Legendary performance artist Rachel Rosenthal died of congestive heart failure at her Los Angeles home on Sunday, May 10. She was 88. Her death was announced by the Rachel Rosenthal Company, a theater and arts non-profit she founded in 1989.
During her long career, Rosenthal pioneered a form of avant-garde theater featuring dance, music, spoken word, improvisation and visual art that would come to be known as performance art, though that term seems too limiting for her expansive creative vision. Environmentalism, animal rights, and progressive social issues were consistent themes in her work. “What united Ms. Rosenthal’s diverse output,” wrote Margalit Fox in her New York Times obituary, “was its anguish over what she called ‘humanity’s debacles.’”
With her shaved head (she shaved it for a performance in 1981 and kept it) and hard-to-place accent, Rosenthal stood out in a field full of unique personalities. An animal-rights activist, she lived with a menagerie of creatures, and could often be seen out with her pet rat Tatti Wattles. Although she seemed to fully embody the avant-garde spirit, she made appearances on mainstream TV sitcoms like “Frasier,” albeit playing an artist. She performed around the world, but it was in Los Angeles that her creative impact was most profound, so much so that she was proclaimed a “Living Cultural Treasure of Los Angeles” in 2000.
Rosenthal was born in Paris on Nov. 9, 1926 to successful Russian Jewish parents. Her family fled to Rio at the outset of WWII, eventually making their way to New York City in 1941. She attended the High School of Music and Art, before studying theater and visual art in Paris and back in New York. It was there that she fell in with an avant-garde group that included Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Merce Cunningham, whose company she danced in. John Cage, and his reliance on chance operations, would also prove to be a major influence on her.
In the mid-50s, she moved to Los Angeles, the city that she would call home for the next six decades. With her husband, King Moody, she founded the Instant Theater, an experimental performance company, which she would direct for ten years. In the 70s, she was a co-founder of Womanspace, and opened performing arts venue Espace DbD in 1980.
Although she retired from the stage in 2000, she continued to paint, sculpt, and teach. In 2010 she published The DbD Experience: Chance Knows What it’s Doing, described as “part manual, part manifesto, part memoir,” and based around her guiding principle of “doing by doing.” That same year she began the TOHUBOHU! Extreme Theater Ensemble, where she would direct performers in her liberating brand of improvisation. TOHUBOHU! will continue to perform through May to honor Rosenthal’s wishes, according to her Company.
A public memorial service is being planned.