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Rosenberg, Harold

    Full Name: Rosenberg, Harold

    Other Names:

    • Harold Rosenberg

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1906

    Date Died: 1978

    Place Born: Brooklyn, Cattaraugus, NY, USA

    Place Died: The Springs, Long Island, NY, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): Abstract Expressionist and Expressionist (style)

    Career(s): art critics


    Art critic; canonizer of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the 1950s. Rosenberg was born to Abraham Benjamin Rosenberg, a scholar and sometime poet, and Fanny Edelman (Rosenberg). After a year at the City College of New York (1923-1924), he attended St. Lawrence University, Brooklyn, gaining a law degree in 1927. His education was greatly augmented by reading from the New York Public Library. He contracted osteomyelitis, a serious bone infection, almost immediately after graduating, resulting in his walking with a cane the rest of his life. After this life-changing experience, Rosenberg adopted a Bohemian lifestyle and a devotion to writing poetry. He wrote for the Chicago literary magazine Poetry beginning in 1931. The following year he married May Natalie Tabak (1910-1993), a teacher and social worker and later novelist. The Great Depression now in its height, Rosenberg studied Marx and contributed to the Partisan Review and the New Masses. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal took effect in 1933 and artist were put to work in their craft. In New York Rosenberg was assigned to the part of the Works Progress Administration for art, the Federal Arts Project working in its Mural Division. There he met the artist Willem de Kooning and became conversant with the theories of abstraction. But Rosenberg’s Marxism was at odds with his fundamental belief in an intellectual approach to aesthetics. He was expelled by the more doctrinaire artists in 1936 as editor of Art Front and censured the following year for his WPA issue of American Stuff. Slowly Rosenberg converted to an anti-Communist and democratic stance on art toward focusing on individual creativity and the independence of the artist. In 1938 he moved to Washgington, D. C., assuming the role of national art editor for the WPA American Guide series (appearing 1938-1942). In an early article, “The Fall of Paris,” published in Partisan Review in 1940, Rosenberg announced that New York was becoming the center of the modern art world. Too disabled to fight as a soldier in World War II, he worked in the Office of War Information in 1942, published a book of poems, Trance Above the Streets in 1943, and wrote radio plays. After the armistice, Rosenberg continued working for the War Advertising Council, renamed simply the Advertising Council. He remained at the Council as Program Consultant for most of his career. In 1947 several seminal manifestos for Abstract Expressionism appeared by the artists whom Rosenberg knew in Greenwich Village and East Hampton. These included Barnett Newman’s “The Sublime is Now” and the first (and only) issue of the journal Possibilities edited by Rosenberg, Robert Motherwell, Pierre Chareau, and John Cage. The latter work displayed an anti-ideological stance toward the abstract artists in 1947-1948. Rosenberg’s writing applied the advertising technique of pithy slogans in describing art movements. In 1952, he coined the term Action Painting for the Abstract Expressionist artists, introducing their art in a series of articles published in the periodical Art News, the leading modernist magazine edited by Thomas B. Hess. Though Hess had written a book on the Abstract Expressionists the year before, it was Rosenberg’s essay that coalesced the group in print. Rosenberg incorporated ideas from existentialism to argue the privileging of the event over aesthetics in action painting. In addition to bringing instant celebrity to himself, Rosenberg’s article and terminology brought a cohesive organizing principle to artists as different as de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline and others. Some, notably Pollock, rejected Rosenberg’s article, despite it’s bringing abstract expressionists to prominence. Rosenberg published regularly in Art News throughout the 1950’s, as well as in other literary and political periodicals such as Twentieth Century, Les Temps Modernes, and Dissent. Rosenberg began a series of college visiting lectureships, the first at the New School of Social Research, 1953-1954. In 1956 the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty asked Rosenberg to contribute the chapter on Marx for his Les Philosophes Célèbres. Rosenberg first collection of essays appeared in 1959 as The Tradition of the New. It remains his classic statements on modern art. The College Art Association awarded him the Frank Jewett Mather, Jr., Award for Criticism in 1964. After a second lectureship at Princeton University in 1963 (Christian Gauss lectures) and then a visiting professorship at the University of Southern Illinois in 1965, Rosenberg joined the University of Chicago as Professor of Art in 1966, sitting on its famous Committee on Social Thought. The following year, he was appointed art critic for the New Yorker and Rosenberg reached a vastly larger audience. Several articles in his “Art World” column criticized art historians and curators for treating art as a product. Somewhat ironically for someone who held an academic appointment, he mocked the American art establishment and academic critics and curators whom he chastised as conventional middle-class professionals and enemies of critical culture. His criticism contrasted that of Michael Fried. He mocked Fried’s favorite painters, Jules Otilitski and Frankl Stella for example, citing the latter as “a gifted designer” with a “decorator’s instinct” and “cocktail lounge taste in color.” In his later years, Rosenberg published his essays in various collections, Artworks and Packages (1969) Act and the Actor (1970), and The De-Definition of Art (1972). Rosenberg only relinquished his position at the Ad Council in 1973. In later years, further collected essays, Discovering the Present (1973) and Art on the Edge (1975) appeared. Rosenberg completed a book-length study of Barnett Newman and a show at the Whitney on his friend, Saul Steinberg, both in 1978. The same year he suffered a stroke at his summer home on Long Island and died after contracting pneumonia. Days after his death, his colleague in Abstract Expressionism, Hess, also died. Posthumous collections of his writing include Art and Other Serious Matters and The Case of the Baffled Radical. His papers are held at the Archives of American Art and the Getty Research Institute. Rosenberg gave contemporary American art serious intellectual consideration worthy of the world’s attention, writing, as the New York Times phrased it, as “not as an intellectual but as an inspired sensualist.” Contrasting the other important critic of Abstract Expressionism, the much more theoretical Clement Greenberg, and Greenberg’s apostle, Fried, Rosenberg was a gut and emotional writer. In 1959, Herbert Read characterized Rosenberg as “the Apollinaire of Action Painting.” His criticism merged politics and art. Following perhaps the example set by John Ruskin, Rosenberg selected a single artist whom he believed embodied the acme of painting. In his case, it was the concept of action painting as manifested by de Kooning. His later writing largely railed against the newest generation of artist whose art no longer fit his esthetics based upon the Abstract Expressionist painters he knew. “Much of his what he wrote in the 60’s and 70’s would find its place in any history of invective,” the critic John Russell wrote in Rosenberg’s New York Times obituary.

    Selected Bibliography

    Trance Above the Streets. New York: The Gotham Bookmart Press, 1942; jointly edited. Possibilities: an Occasional Review1 (Winter 1947/48). New York, NY: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1947; The Tradition of the New. New York: Horizon Press, 1959 ; The Anxious Object: Art Today and its Audience. New York: Horizon Press, 1964; Act and the Actor: Making the Self. New York: World Pub. Co. 1970; De Kooning. New York: Abrams 1974; Saul Steinberg. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1978.


    Sandler, Irving. The Triumph of American Painting. New York: Harper & Row, 1970; Ashton, Dore. The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning. New York: Viking Press, 1973; Herbert, James D. The Political Origins of Abstract-expressionist Art Criticism: the Early Theoretical and Critical Writings of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Stanford: Humanities Honors Program, Stanford University, 1985; Klinkowitz, Jerome. Rosenberg, Barthes, Hassan: the Postmodern Habit of Thought. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988; Rose, Barbara. Autocritique: Essays on Art and Anti-Art: 1963-1987. New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988, pp. xii; O’Brien, Elaine. “Rosenberg, Harold” American National Biography; The Dictionary of Art 27: 163; Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being. 2nd ed. New York: Prentice Hall/H.N. Abrams, 2000; [obituary:] Russell, John. “Harold Rosenberg Is Dead at 72, Art Critic for The New Yorker.” New York Times July 13, 1978. p. D16.

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Rosenberg, Harold." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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