklyn Law School with a LL.B in 1927. He never practised law, and in fact had little interest in a career in that or any other commercial or business line. 

In a way his “real” education began around 1928 when he met Harry Roskolenko on the steps of the New York Public Library. Roskolenko later recalled that the conversations he had with Rosenberg  were “a crucial part of their intellectual development”. And he added that the whole scene was lively and stimulating: “Everyone was there….from Kenneth Burke to Sidney Hook, philosophers, critics, grammarians, Marxists, Trotskyists, Stalinists, technocrats, vegetarians, free lovers – everybody with a talking and reading Mission”. It’s worth noting that Roskolenko himself was later identified with the Trotskyists in the United States. A poet, journalist, and novelist, his books are well worth searching for. The memoir of growing up in the Jewish ghetto on New York’s Lower East Side, When I was Last on Cherry Street, is lively and informative.

Rosenberg’s progression through the 1930s was fairly typical of a young, bohemian poet and intellectual at the time. He contributed to little magazines such as Pagany, Poetry, and Blues, the latter started by Parker Tyler and Charles Henri Ford. And he was involved in founding a short-lived publication, The New Act: A Literary Review. He was also reading Marx avidly, and had a loose association with the American Communist Party (he sometimes contributed to New Masses, the Party’s cultural journal), though he was never a member and became known for his critical evaluations of Party policies and activities.

He had ambitions to be an artist, and was employed on murals for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) where he was assigned as an assistant to Willem de Kooning, and met Lee Krasner. He was eventually transferred to the Federal Writers Project (FWP) and worked on American Stuff, which essentially featured material from many of the writers (including Roskolenko, Weldon Kees, and Kenneth Rexroth) who had joined the Project, usually because it provided a small but steady wage at a time when many people were struggling to stay alive. Rosenberg continued to write for little magazines like Partisan Review and New Masses and to meet some of the people who became well-known in New York intellectual circles in the 1940s and 1950s – Lionel Abel, Philip Rahv, William Philips, and Meyer Schapiro.

Rosenberg’s interests were changing and he drifted away from poetry and became more involved in writing about art. He joined the editorial board of Art Front, a magazine with a firmly left-wing approach to its subject. Among the topics Rosenberg tussled with was “How to reconcile political engagement with aesthetic commitment”.  It was something that often brought him into conflict with the communists associated with the magazine. But it was also during this period that his problems with Clement Greenberg seem to have seriously got under way. Both men had written erudite essays warning against the “menace of popular culture”, and thought “that artists and writers had to form their own communities to retain their individuality and resist conformity”. As the years developed, however, they differed about how to define and interpret developments in art. Rosenberg essentially thought that paintings had to be seen in their social as well as artistic context, whereas Greenberg might be said to have generally taken a more purely-aesthetic view of them.

They didn’t necessarily differ in their awareness of how what came to be known as Abstract Expressionism developed, though Rosenberg’s idea of the canvas as “an arena in which to act ” (The canvas was “no longer a surface on which to paint a picture, but a surface on which to record an event”) didn’t appeal to Greenberg. He was more inclined to have a formalist approach to the way in which paint had been applied to a canvas. It’s easy to see how he later promoted colour field artists and their work.  Rosenberg’s term for what was happening was “Action Painting” and he said, “The human being is nothing else but the situation in which he is acting”.

Debra Brickett Balkan says of the artists: “As painting liberated itself from the figure, their Marxist politics became internalised as ‘personal revolt’…..these artists became engaged in the enactment of what Rosenberg called ‘private myths’, or the revelation of their interior lives”. The problem with a term such as “action painting” may have been that the word “action” is inevitably associated with movement, and as a consequence became linked to Jackson Pollock’s highly-visual method of drip-painting. I doubt that many people had Action Painting in mind when they looked at canvases by Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline.

It might be useful to register that the critic Robert Coates had earlier described what painters like Pollock, Kline and de Kooning were doing as “Abstract Expressionism”,  and the artist Robert Motherwell preferred to refer to the “New York School” and thought that it represented “less an aesthetic style than a state of mind”. I think it would now be generally acknowledged that Abstract Expressionism is the term mostly used in relation to what someone like Pollock produced, though Action Paining might well sum it up better.

Rosenberg’s disability meant that he wasn’t conscripted, but he did join the Office of War Information (OWI) and served on the War Advertising Council, which was, after 1945, “renamed the Advertising Council and became a national consortium of leading ad agencies, broadcasting outlets, and print media”. His work in this line didn’t go down well with many of his old comrades on the Left. Sidney Hook, for example, said that Rosenberg was involved in “celebrating the virtues of American business and at the same time was a ‘closet revolutionist’ or ‘parlour social nihilist’ attacking everyone else for selling out”. And he added that Rosenberg was “a shameless political opportunist”. I don’t suppose these arguments mean much now, but they are interesting to read about in the context of the 1930s and 1940s. Hook’s comments may have been brought about by Rosenberg’s dismissal of those people who had gone into academia, as Hook had done. But in retrospect, it’s relevant to look at Hook’s later involvements with CIA organisations, and Rosenberg’s own eventual entry into academic employment. Both can be said to have compromised in their different ways.

Whatever Rosenberg did to earn a living he didn’t give up on his artistic interests. He mixed with artists, and in 1948 co-operated with Robert Motherwell on a one-shot little magazine called possibilities.  Motherwell at the time was heavily involved with his large, influential book, The Dada Painters and Poets, and Rosenberg more or less took over the editorial role of the magazine. There was soon a disagreement between them. Rosenberg also managed to fall out with Mark Rothko. It was during this period that Lionel Abel, who met up again with Rosenberg in Paris, remarked, “It is the same old story, only older and less interesting. He can scarcely talk about any subject without blowing his horn, and all of his ideas sound like advertising slogans – for what?”. The contempt that many intellectuals had, and probably still have, for those who work in advertising is well-known. But it would be interesting to look at some lists of poets and artists who have had stints, and sometimes careers, with advertising agencies. I can think of one friend, in particular, who produced excellent, well-received poetry while paying the bills by working in advertising.

Rosenberg was a regular presence at “The Club”, the meeting place for the new painters in which they held discussions and invited critics, poets, and others to give talks. In Balken’s words: “The Club was a remarkable gathering place, known for its erudite talks and as a place to assemble, gossip, and take part in shop talk..….It was avowedly non-partisan, a place where politics was left at the door, and no single aesthetic credo dominated”. Rosenberg said that it was alight with “exuberance”.

It might be thought that Rosenberg’s left-wing associations would have invited attention from the FBI and HUAC as anti-communist feeling built up in the late-1940s and early-1950s. It does seem that the FBI had a file on him, but he was never called to appear before HUAC. It may have been that his record of anti-Communist Party statements in the 1930s, and the fact of his being criticised by the Party for some of his activities, had been noted by the authorities. His work began to be published in Commentary, a right-wing Jewish publication, and he was hired to teach at the New School for Social Research.  In 1959 his significant collection of essays, The Tradition of the New, was published. This isn’t the place to go into an analysis or discussion about its contents, other than to say that, though art criticism might have taken pride-of-place, Rosenberg also engaged in surveys of “poetics, Marxism, and cultural politics”.

A couple of years before the appearance of The Tradition of the New a short story by Leslie Fiedler entitled “Nude Croquet” had been published in Esquire. It was a sharp satirical look at some old 30s radicals (“they share a Marxist past, the only glue that remains of their sagging friendships”) who come together for a party and proceed to fall out as personalities clash and they drag up old arguments and enmities. Balken says that Rosenberg “is represented by the character Howard Place, an abstract painter who is about to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. Place is overly sure-footed about his professional success, yet envious of his friends with younger wives”. There is an oblique reference here to Rosenberg’s long-standing and long-suffering wife, May Natalie Tabak, who somehow tolerated his womanising and a string of affairs.  As Balken puts it: “He thought his bohemianism freed him from monogamy. He would travel through life with multiple partners, but he would never leave his marriage”.  

Rosenberg had substituted for Robert Coates as the art critic of the New Yorker for a short period, and in 1967 was offered the post on a full-time basis. It gave him increased status in the New York art world, the New Yorker having a wide circulation. As another example of his now-rising reputation he was invited to teach at the University of Chicago (his friend Saul Bellow probably helped to get him there) where he had the post of a Professor of Social Thought. It was a curious move for a man who earlier had inclined to the view that a university was not, in Balken’s words “the way to advance intellectual life”. Some may have seen him as part of the academic establishment, but it wasn’t how many in that establishment viewed him. She points out that Rosenberg’s presence at the university wasn’t always welcomed: “Unlike the Committee on Social Thought, where he was sought after and valued, the older art history faculty members were threatened by his public stature….They wrote off Rosenberg’s pedagogy as ‘too anecdotal’, not grounded in connoisseurship and commitment to archival detail”.

Harold Rosenberg died in 1978. A couple of his colleagues at Chicago wrote short stories about him. Richard Stern’s “Double Charley”, and Saul Bellow’s “What Kind of Day Did You Have?" both dwell on the same theme – Rosenberg’s reputation as a Lothario. Bellow’s character, Wulpy, an art critic with a gammy leg, was a “bohemian long before bohemianism was absorbed into everyday life”. And he is described as still taking Marx as his gospel and giving talks about the “application of The Eighteenth Brumaire to American politics and society – the farce of the Second Empire. Very timely”. 

Balken, summing up his life, offers this account: “Rosenberg knew that his ideas could not be spun into lasting theory. Unlike formalism, action was evanescent. He also knew that his signature term had run its course with the demise of the avant-garde in the late-1960s. With this demise, intense debate had ceased to matter”. He was out of place in the new art world and looked on Andy Warhol, and other Pop and Colour Field painters as “virtuosos of boredom”.

Debra Bricker Balken has written a fascinating, well-documented biography of Rosenberg which brings to life a long-lost world of radical politics, bohemian writers and artists, and serious debates. It was a world of little magazines, disputes, and near-poverty in its early days. It would be wrong to romanticise the social situation which helped create it, but likewise it would be wrong to dismiss what came out of it as lacking interest. With so much art and politics now focusing on novelty and triviality, Rosenberg and Greenberg could claim they’ve been proved right about the threat from mass culture. Rosenberg’s “Herd of Independent Minds” has particular relevance in terms of how large numbers of people, including intellectuals, can be persuaded to admire and desire the same things, though some might want to question his role in advertising in relation to this. But it’s useful to look back to a time when it appeared that “ideas were worth fighting for” and being serious mattered.