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Artist Rachel Rosenthal thrives on chance

With a new book out and a theater company in the works, the art pioneer is set to greet her 83rd birthday in a big way at Track 16 Gallery.

November 07, 2009|Scott Timberg

The block on which performance art pioneer Rachel Rosenthal lives and works is randomly assorted even by the standards of Los Angeles: Old-school barbershop, R&B record store, place selling mostly light bulbs, that kind of thing.

Inside her studio, the mix of props -- disembodied mannequin legs, countless wigs, a forlorn unicorn and abstract props that would seem at home only in Beckett -- is just as haphazard.

To Rosenthal, what appears to be a jumble is simply the way the world works, and part of its glory. "Chance," as she calls it, has always been the basis of her life and art: performances have involved cutting her hair onstage, burying herself in artificial snow and performing with monkeys and snakes.

"It's always had a core of improvisation," says Rosenthal, 82, in her open, airy apartment lined with black-and-white photos, close to where Robertson Boulevard sneaks under the 10 Freeway.

"In accepting the givens, working with what's there, paying attention to what comes, not laying it aside, everything that comes has a reason for coming, and you have to deal with it."

A longtime art world provocateur who performed for years with a shaved head -- a kind of Laurie Anderson of that era -- today she's courtly, almost aristocratic, with a Gertrude Stein haircut, sharp blue eyes and numerous rings.

Rosenthal's belief in chance and her sense that a work of art is not a finished product but the record of its making, has made her an enduring influence on dance, performance art, improvisational theater and the way people think about art itself.

Her new book, published by Routledge, takes her thinking further. Its title, "The DbD Experience," refers to her motto, "Doing by doing," and to the 34-hour-long workshops she offers at her studio.

So it's a time of looking both back and forward. Rosenthal is preparing to launch a company and to celebrate her 83rd birthday quite publicly tonight at Track 16 Gallery. Laurie Steelink, the director of Track 16, recalls the first time she spotted the artist visiting the gallery in Santa Monica's Bergamot Station. "She was like a shaman. She had this presence. I was somewhat in awe of her, and still am."

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Career trajectory

Rosenthal was led to the ideas that would shape an artistic career that's lasted more than half a century during a period of extraordinary ferment in New York City.

She was born in Paris in 1926 to wealthy Russian Jews who later fled the Nazis, first for Brazil and later to New York.

After graduating from high school, she felt a powerful nostalgia for Paris, but in order to maintain her U.S. citizenship she would return to the States intermittently, a period she calls "eight years of continually changing continents." She still has a pan-European accent.

"It was very hard psychologically, because I would have roots and then have to yank them out. But it was amazing because that was the time of the flowering of the new theater in France and the flowering of the new visual art in New York," she says.

After settling back in New York in 1953, she fell in with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns at a time when the city's art world was drawn to Zen Buddhism.

It was composer Cage, then captivated by the I Ching and what he called "indeterminacy," who helped lead Rosenthal to chance.

"John didn't proselytize," she recalls. "He just was. His life and the way he lived his life was a big influence on the people around him. He made chance sexy. He had the ideas, and they became concretized by Merce," the great choreographer who died in July.

She still remembers Cage's tiny, Spartan apartment near the East River, its floor-to-ceiling windows, and his tiny concerts there.

"When I came to L.A. and started to teach," later in the 1950s, "all of these influences coalesced. Little by little, I started to see a shape in the fog -- what I was doing."

Anyone interested in what Rosenthal was, and is, doing, which includes feminism, animal rights, environmentalism and Antonin Artaud's "theater of cruelty," should check out her book. The jacket copy calls it "part manual, part manifesto, part memoir."

"It's important for everybody, not just to performers," Rosenthal says of chance itself. "When I give my workshops, I get all kinds of people: lawyers, bookkeepers, dancers. It's a way of life expressed in artwork.

"Chance is very risky for some people," she says. "To feel comfortable with chance gives you a one-upmanship over the lot. It gives you courage; you are not afraid to make mistakes."

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'Heavy moment'

Rosenthal is currently summoning her courage to launch a theater troupe early next year -- as well as the party tonight that will help underwrite it. The party includes a silent auction of art donated by 83 artists, including Eleanor Antin, John Baldessari, Mike Kelley, Ed Moses, Lee Mullican and Rauschenberg's estate.

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