The life and career performance artist, feminist, and environmentalist Rachel Rosenthal spans several major art movements, and she was always at the center of the zeitgeist. One of the key figures in the development of theater, performance, and feminist art in Los Angeles, she has left an indelible mark on Southern California art and on the art of performance theater.
Newly added to the Getty Research Institute’s Special Collections, the Rachel Rosenthal papers, ca. 1920s – 2015, cover every phase of Rosenthal’s career. They cover her early years in Paris and New York, her formative time in the New York art scene in the late 1940s and early 1950s, her development of the experimental theater company Instant Theatre in the 1950s and 60s, her awakening into the feminist movement in the 1970s and her mature performance and theater pieces.
The archive contains unique unpublished materials, including more than 60 of her personal diaries and journals, notes on performances, drafts of scripts, and other writing. There are also nearly a dozen sketchbooks of drawings, including sketches of costumes and other studies for artworks. Rosenthal also produced several hand-made artist’s books, which are also in the archive.
The daughter of a Russian Jewish émigré family, Rosenthal was born in Paris in 1926. As a young girl, she studied ballet with the well-known former Russian National Ballet prima ballerina Olga Preobrajenskaya. Upon the Nazi occupation of France in 1940 her family was forced to flee, first to Portugal, and then to Brazil. They traveled to New York in 1941 and settled in the United States.
In 1945, Rosenthal became a US citizen and studied at painter Hans Hoffman’s art school. She also took classes at the New School for Social Research between 1945 and 1947, where she studied with art historian Meyer Schapiro and scholar Rudolf Arnheim, and printmaker Stanley William Hayter.
After the war, Rosenthal returned to study in Paris, traveling frequently between New York and Paris in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In her travels to Paris, the young Rosenthal encountered a theatrical scene under the spell of dramatist Antonin Artaud’s new ideas about a theater of shock and the importance of gesture over dialogue, which entailed a move away from language, narrative, and rationalism.
In 1948, Rosenthal met composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham in Paris, and on returning to New York she fell in with their circle, including artists Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Ray Johnson, Richard Lippold, M.C. Richards, and Robert Rauschenberg and composers Lou Harrison and David Tudor.
Her time in New York was spent experimenting voraciously. She was a gifted performer and became a dancer in Cunningham’s junior dance company. In spring 1954 she bought a condemned lower Manhattan warehouse with Jasper Johns (with whom she was in a relationship at the time). They moved in during the summer of 1954 with Rosenthal taking the top floor and Johns taking the lower level.
Rosenthal moved to Los Angeles in 1955, where she remained for the rest of her life, starting Instant Theatre, an experimental theater company in Hollywood, which she later ran with her husband, actor King Moody, after their marriage in 1960. Continuing to be influenced by the ideas of Antonin Artaud, Instant Theater was based on improvisation and the clash and disjunction of ideas in performances. It was described euphorically by poet Jack Hirschman in 1963 as “one of the most exciting experiments in theater poetry on this or any American coast.” Suffering from osteoarthritis, Rosenthal closed Instant Theater in 1966.
Rosenthal became involved in the feminist movement in the 1970s, developing close friendships with artists Miriam Schapiro, Betye Saar, and Barbara T. Smith. By the mid-1970s she was considered one of the leading figures of feminist performance. Her work was autobiographical and drew from her privileged upbringing in Paris and her tumultuous early years and life. Experiences of exile, forced emigration, and extensive travel appear as themes in her work. In her later life, she became a passionate advocate for animal rights and the environment.
In 1975, Rosenthal created what she considered her first performances within an art context: RePlays (Orlando Gallery, Encino) and Thanks (Mount St. Mary’s University). In the first, she mused about the origins of her knee issues, and in the second, she thanked everyone who had done something important for her over the course of her life, with the audience participating in the roles of “father,” “mother,” etc.
In 1976, Rosenthal and King Moody reopened Instant Theater but the effort was short-lived. It closed in 1977 and the couple divorced in 1978. In 1979, Rosenthal performed The Arousing (Shock, Thunder) and MyBrazil and began to offer intensive workshops in performance and theater, which she named DbD, or “Doing by Doing,” as well as weekly classes.
As the leader of DbD she became uncomfortable in the power she felt she had automatically acquired and created Bonsoir, Dr Schon!, a performance in which she played audio recordings of 45 people invited to praise her. After the audio component, she was brought onstage in a wheelchair. Assistants removed her clothes and proceeded to point out the imperfections of her body to explore “the public view of what is good and bad, not only physically but also morally.”
In 1980, Rosenthal bought the current location of the Rachel Rosenthal Company, a storefront on South Robertson Avenue, where she also lived. There she held workshops, as well as performances by established and emerging artists, and exhibitions of performance documentation. In 1981, as part of the performance Leave Her in Naxos she had her hair shaved for the first time. Rosenthal continued to perform and teach until her death in 2015.
In 1990, she was awarded a J. Paul Getty Fellowship and the College Art Association award for Distinguished Body of Work, and in 1994 she received a Women’s Caucus for Art Honor Award. In 2000, she was named Cultural Treasure of Los Angeles and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Performing Arts.
Rosenthal’s unique career is represented in Getty’s collections alongside other singular pioneers of feminist performance such as Yvonne Rainer, Barbara T. Smith, and Carolee Schneemann, as well as the recently acquired Woman’s Building archives.
This archive will be made available for research after being processed and cataloged. Sign up for the Getty Research Institute’s Email Newsletter to find out more.