COLUMN: Art can take many forms, from painting to sculpture, prints to photography, and music to conceptual performance. It is in that last category that Rachel Rosenthal has distinguished herself. Studying art, theater and dance in Paris and New York in the middle of the last century, her teachers included some of the most celebrated members of the art world.

Rachel RosenthalOne of her teachers was Hans Hofmann, a painter who combined traditional and avant-garde approaches with such power that he was labeled a Fauvist, Cubist, and an Abstract Expressionist. Another instructor was Erwin Piscator, who began the Expressionistic “epic theater” that was more famously pursued by Bertolt Brecht. A third influence in her life was Jean-Louis Barrault, whose work with the Comédie-Française and his own theater company was legendary in Europe for decades.

As if that were not enough, she was friends with such giants of art, music and dance as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham. In the mid-1950s, she was the artistic director for the Instant Theatre company, which explored many aspects of live performance work to involve or envelope the audience with text, sound, color, movement, and a mixture of planned and improvised elements.

Happy Birthday
Such is her worldwide reputation, when Track16 Gallery decided to stage a birthday party for the now-83-year-old artist, the event became the launching pad for Rosenthal’s new book, an art auction to raise money for her soon-to-debut TOHUBOHU! Extreme Theatre Ensemble, and a series of performances involving Rosenthal, John Fleck, Jean-Paul Monsche, and composer/musician Amy Knoles of the E.A.R. Unit.

What was this evening like? It was wild. It was colorful. It was musical. It was funny. And with an unending supply of beverages from Grateful Palate Imports and constantly re-filled platters from Cake Divas, it was a non-stop alcohol brain-buzz and sugar rush. Not that I would overindulge in any way, but let’s just say I am very glad I shot video of the artwork early in the evening because otherwise you would be seeing a whole lot of nothing on that YouTube link.

On the Walls
There were 83 works of art on display throughout the evening. The paintings, prints, photographs, and constructions were donated by 68 artists, including Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Eleanor Antin, Ed Moses, Lita Albuquerque, Tom Wudl, The Dark Bob, Rosenthal and the estate of Robert Rauschenberg. The works, which were consistently excellent, afforded viewers the opportunity to surrender to a pleasing onslaught of color, line, form, image, dream, reality, and fantasy.

On the Page
Also on display at the event was Rosenthal’s new book, “The DbD Experience: Chance Knows What It’s Doing!” (ISBN 978-0-415-55102-1) published by Routledge. The “DbD” stands for Rosenthal’s “doing by doing” method of teaching improvisational theater. “Chance is the core of improvisation,” Rosenthal says, adding “the DbD Experience is about breaking down borders, opening up to the givens, activating the moment, and paying attention to what is.”

On the Boards
The primary reasons for the evening were to raise awareness as well as funds for Rosenthal’s latest project. She is now working with a new troupe of performers that will soon debut as The Rachel Rosenthal Company’s TOHUBOHU! Extreme Theater Ensemble. The name TOHUBOHO loosely translated means “collision or chaos.” Rosenthal explains that “this is not what the company will do, but it describes our process.”

Expanding on her approach, Rosenthal notes that “We live in a world filled with competition, anxiety and fear which locks us all up,” she states. “By allowing ourselves to let go, to improvise, we learn to embrace life as it comes. To truly be in the moment, we can face the unknown with open eyes, work with what is, and open the door to magic.”

The new company will be dedicated to what she calls “Total free improvisation, which is nothing like a scripted, rehearsed, and repeatable show. Our form of theater is difficult as no other art form is. We act and react, respond to surprises, challenges, accidents, the unknown, the unexpected, as we do in so-called ‘real’ life. Only in a way that we call ‘art’.”

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Over the years, Rosenthal has performed in more than 100 venues around the world including documenta 8, The Helsinki Festival, ICA London, The Performance Space in Sydney, The Whitney Museum in New York City, and Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Her performances have earned Obie, Rockefeller, Getty, NEA and CAA awards, among others.

Speaking enthusiastically about her performance art and experimental/experiential theater, Rosenthal observes that “It’s scary, exhilarating, and a mysterious alchemical process.” She invites the audience to “join us on our path of discovery, wonder and joy.”

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