From The Studio

Rose C.S. Slivka | March 22, 2001

The era, circa 1948 to 1978, and its artists invented and mobilized Harold Rosenberg, thinker, philosopher, poet, art critic, essayist. In turn, he invented and gave voice to the era and its artists. Never before or since has a critic and his art world been more in tune with each other.

It was a period in which contemporary American artists did not have a written language for what they were doing. They needed writers and thinkers of high intellect to create one. Rosenberg, Clem Greenberg, Meyer Shapiro, and Tom Hess did so.

In 1952, it was Rosenberg who wrote the manifesto for Action Painting, as he called it in his unforgettable article for ArtNews. Titled "The Tradition of the New," he defined the canvas and the painting as an event of its own making, the arena for the action through the act of improvisation, making it up as the artist goes, working spontaneously and then discovering what has been done.

Gifts Of Art

The article was hailed at the time. Artists did not hesitate to reward him with artworks in recognition of his eloquence. The resulting Rosenberg collection, which he enjoyed on the walls of his house on Neck Path in Springs and his apartment in the Village was considerable by the time the critic died in 1978.

Now, 23 years after his death, Gertrude Stein (yes, there really is someone of that name alive and well), a dealer and expert on the New York art world of the 1950s, has decided to sell the remainder of the works she bought from the estate.

"Works From the Harold Rosenberg Estate," on exhibit at the Gertrude Stein Gallery in New York, is resonant with history and memory, although the most valuable paintings, which included work by de Kooning, Rothko, and Saul Steinberg, to mention only a few, were previously sold at auction.

Disjunctures

The some 24 artists on show certainly demonstrate the variety of approaches to art-making that were taking place then. The artists coexisted, and, as Frank O'Hara put it at the time, "The only decision you can make is that you did it. . . ."

With improvisation and spontaneity primary, Rosenberg and the artists of the period gave free rein to startling disjunctures, speedy changes of focus and scene, new freedom for the fragmentation and disjointedness of mood that was to characterize the New York School in every creative discipline. Above all, the spirit of the time gave the individual artists the power to do whatever they did in the privacy of their studios.

The New York School actually was comprised of many diverse schools, each containing one single artist in his or her medium of choice.

Broad Scope

Although most of the artists in the Rosenberg collection considered themselves Abstract Expressionists, their diversity stretches from abstraction to figuration and everything in between - a brilliant bits-and-pieces collage by Perle Fine, a stunning still life oil by Warren Brandt, a slap-and-drip canvas by Norman Bluhm, the figure cut up and refigured by Conrad Marca-Relli, wild and wonderful brushed canvases by Matsumi Kanemitsu, Paul Jenkins, Philip Guston, Herman Cherry, Lutz Sanders, abstract lithography by June Wayne, an acrylic on wood Surrealist clothes hanger painting by Ingeborg ten Haeff, the original cover painting by Grace Hartigan for May Natalie Tabak Rosenberg's out-of-print novel of the '50s, "But Not For Love," and more, much more.

Among the other artists, many still showing on the East End as well as in New York, are Ibram Lassaw, Helen Frankenthaler, Wolf Kahn, Elaine de Kooning, David Slivka, Alice Baber, Syd Solomon, Jeanne Reynal, William Baziotes, Biala, and Lester Johnson.

To Springs

For some 30 years, Rosenberg wrote about the New York School with insight, wit, and intellect. He was one of the early "bohemians," as the Bonackers called the artists who moved to East Hampton from New York at the time.

The Rosenberg years, during which he wrote for ArtNews under the editorship of Tom Hess, were undoubtedly the peak of that golden period, defining the specialness of the American idiom in painting and poetry. It had already been expressed in jazz, with a counterpoint in the rhythms and force of Abstract Expressionism Rosenberg found particularly in the work of Willem de Kooning.

What is outstanding about Rosenberg's involvement is his partisanship - his love for art and the people who worked at it.

Collected Essays

His essays, incisive and thoughtful, were eagerly looked for and read by the artists themselves. They are collected in "The Tradition of the New," "Artworks and Packages," and "The Anxious Object." When he became art critic for The New Yorker, there were few artists whose gallery shows he did not write about.

The group of artists was a deeply gifted one with lots of camaraderie. Most lived within blocks of each other in the same volatile neighborhood of downtown New York. They could run in and out of each other's studios day and night, meet at the Cedar Tavern, and catch each other's inspirations as a contagion of the spirit from which no one wished to escape.

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In those days, before fame and money, not everyone had a telephone. Artists got to know each other as participants in the Works Progress Administration. They met in cafeterias such as Bickford's and Stewart's and sat for hours over a nickel cup of coffee. When the weather was good they sat in Washington Square. You could not take the talk out of the art or the art out of the talk.

Everyone drank too much and Rosenberg was no exception. Like Frank O'Hara, he was not an art historian. He had no academic accreditation other than training as a lawyer. His criticism, nevertheless, is unparalleled to this very day.

Ultimately, the value of the exhibit at the Gertrude Stein Gallery is the attention it brings to this brilliant lyrical thinker, who may be in danger of being forgotten. The paintings and painters in the exhibit seem transfigured into events that accompany, first and foremost, his life and work.

The exhibit continues to April 30.