May 14, 2020

Getty Research Institute Acquires Archive of Performance Artist Rachel Rosenthal



Portrait of Rachel Rosenthal, ca. 1990, Photo by Steven Arnold. Image Courtesy of The Steven Arnold Museum and Archives.


LOS ANGELES – The Getty Research Institute has acquired the archive of American performance artist Rachel Rosenthal (1926-2015). The archive documents her entire career as a pioneer of performance art and feminist art.

          “One of the key figures in the development of theater, performance and feminist art in Los Angeles, Rachel Rosenthal has left an indelible mark on Southern California art and on the art of performance theater more broadly,” said Mary Miller, director of the Getty Research Institute (GRI). “Rosenthal’s archive amplifies the GRI’s collections in performance art, feminist art, and the history of art in Southern California and is a significant addition to our resources.”

          The Rachel Rosenthal papers, ca 1920s – 2015, cover every phase of Rosenthal’s career, including early years in Paris and New York, her formative time in the artistic scene surrounding Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in the late 1940s and early 1950s, her development of the experimental theater company Instant Theatre in the 1950s and 60s, her awakening into the feminist movement in the 1970s and her mature performance and theater pieces. The collection includes many diaries and sketchbooks, extensive correspondence, and photographs and audiovisual documentation of Rosenthal’s major projects.

          “Save for the notable exception of Moira Roth’s 1997 edited volume, Rachel Rosenthal, the artist’s career has yet to be seriously studied. Her work is richly biographical and her archive is a goldmine for scholarship,” said Glenn Phillips, head of modern and contemporary art at the GRI. “The Rosenthal archive presents a compelling portrait of this complex and groundbreaking artist and her work on the vanguard of several important art movements.”

          The archive contains unique unpublished materials, including more than 60 diaries and journals that contain comprehensive writing about Rosenthal’s life and her work. Other notebooks contain membership records for Instant Theatre in the mid-1950s, as well as notes on performances, including a visitors’ book that attests to the presence of art-world figures such as Wallace Berman, Lee Mullican, Wolfgang Paalen and Luchita Hurtado.

          Extensive unbound papers contain additional notes on performances, drafts of scripts, and other writing. Some journals contain sketches, but there are also nearly a dozen sketchbooks that consist primarily of drawings, including sketches of costumes and other studies for artworks. Rosenthal also produced several unique hand-made artist’s books, which are also in the archive.

          Also included are approximately 30 scrapbooks that Rosenthal began in 1975, containing ephemera, press, photographs, and other documentation related to her performances and other career activities.

          “The materials in Rosenthal’s archive give us a fascinatingly detailed account of an artist’s life whose activity spans several major art centers in the 20th-century, where she could always be found at the epicenter of the artistic Zeitgeist,” says Zanna Gilbert, senior research specialist at the GRI.  “Rosenthal’s career will be represented alongside other singular pioneers of feminist performance such as Yvonne Rainer, Barbara T. Smith and Carolee Schneemann, as well as the recently acquired Woman’s Building archives.”



About Rachel Rosenthal

         The daughter of a Russian Jewish émigré family, Rosenthal was born in Paris in 1926. As a young girl, she studied ballet with the well-known former Russian National Ballet prima ballerina Olga Preobrajenskaya. Her family’s upper-middle class lifestyle was interrupted by the Nazi occupation of France in 1940, and in June of that year they were forced to flee, first to Portugal, and then to Brazil. They traveled to New York in 1941 and settled in the United States.

          In 1945, Rosenthal became a US citizen and studied at painter Hans Hoffman’s art school. She also took classes at the New School for Social Research between 1945 and 1947, where she studied with art historian Meyer Schapiro and scholar Rudolf Arnheim, and printmaker Stanley William Hayter.

          After the war, Rosenthal returned to study in Paris, traveling frequently between New York and Paris in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In her travels to Paris, the young Rosenthal encountered a theatrical scene under the spell of dramatist Antonin Artaud’s new ideas about a theater of shock and the importance of gesture over dialogue, which entailed a move away from language, narrative, and rationalism.

          In 1948, Rosenthal met composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham in Paris, and on returning to New York she fell in with their circle, including artists Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Ray Johnson, Richard Lippold, M.C. Richards, and Robert Rauschenberg and composers Lou Harrison and David Tudor. Her time in New York was spent experimenting voraciously; she attended the Dramatic Workshop from 1949-1951, which was directed by Erwin Piscator, a German theater director and producer, and a proponent of epic theater who advanced the socio-political role of theater akin to playwright Bertolt Brecht. She acted as assistant to Piscator as well as Heinz Condell, set designer for the Metropolitan Opera. She was a gifted performer and became a dancer in Cunningham’s junior dance company. In spring 1954 she bought a lower Manhattan condemned warehouse building with Jasper Johns (with whom she was in a relationship at the time) at 278 Pearl Street. They moved in during the summer of 1954 with Rosenthal taking the top floor and Johns taking the lower level.

          Rosenthal moved to Los Angeles in 1955 and remained there for the rest of her life, starting Instant Theatre, an experimental theater company at 804 North El Centro Avenue in Hollywood, which she later ran with her husband, actor King Moody, after their marriage in 1960. Continuing to be influenced by the ideas of Antonin Artaud, Instant Theater was based on improvisation and the clash and disjunction of ideas in performances. It was described euphorically by poet Jack Hirschman in 1963 as “one of the most exciting experiments in theater poetry on this or any American coast.” Suffering from osteoarthritis, Rosenthal closed Instant Theater in 1966.

          Rosenthal became involved in the feminist movement in the 1970s, developing close friendships with artists Miriam Schapiro, Betye Saar and Barbara T. Smith. By the mid-1970s she was considered one of the leading figures of feminist performance. Her work was autobiographical and drew from her privileged upbringing in Paris and her tumultuous early years and life. Experiences of exile, forced emigration and extensive travel appear as themes in her work. In her later life she became a passionate advocate for animal rights and the environment.

          In 1975, Rosenthal created what she considered her first performances within an art context: RePlays (Orlando Gallery, Encino) and Thanks (Mount St. Mary’s). In the first, she mused about the origins of her knee issues, and in the second, she thanked everyone who had done something important for her over the course of her life, with the audience participating in the roles of “father,” “mother,” etc.

          In 1976, Rosenthal and King Moody reopened Instant Theatre but the effort was short-lived. It closed in 1977 and the couple divorced in 1978. In 1979, Rosenthal performed The Arousing (Shock, Thunder) and MyBrazil and began to offer intensive workshops in performance and theater, which she named DbD, or “Doing by Doing,” as well as weekly classes. She also began to undertake residencies locally and nationally.

          As the leader of DbD she became uncomfortable in the power she felt she had automatically acquired and created Bonsoir, Dr Schon!, a performance in which she played audio recordings of 45 people invited to praise her. After the audio component, she was brought onstage in a wheelchair. Assistants removed her clothes and proceeded to point out the imperfections of her body to explore “the public view of what is good and bad, not only physically but also morally.”

          In 1980, Rosenthal bought the current location of the Rachel Rosenthal Company, a storefront on 2847 South Robertson Avenue, where she also lived. Her friend, the artist Paul McCarthy, helped renovate the space, which she opened as Espace DbD; where the DbD workshops could take place, as well as performances by established and emerging artists, and exhibitions of performance documentation. In 1981, as part of the performance Leave Her in Naxos she had her hair shaved for the first time. The same year, with artists Daniel Joseph Martinez and Susan King, Rosenthal made the artists’ book Soldier of Fortune. Rosenthal continued producing new performances and offering workshops until her death in 2015.

          In 1990, she was awarded a J. Paul Getty Fellowship and the College Art Association award for Distinguished Body of Work, and in 1994 she received a Women’s Caucus for Art Honor Award. In 2000, she was named Cultural Treasure of Los Angeles and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Performing Arts.

          This archive will be made available for research after being processed and cataloged.



Amy Hood

(818) 469-7223

Getty Communications




Getty is a leading global arts organization committed to the exhibition, conservation, and understanding of the world’s artistic and cultural heritage.  Working collaboratively with partners around the globe, the Getty Foundation, Getty Conservation Institute, Getty Museum and Getty Research Institute are all dedicated to the greater understanding of the relationships between the world’s many cultures.  The Los Angeles-based J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs share art, knowledge, and resources online at and welcome the public for free at the Getty Center and the Getty Villa.


The Getty Research Institute is an operating program of the J. Paul Getty Trust. It serves education in the broadest sense by increasing knowledge and understanding about art and its history through advanced research. The Research Institute provides intellectual leadership through its research, exhibition, and publication programs and provides service to a wide range of scholars worldwide through residencies, fellowships, online resources, and a Research Library. The Research Library—housed in the 201,000-square-foot Research Institute building designed by Richard Meier—is one of the largest art and architecture libraries in the world. The general library collections (secondary sources) include almost 900,000 volumes of books, periodicals, and auction catalogues encompassing the history of Western art and related fields in the humanities. The Research Library’s special collections include rare books, artists’ journals, sketchbooks, architectural drawings and models, photographs, and archival materials.


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