cover image Harold Rosenberg: A Critic’s Life

Harold Rosenberg: A Critic’s Life

Debra Bricker Balken. Univ. of Chicago, $40 (600p) ISBN 978-0-22603-619-9

New Yorker art critic Harold Rosenberg (1906–1978) remains a mystery in this detailed if uneven biography from curator Balken (Mark Tobey). Balken paints Rosenberg as an outsider by design, and recreates the people, places, and intellectual movements that influenced the fiercely independent thinker from his native Brooklyn to bohemian, leftist Manhattan in the 1930s. Here, Rosenberg got involved in the little magazine movement and such publications as Art Front. He found his most permanent and influential footing, Balken writes, within the emerging postwar American art scene. Clement Greenberg, his contemporary and art critic for the Nation and the Partisan Review, emerges as a foil and rival throughout, bringing the era’s intellectual camps to bear—Balken is at her strongest discussing Rosenberg’s ideas, as with his famous 1952 essay “The American Action Painters” and its concept of “action,” which remains a thread through the narrative. Unfortunately, Balken sometimes loses track of her protagonist in the overcrowded scenery, leaving his personal life oblique, and her account will appeal most to academics and readers well-versed in mid-century politics and art, and able to distinguish the cast of hundreds. Historians will find it well-researched, but this is likely to leave general readers wanting. Illus. (Sept.)