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A Performance Artist’s Politics Leave Their Mark on a Younger Generation

Rachel Rosenthal_Photo by Michael_Childers
Rachel Rosenthal (photo by Michael Childers, all images courtesy Rachel Rosenthal Company)

LOS ANGELES — With her billowing costumes, shaved head, dramatic makeup, and pet “art rat” Tatti Wattles on her shoulder, the internationally renowned performance artist Rachel Rosenthal filled up every space she entered, whether it was the performance gallery at the Whitney Museum of American Art or her Robertson Boulevard studio, a Noah’s Ark of rescued animals, in Los Angeles. Last month, when Rosenthal died in her LA home of congestive heart failure, at 88, she left behind a legacy of politically committed, avant-garde performance artworks that brought the big subjects of our time down to a human, accessible scale — from nuclear annihilation (“Was Black” and “Traps”) to humanity’s desecration of the earth (“Gaia, Mon Amour”) to how materialism has overtaken the spiritual life (“KabbaLAmobile”). Along the way she racked up the accolades, including National Endowment for the Arts, Getty, and Rockefeller Fellowships, an OBIE, and an honorary doctorate from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Born in Paris in 1926, Rosenthal was the daughter of rich Russian Jewish emigrés who fled the Nazis for New York City in 1941. Her artistic ethos was shaped by training with Hans Hofmann, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Merce Cunningham and through her friendships with Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and John Cage. In 1955 she cofounded an experimental theater group called Instant Theater in Los Angeles, inspired by Cage’s chance operations. By the 1980s she stood firmly as a pioneer in two of the city’s most vital art movements: performance and feminist art. In the ’90s, at an age when most people retire, she was at the height of her powers and widely regarded as a cultural icon.

Rosenthal’s performance company, TOHUBOHU! Extreme Theater Ensemble, will continue to present stage work monthly at her Espace DBD, one of LA’s hottest performance art venues when the art form was at its height. The ensemble is comprised of a younger generation of artists hand chosen and taught by Rosenthal, some for more than a decade. Indeed, her more lasting legacy may be in the impact she had on a younger generation of performance artists, many of whom she trained, mentored, or otherwise influenced through the power of her own visionary work.

RR in Zone (1994), a piece featuring 56 performers_Photo by Jan Deen
Rachel Rosenthal in ‘Zone’ (1994), a piece featuring 56 performers (photo by Jan Deen)

Unlike some of the other first-generation performance artists — Linda Montano, Vito Acconci, Barbara T. Smith, Carolee Schneeman — Rosenthal codified her methods into specific techniques and spread them far and wide as a teacher. One of her most important legacies is the DbD Experience (for “Do by Doing”), a workshop that integrated chance, improvisation, movement, voice, text, choreography, and multimedia. She taught DbD to perhaps thousands of artists.

“I think she gave us all a kind of permission,” says performance artist Cheri Gaulke, who met Rosenthal in 1975 at the Feminist Studio Workshop of the Woman’s Building in downtown LA. Gaulke cites “The Others,” in which Rosenthal shared a large stage with 40 different animal species, as an example of her ability to harness large spectacle in the service of humanistic change — in this case, to raise awareness of animal rights. “She showed us that a work could be theatrical and big, but that it could be intimate at the same time and that it could make a difference. She was a very big voice.”

Gaulke had just started exploring performance art when she joined Rosenthal’s Instant Theater group. “It was absolutely terrifying every single night,” she recalls. “It was like being the fool in the Tarot deck. You had to step off the cliff at every moment. But she created a safe space and facilitated many artists stepping off into that creative space.”

In 1979, Rosenthal launched her DbD performance workshops, 35-hour weekend intensives that quickly became one of the most popular tickets in town. “People would take that and come out of it completely transformed,” says writer Linda Frye Burnham, who had started High Performance, the first magazine devoted exclusively to performance art, the prior year. “I took it. Almost everybody did! You would creatively strip down and then reinvent yourself over one weekend. There was something about her approach to it that had this miraculous effect. You really felt you had been reborn.”

“When I met her she said she was a performance shaman, and I think that’s the phrase that fits her perfectly,” says performance artist Linda Sibio, who worked as Rosenthal’s manager in the late 1980s. “In the first DbD I took, she had an exercise called the Object Exercise, and she gave me a piece of red material. It’s strange because when I was in the first grade, my mother fell on a paring knife and cut her jugular vein. When I went from the TV room to the dining room she was in an inch or two of red blood. And so that fabric correlated with that incident about my mother, which I had kept inside me for so long.”

Sibio says Rosenthal knew nothing of her childhood trauma. “This was the uncanny thing — she gave me an object that was perfect, that enabled me to get into that space and totally expel that energy. I cried, I screamed, I was vulnerable, I was like a child, just … everything came back to me.” She cries as she remembers. “After that night I got rid of that energy. Only Rachel Rosenthal could have done that.”

Rosenthal’s support for fellow artists showed up in public ways as well. In 1990, conservative NEA Chairman John Frohnmeyer vetoed peer-reviewed NEA grants for Tim Miller, Karen Finley, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes on the basis of “indecent” subject matter. It was the first salvo in the culture wars of the ’90s. “I felt enormous support from some of the major artists here [in LA] …. Some of my New York colleagues, Holly, Karen, didn’t necessarily have that same feeling from comparable figures of that stature in New York,” remembers Miller, a cofounder of Performance Space 122 in New York’s East Village and Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica. “Rachel was a major figure and she was making statements, she was ready to perform at the [political] events, she was talking to the LA Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times.”

Sibio, for whom Rosenthal was a lifelong mentor, recalls how she and Rosenthal “would talk about how art should activate people for change on issues. My issues came from my own life — homelessness, mental illness, violence, prostitution, drug addiction. She taught me how to take the personal and extrapolate from it things that meant something to society as a whole.” One sees this in pieces like “Gaia, Mon Amour,” in which Rosenthal took her outrage at what humans have done to the environment and transformed herself into the mythical earth goddess Gaia, an embodiment of fury and pain.

“Anybody who’s a powerful artist opens the door for everybody else and gives them permission to maximize their brain power and try to change the world,” says Burnham. “She was so challenging for everyone. I think it made everyone stronger.”

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