October 21, 2018

Endangered Species

Rachel Rosenthal, her bald pate gleaming withsweat and her stark features grooved like gashes in alabaster, lookslike a female Erich von Stroheim — who, let’s face it, could himselfhave been a woman in drag. Short, stubby, Teutonic, and with the kindof wracked expression one imagines Rimbaud wore after his season inhell, she could just as easily be the commandant of a Nazi death campas the most senior and compelling Performance Artist inCalifornia.

In fact, she is the latter and, for some 40 years,has been experimenting with a mix of Dada, surrealism, Artaudianmetaphysics and social activism. A photo of her in 1963, before sheshaved her head and wound gold earrings into her brow, reveals anattractive, lantern-jawed young lady with sensuous, devouring lipsand large, mesmerizing eyes. The updated Rachel Rosenthal is clearlyan artifact consciously designed by the artist for public consumptionand intended to be an amalgam of all the esthetic influences thatshaped her over the years. A kind of animated abstract ofpostmodernism, she combines the grittiness of Brecht with the maniaof Artaud and appears to be permanently impaled on the cutting edge.(On April 13, she will be receiving a Career Achievement Award fromL.A. Weekly, and, in June, there will be two performances of herlatest work, “The Unexpurgated Virgin,” at UCLA’s MacGowanHall.)

She is a rare bird in Los Angeles. One couldn’tbegin to conceive of anyone more un-American. Drenched in Europeanesthetics and committed to performance — dynamics that radically goagainst the grain of conventional theater, she plies her trade likean industrious mole groveling away inside the body politic. Like allindividual artists, she too has had her NEA grant withdrawn butsoldiers on in a small loft space off Robertson Boulevard, surroundedby a loyal and talented cadre of performers who have clearly beeninfected by her brand of rabid counterculturalism. She should be onthe Endangered Species list because there are so few like her around,and once they disappear, the performing arts will be severelyimpoverished. People such as Rosenthal inhabit a tiny, usually remoteinlet where alternative practices challenge the pounding surf of themainstream offering that rarest of all virtues: an estheticalternative to mob culture. It is an inlet previously inhabited byartists such as Baudelaire, Joyce, Jarry, Picasso, Artaud,Rauschenberg, Cage and Cunningham, and is invariably where thefreshest and most dangerous ideas are incubated — the ones thatsubsequently influence and ultimately transform the mainland.

One of her more recent works, “Tohubohu,” a Hebrewterm denoting chaos, confusion and hubbub, grew out of loose patternsand a few fixed musical rhythms, but entirely improvised andimprovised differently each night. The subject matter was ecological,social and philosophic and most effectively so when language was keptto a minimum. In it, Rosenthal essayed a short piece in which the69-year-old artist alluded to a recent fracas at Highways, aperformance-art venue in Santa Monica, where Joan Hotchkissscandalized an ostensibly hip audience by discussing the sexualcravings of sexagenarians. Rosenthal played off that mini-scandalwith fantasies of her own, which forcibly reminded us that, thoughtheir contemplation is anathema to the mainstream, the sexual organsof people in their 60s are still wigglingly alive. The uniqueness ofher company lies in the fact that, out of a well-lubricatedmechanism, Rosenthal has created a living organism and one which,with practice and support, could turn into something quiteextraordinary. That brings us back to the subsidy question.

The puddin’-headed conservatives of both partieswho view all art as a threat and all subsidy as a handout aredirectly responsible for extinguishing the exciting potentiality ofartists such as Rosenthal and her company. Monster musicals andstraightforward commercial plays are not dependent on subsidy and maywell be able to make their way through the quagmire of themarketplace, but small-scale, experimental activity, which ultimatelynourishes mainstream art, must always be helped by patronage –private, corporate or governmental — and every civilized country inthe world except the United States understands that.

Rosenthal’s venue at Espace seats about 40 people.The subsidy it requires is a moiety of what is annually raised forthe Music Center or the regularly hyped, invariably tedious L.A. ArtsFestivals. She is involved in the kind of research Bill Gates wasdoing in college before he came up with Microsoft, and althoughperformance art will never dominate the culture the way computers do,it may well influence the direction that all the performing arts,particularly dance and theater, may take in the future. To turn anartist such as Rosenthal into an endangered species is to negate thewhole conception of a cultural environment. You don’t back researchbecause it is spectacular or successful, but because it is thedevotion out of which spectacular and successful work of the futureevolves.

Fifty years from now, people in Los Angeles willbe saying: “Did you ever happen to see the work of Rachel Rosenthal?”And octogenarians will fondly compare indelible memories. It would bedisgraceful if, in that surge of nostalgia, they also said: “Yes, andisn’t it sad she was never really supported in her lifetime. Whatmarvels could have come about, if she had been!”

Charles Marowitz, a regular contributor for InTheater magazine, writes from Malibu.