The artist Rachel Rosenthal, whose archive is part of the Getty Research Institute, was perhaps best known for her trademark shaved head, with her pet rat and artistic collaborator, Tatti Wattles, resting on her shoulder. Long the grand dame of Los Angeles experimental theater, her storied career spanned decades. Yet Rosenthal created some of her most memorable work later in life as the voice of Mother Earth, giving expression to a planet that humans seem intent on destroying.
Rosenthal was in her 50s when she found her calling as a performance artist in the feminist art scene of 1970s Los Angeles. A war refugee from a wealthy Russian Jewish émigré family, Rosenthal had struggled to find a sense of identity. The women’s movement helped her understand her sense of displacement, her complicated feelings toward her family, and inability to reconcile being both a woman and an artist. “I think that it was like a dam breaking,” she said about the feminist movement in a 1989 oral history with the Smithsonian. “Because of that I was able to do in my performance work what I had never been able to do in my life, which is to reveal myself, to disclose, to air, to put out all this garbage and turn it around and make it into art, and in a sense reveal all the dark secrets that I had kept locked up all these years. It was redemption and exorcism.” By the early ‘80s, she had divorced her husband of twenty years, the actor King Moody, and produced a series of highly autobiographical works that served to purge the family ghosts.
In her shamanic pieces, “she rages about loneliness, eating habits, damaged knees, her mother haunting her, and growing up forced to perform in the high-class Paris environment of the 1930s,” as one critic wrote, “But gradually she transcends her personal pain and moves on to global concerns. She speaks up for human and animal rights and takes full responsibility for the damage civilization has done to the world.”
Against a growing environmental awareness that emerged in the ‘70s, Rosenthal turned toward eco-feminist themes that were at once sociopolitical and profoundly personal. In performances like “Gaia, Mon Amour,” and “Pangaean Dreams,” environmental stewardship and women’s liberation, the human and the planetary body, were deeply entwined. In these one-woman shows, carried by her powerful voice, Rosenthal was by turns indignant, mournful, and enraged. On stage, she growled, snarled, sighed, and wept. For the performance “L.O.W. in Gaia,” a meditation on her time in the Mojave desert, she traced the number 60, her age at the time, in red lipstick on her bare head, with a bulging trash bag yoked to her torso. “I relate to the ailing body of the Earth and to the ailing mother, who was my own mother when she was ill,” she said. The great Goddess, Rosenthal’s mother, and her own individual identity all became one.
Her ecological works drew on the avant-garde traditions that she had pioneered decades before. Rosenthal’s Instant Theater, which she ran with King Moody, was one of few places for experimental performance in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s and early-1960s. While living in New York in the late ‘40s, she had befriended artists like Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Jasper Johns. Influenced by the work of these artists, the Instant Theater improvised using found materials while pushing the art form to its most surreal limit. People were continually surprised, she said, that the actors were not on drugs. At her home in the hills, audiences would crowd in stairwells and sit on abandoned car seats on the floor to see some of the most experimental shows in the city.
Her extravagant performances, which often felt like forms of sorcery, challenged the idea that the human is the central protagonist in the great drama of life. She always lived with multiple animals–at one point, she lived in a house with seventeen cats–but later in her career came to identify most with the rat, performing frequently with Tatti Wattles. “I became immensely bonded with Tatti, and he was really my little soul-mate and we slept together and we ate together and we did everything together,” she said. In her performance “The Others,” she shared the stage with dozens of animals, from parrots to deer to two huge pythons. The biographies of each animal was listed in the program, and, at the end of the piece, all were adopted.
“I want to give the planet a voice because I feel she’s in great trouble and she will make a lot of trouble for us—in fact, she already is, and it will only get worse. The problem of the individual body is a microcosm/macrocosm situation; as above, so below. Everything is connected,” Rosenthal wrote in her book, Rachel’s Brain and Other Storms.
As she addressed topics from nuclear annihilation to toxic waste, Rosenthal believed that humans had not only forgotten our reverence for the Earth, but were losing our crucial sense of interdependence. “Unfortunately, her work and her words were prophetic. She’d be appalled by the state of things, but not surprised,” said Kate Noonan, director of the Rachel Rosenthal Company. Instead of casting the earth as a static backdrop to human activity, an enormous dumping ground for humanity, Rosenthal’s performances call out our intimate interconnectedness, our shared condition as the “children of a larger organic body.”