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Remembering ‘The Doyenne of Performance Art’

Rachel Rosenthal ‘served the Earth, and she was fun’

Jonathan Zalman
May 15, 2015


Performance artist Rachel Rosenthal, who produced powerful and “unclassifiable creations,” died of heart failure in her Los Angeles home on May 10. She was 88.

Rosenthal’s creative career, which spanned five decades, “melded dance, theater, dramatic monologues, improvisation and visual art to illuminate her abiding concerns: feminism, environmentalism and animal rights,” reported the New York Times.

With her shaved head, resonant voice, teeming jewelry and take-no-prisoners approach to a great many things, Ms. Rosenthal cut a captivating figure. “The doyenne of performance art,” the news media often called her, an appellation she deplored.

Until a few days ago, I’d never known of Rosenthal, the daughter of a Russian Jewish family, who performed all over the world, including at the Whitney in New York, and London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. And in 1989, she won an Obie Award from The Village Voice, given to “Off-Broadway and off-off Broadway theater” for her show “Rachel’s Brain.” Writes the New York Times:

Ms. Rosenthal’s art divided the critics. In perhaps the surest testament to her work’s complexity and scope, some reviewers taxed it for being too message-heavy, others for being too diffuse.

“One of her most lasting creations,” writes the Los Angeles Times, “was the TOHUBOHU! Extreme Theatre Ensemble, a group that has carried on her legacy of avant-garde performance” at the Rachel Rosenthal Company, which she founded in 1989. The TOHUBOHU! Extreme Theatre Ensemble will continue to perform in her honor on May 29 and 30 at the Company theatre.

And out of all of the coverage I’ve read about Rosenthal, it’s perhaps her own theatre company that remembers her best: “She served the Earth, and she was fun.”

In 1995, she told the Los Angeles Times: “The overriding theme in all my pieces is always the same. It’s about our relationship to the Earth. It deals with who we are as a species and how we belong on this planet.”

Here is a compilation of some of Rosenthal’s performances. It’s stirring, to say the least:

And in 2011, Rosenthal reflected on her career in a near-15 minute segment:


Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.

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