Clement Greenberg (1909–94) and Harold Rosenberg (1906–78) were the two art critics most closely associated with abstract expressionism in the 1940s and 1950s. Neither began their careers as art critics, however. By the mid-1980s, Rosenberg had published literary essays and poems in left-wing magazines, and Greenberg's articles and reviews first appeared at the end of that decade. During the 1940s, Greenberg began to write art criticism, and Rosenberg's essays began to appear frequently in the 1950s. By that time, both had become part of the group known informally as the New York Intellectuals, many of whom were Jewish and children of immigrant parents.
Highly verbal, vocal, argumentative, and politically left of center, they often published in magazines such as Partisan Review, Commentary, and Dissent. Although both Greenberg and Rosenberg ultimately rejected the more dogmatic and authoritarian aspects of leftist politics, they nevertheless supported the idea that society must move forward, but not necessarily by political means. Greenberg thought that such momentum could be maintained by the cultural elite, and Rosenberg, influenced by surrealism's concerns for the creative process, believed that individuals who were independent minded and creative could do the same. Both encouraged artists to turn from the social concerns that engaged many during the 1930s to apolitical, self-searching themes that came to characterize the art of the 1940s. In effect, they, especially Rosenberg, lionized the artist as an heroic individual. In the words of one historian, both “worked to find a safe haven for radical progress within the realm of individualistic culture.” And both, among the most perspicacious critics of their time, discovered, encouraged, and/or supported artists who ultimately became major figures, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.