Los AngelesRachel Rosenthal: Thanks: Collage Works from the 1970’s
Roberts Projects presents Thanks: Collage Works from the 1970’s, an exhibition of works on paper by Rachel Rosenthal (1926-2015). Organized in collaboration with the Rachel Rosenthal Estate, the exhibition features never before exhibited collage works from the 1970’s documenting Rosenthal’s autobiographical reflection of a pivotal time in her early artistic development.
The show takes its title after the artist’s second performance at Wilshire Plaza West, Westwood, California (1975), in which she thanked those who had actively done something important for her, with the audience participating in the familiar roles of “father,” “mother” and “friend.” The performance marked the year of her mother’s death, twenty years after her father’s. At the end of performance, each of the participants received a small box containing a unique miniature collage work from the artist.
“Thanks was a piece that also used people and animals that I had known and with whom I had had dealings that required gratitude, both sincere and ironic, and that for one reason or another I had never had a chance to thank. And so I used people in the audience—gave them a lit taper and turned them into the particular recipient of my gratitude and then I explained what the reason was for the gratitude and I thanked them and I gave them a little present each. And with each instance, of course, some relationship or some event in my past surfaced.”
Rosenthal’s collages are personal and familial, highlighting her investigation into the relationships between the body, spirituality, sexuality and the home as both residence and refuge. Early childhood experiences of exile and forced displacement informed much of her adult experiences and appear as overlapping themes in her work. This exhibition aims to show her collages as works in progress – that is, open to interpretation – by accentuating the expansive nature of Rosenthal’s practice. Materially influenced by the Avant-garde and 1950s Modern Art, they feature energetic and gestural lines, nontraditional materials, radical subject matter and a shift of the pictoral surface from vertical to horizontal.
A prolific artist and generous friend, Rosenthal’s large social group was vibrant. While in New York, she was connected with prominent members of the Second Wave of Abstract Expressionists in the early 1950s before decamping to Los Angeles, where she then became involved with the nascent modern art scene surrounding Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard. Many of her works created during this time incorporate material elements from her close friends and peers, as seen in the titular work Untitled (1975). An archival photograph sees Rosenthal, centered between her French classmates, flanked by twin portraits of her taken by artist and experimental filmmaker Wallace Berman. A Star of David pendant hangs over a drawing of a stone, which radiates lines outwards to small multi-colored geometric shapes. The overall effect is that of a levitating mass suspended by the sun’s rays.
Stones, especially in their rough, natural state, were very special to Rachel; the daughter of a pearl merchant and jeweler, her father would have undoubtedly distilled this enduring interest and appreciation of the natural world, and its transformative qualities, in her as a child. The collage 5 Decades (1975), marking her 50th year, shows five stones arranged in an arching formation and deftly painted in crisp watercolor. Stylistically, they bring to mind comparisons to the floral compositions of painter Jan Davidsz, the intricate prints and watercolor sketches by Albrecht Dürer, or even the ornithological renderings of naturalist illustrator John James Audubon. Rosenthal also employed stones and rocks in her sculptural altars and totem poles made during this time, and made clay sculptures which took on similar characteristics, which can be seen in the photograph collaged within 5 Decades.
ABOUT RACHEL ROSENTHAL
Rachel Rosenthal was a key figure in the history of post-war California art, responsible for developing and supporting many prominent areas of theater, performance and feminist art in Los Angeles. Her practice incorporated painting, collage, sculpture and artist’s books, in addition to her best-known full-length performance art pieces which combined theater, dance, costumes and live music. Rosenthal was a leading figure in the L.A. Women’s Art Movement and in 1973 co-founded the Womanspace Gallery, a cooperatively run gallery devoted to showcasing and supporting work by female artists. During this time she developed close relationships with other artists including Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, Betye Saar and Barbara T. Smith. By 1989, she had written, created, directed and acted in more than 30 full-length performances.
Born in Paris of Russian parents, her family fled Europe during WWII first to Portugal, then Brazil, and finally ended in New York in 1941. She became a US citizen in 1945 and studied art at the influential Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts in addition to taking classes at the New School for Social Research. Shortly after the war, Rosenthal returned to Paris where she was introduced to “The Theatre of Cruelty,” developed by the French avant-garde Antonin Artaud. The next few years saw Rosenthal frequently traveling between Paris and New York, absorbing new ideas and methodologies from both cities. In Paris, Rosenthal met composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham in 1948, who introduced her to the burgeoning group of artists, essayists, poets and composers who made up, in part, the Second Wave of Abstract Expressionists in New York; artists she had close personal and working relationships included Ray Johnson, Richard Lippold, M.C. Richards, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, the latter of which she had a brief relationship with during 1954-55 when the two rented studio spaces in the same building on Pearl Street, the same studio where Johns created his encaustic Flag series.
Buoyed by the desire to start anew, Rosenthal moved to Los Angeles in 1955. There she started the Instant Theatre, an experimental theater company inspired by the ideas of improvisation and disjuncture first championed by Antonin Artaud. From 1975 until her death in 2015, Rosenthal focused primarily on creating new works, writing and hosting performances, and teaching.
Rosenthal was a National Endowment for the Arts, J. Paul Getty Foundation, and California Arts Council Fellow, and in 1994 was awarded the Women’s Caucus for the Arts Honor Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts. In 2000, she was named Cultural Treasure of Los Angeles and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Performing Arts.
In 2020, the Getty Research Institute acquired the “Rachel Rosenthal Papers, ca. 1920s – 2015,” which extensively cover every phase of Rosenthal’s career. The archive contains unique unpublished materials, including more than 60 diaries and journals that contain comprehensive writing, notes on performances, and drafts of scripts. Other notebooks contain membership records for Instant Theatre, as well as notes on performances, including a visitors’ book signed by Wallace Berman, Lee Mullican, Wolfgang Paalen and Luchita Hurtado, among others. Rosenthal also produced several unique artist’s books, which are also deposited in the archive.
 Roth, Moira “Oral history interview with Rachel Rosenthal,1989 September 2-3”, transcript of an oral history conducted 1989 by Moira Roth, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington. D.C., 2003, p 28.
all images © the gallery and the artist(s)