A phrase that has long echoed in discussions of American art was “as Clem Greenberg said,…” but the difficulty, until now, has been to know what that was. Clement Greenberg, for a slew of reasons, was the most influential art critic in American history. (He is still alive at eighty-four, but he abandoned critical writing long ago and shows no sign of resuming it; thus the past tense.) He was also nearly the last, and by far the best-known, of the self-taught art critics; practically no one goes into this field today without an armor-plating of specialized degrees in art history, but such things were not considered necessary fifty years ago, when most American art criticism was written by poets, painters, polemicists, and enthusiastic amateurs.
After twenty years of reviewing he published Art and Culture, a small volume of thirty-seven essays, many of them heavily revised from the form in which they originally appeared. “I would not deny,” he noted in the introduction, “being one of those critics who educate themselves in public, but I see no reason why all the haste and waste involved in my self-education should be preserved in a book.” Luckily, he was persuaded otherwise, and the result—four volumes of collected essays and criticism, all in their first published versions, the whole corpus scrupulously edited and well introduced by John O’Brian, who teaches art history at the University of British Columbia—has now appeared.
Though Greenberg stopped writing nearly a quarter of a century ago—the last piece in this collection is dated 1969, and it is a radio interview with him done for the United States Information Service—he continues to haunt some of his former disciples, who have never gotten over the resentments of apprenticeship. Rosalind Krauss, for instance, still can’t forgive him for writing off Surrealism, and for a memory like a film clip—Greenberg’s writhing lips pontificating to her about “Smart Jewish girls with their typewriters” is replayed four or five times in her recent book, The Optical Unconscious. And some Americans find it mightily hard to accept the fact that, just as Greenberg’s positivist, Kantian aesthetic positions seem to have been superseded by the flood of French theory into academe, the French themselves have recently discovered a new interest in Greenberg.
He may be officially “dead,” but he won’t lie down. No other American critic has ever imposed such a presence on the art world, or been so adored and vilified by opposing camps. Feminist and multiculturalist criticism has turned him, during the last fifteen years, into a bogey of elitism and male domination; when people attacked the idea of “quality” in art as repressive, it was usually Greenberg that they saw lurking like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, pulling the wires that produce the special effects of phallocentric art history. In 1980s art-magazine writing the ritual denunciation of “Greenbergian formalism” was a way of clearing the throat, establishing credentials.
This seems all the more peculiar if you reflect that, to judge by results, Greenberg’s opinions have ceased to exert any leverage on the new art that is actually shown in American museums or followed by collectors. The last art movement he wholeheartedly endorsed—the color-field painting or Post-Painterly Abstraction, as he called it, of such artists as Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski—occurred in the 1960s; and although in a 1987 interview conducted by ARTnews he pronounced that Jules Olitski was still the best living American painter and that he preferred Andrew Wyeth’s paintings to Jasper Johns’s, few can have thought this more than the sound of a stuck record.
Greenberg was not a voluminous writer. Considering his near-legendary status as a critic, his output was meager. It’s hardly an exaggeration that after 1961—the year his collection of essays Art and Culture came out—more was written about him than by him. The standard edition of John Ruskin’s works, edited after his death in 1900 by his friends E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, runs to thirty-eight volumes and its index alone takes up 689 pages in double columns. Greenberg’s whole output is only eight books, of which five are made up of essays (Art and Culture, and the four present volumes) and three are short monographs on Joan Miró (1948), Henri Matisse (1953), and Hans Hofmann (1961). He meant to write a critical biography of Jackson Pollock. but was unable to finish it. He wrote some poetry, never published. He translated works by Kafka, Paul Celan, and others from the German. But that was all.
He was certainly no Ruskin, and did not wish to be. Not only were his writings comparatively few, but their style made no concessions whatever to casual reading: it was clipped, laconic, and although rigorously structured and always clear, his prose made no attempt to woo the reader—Greenberg assumed that a readership was there but a necessarily small one. Much work went into this reduction, since the writing itself, though dense at times, never seems labored. Needless to say, not all of it is on the same level—whose could be?
John O’Brian’s project has been to produce a Complete Works, and he has gone about it with such microscopic care that Volume 4 even preserves (item 25) a printed “Statement as Juror of an Exhibition in Oklahoma City,” an utterance one third the length of its title: “Man is fallible,” it reads. Humble thanks, Obi wan-Kenobi.
Throughout the Fifties, Greenberg also did his share of routine freelancing for Vogue and for other middle-brow magazines that he had looked down on in the Forties. Few of these were worth exhuming. But either you publish the Complete Works, or you do not; and one of the surprises of this collection is to see how widely Greenberg’s interests fanned out, especially in the Forties and early Fifties. Those who imagine him strictly as a writer on “high” visual art will find pieces on Brecht and Kafka, on Jewish humor, on such cartoonists as David Low, James Thurber, and William Steig, on American poetry, the early work of Saul Bellow, and even a review of a ballet by Anthony Tudor. Loyal fans of Greenberg may take this as evidence of a mighty breadth of cultural curiosity, but such a spread is not unusual in freelance reviewing, and it hardly suggests that Greenberg possessed the range of Edmund Wilson. O’Brian’s collection makes this a lot clearer than one would deduce from the narrower scope of Art and Culture.
“Some day,” Greenberg wrote in his essay “The Late Thirties in New York” (1961), “it will have to be told how ‘anti-Stalinism,’ which started out more or less as ‘Trotskyism,’ turned into art for art’s sake, and thereby cleared the way, heroically, for what was to come.” If the mind’s eyebrow shoots up at that word “heroically,” it is partly because one of the agents of that change was Greenberg himself. He joined the ideological wars of New York intellectual life later than some of his contemporaries on Partisan Review and The Nation, whose commitment to Marxism was longer and whose split from it was, accordingly, more wrenching, for instance Harold Rosenberg. Starting out as a parlor Marxist in the 1930s, he became rapidly disillusioned with Stalinism—faster, it should be said to his credit, than certain other New York intellectuals. It would be hard to fault his basic views on art and politics, set forth in Partisan Review in 1948:
As a person the writer ought indeed to involve himself in the struggle against Stalinism to the “point of commitment.” Why should we ask less of him than of any other adult interested in the survival of the common decencies and authentic culture? However, he is under no moral—or aesthetic—obligation whatsoever to involve himself in this struggle as a writer…. Qua writer he is only interested necessarily in what he can write about successfully.
This seems exactly right; it remains worth pondering almost a half-century later, as the American art world is swamped in a tide of political utterance that exceeds, in sheer volubility and boredom, anything produced by Popular Front Marxism during the 1930s or 1940s.
Greenberg did not become a militant anti-Communist until America was well into the cold war. At the end of 1950 he became a founding member of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, an anti-Communist organization, and in 1951, he broke with The Nation, for which he had been writing occasional reviews, angrily accusing it of fellow-traveling. All the same, his basic approach to cultural issues, dialectical and aggressively materialistic, was formed by Marxism and annealed by the peculiar toughness on which American Trotskyites, distrusted by the right and hysterically loathed by the Stalinist left, prided themselves. “Here, as in every other question today,” he wrote at the end of his celebrated 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” “it becomes necessary to quote Marx word for word…. Today we look to socialism simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have right now.” Writing for Horizon in 1940, he opined that a Trotskyist revolution in the West, not a united capitalist front, was the only way to beat Hitler, because it “would send an answering thrill through the German workers… it would invite the world to join it in fraternity and love—yes, love. It would not be Stalin, it would not be tangled up with the barbarism, accidental to itself, of a backward country”—Russia.
That foolish and romantic enthusiasm burned off soon enough, but it left its residue; nine years later, in a sharp attack on the political vaporings of the French poet Paul Valéry, he pointed out, “Anyone who in the twentieth century protects his mind as carefully as Valéry did from Marx has small intellectual right to express his views on politics in public. Not that one has to be a Marxist….”
But it helped to have been one. The experience of Marxism gave Greenberg his bent as a critic: an obsession with the direction of history. Only by demonstrating that he is on the side of History—aware of the laws of its unfolding, able to reconcile the art he likes with those laws—can a critic rise to seriousness, for otherwise criticism is merely the expression of subjective taste, and can claim no binding force. A curious position, however, for a writer who placed the utmost value on such taste. However much the vision may take account of art history, the eye’s judgment, swift and instinctive, was also involuntary. Greenberg would always indignantly deny that his preferences in art were the result of a “line” or a “system.”
Greenberg started writing on art with some degree of regularity for Partisan Review in 1941. He was emboldened to do so by his contact with the expatriate German artist Hans Hofmann. He attended some of Hofmann’s lectures on modernist aesthetics, and deduced from them some of his own basic ideas about the need for “radical” abstraction, the purity of color, and the integrity of the picture plane. Hofmann’s views on art, he would write in 1947, were “the core of the artistic sensibility and intelligence of our age.” And the core of that core was Hofmann’s belief, which would expand into the whole foundation of Greenberg’s approach to art, that painting and sculpture were not concerned with illusion; that what counted in them was their cultivation of their own medium.
Now this idea was not, obviously, Hofmann’s invention. It was there in the writings of Roger Fry, and earlier in Stéphane Mallarmé, when he called for a kind of sovereign impersonality in writing: “The pure work implies the elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who yields place to the words… replacing the old lyric afflatus.” T.S. Eliot, heavily influenced by Symbolism, had come to much the same point in his 1919 essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “The poet has, not a ‘personality’ to express, but a particular medium.”
If any main principle was at work in the history of art, Greenberg concluded, it was the drive toward self-definition within each medium. Art—“high” art, that is, as distinct from kitsch or mere image-mongering for a debased audience—wanted to find out what it irreducibly was. Which meant that “progress” in each art entailed incessant self-criticism, whose aim was to figure out what it did not have in common with other arts. Painting had to purge itself of drama and literature, of the contingencies of narrative or propaganda, of all theatrical or sculptural overtones. And this must be done in the name of rationality, which Greenberg, a lifelong positivist though an intermittent pessimist, took to be the basic character of the modern age. “Modern man,” he pronounced with an assurance that seems almost touching in its wilful optimism, written against the background of the worst slaughters in human history, “has in theory solved the great public and private questions,” though not in practice; still, the gap between the two “ought not to prevent, in this country, the development of a bland, large, balanced, Apollonian art…resting on rationality.” Such an art would “remunerate” its viewers for the “particular and necessary frustrations” of living in a time when the Marxist millennium had still not come.
This was the Trotskyist’s answer to Stalinist social realism. It would be—to paraphrase Matisse’s famous remark about the purposes of his art—something like an armchair for tired Marxists.
In this way Greenberg could reconcile his Marxism with his intense aestheticism and his well-founded disbelief in the notion that major cultural forms were likely to evolve from within the working class. “Superior culture is one of the most artificial of all human creations…. In the end the peasant will go back to kitsch when he feels like looking at pictures.” This holds as true in the capitalist West as in the Soviet Union, “and makes all talk of art for the masses there nothing but demagogy.”
One of Greenberg’s principal strengths as a critic was always to follow what his gaze and taste told him, rather than what ideology prescribed. Nevertheless the spectacle of American mass culture filled him with almost as much dismay after World War II as that of Popular Front “realism” had before it. Like Dwight Macdonald, above all like Eliot himself, Greenberg was caricaturally snobbish about the fate of high culture at the hands of a market-driven, prosperous, middlebrow invasion of the hitherto narrow and exclusive precincts of le beau et le bien. Everything good would be diluted by indiscriminate approval. “High culture,” he wrote in 1947 in “The Present Prospects of American Painting and Sculpture,”
which in the civilized past has always functioned on the basis of sharp class distinctions, is endangered—at least for the time being—by this sweeping process which, by wiping out the social distinctions between the more and the less cultivated, renders standards of art and thought provisional…. It becomes increasingly difficult to tell who is serious and who not. At the same time that the average college graduate becomes more literate the average intellectual becomes more banal, both in personal life and professional activity.
With its class structure in flux, America sweats banality from every pore: “the emptiness of our American life” comes from circumstances “endemic to bourgeois industrialism,” and there is no way out. Nothing is immune to commercialization. There is no hope in the proletariat, and little in the middle classes. The isolation of the American artist, if his work is serious and seriously new, if it follows History’s imperative toward the main-stream of abstraction, “is inconceivable, crushing, unbroken, damning….What can fifty do against a hundred and forty million?”
No wonder that the art historian T.J. Clark coined the term “Eliotic Trotskyism” to characterize Greenberg’s position in the Forties. (Better Eliotic Trotskyism, however, than some of the alternatives, like Aragonesque Stalinism.) T.S. Eliot was not the only “aristocratic” influence on Greenberg at the time. Another was Irving Babbitt, the ultraconservative Harvard classicist whose dismay at the confusion and irrationality of Western culture since Romanticism surpassed even Eliot’s. Babbitt’s essay The New Laokoon: An Essay on the Confusion of the Arts took as its starting point Lessing’s Laokoon (1766), a reflection on the boundaries and distinctions between poetry and the visual arts; and Greenberg took up its arguments for distinctness of genres in “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” 1940. Here, for the first time, he staked his claim for the “present superiority” of abstract art:
There is nothing in the nature of abstract art which compels it to be [superior]. The imperative comes from history, from the age in conjunction with a particular moment reached in a particular tradition of art. This conjunction holds the artist in a vise from which at the present moment he can escape only by surrendering his ambition and returning to a stale past…. Abstract art cannot be disposed of by a simple-minded evasion. Or by negation. We can only dispose of abstract art by assimilating it, by fighting our way through it.
Greenberg’s hostility to the inherited devices of Renaissance painting did not make him a reliable guide to the Old Masters—but then he seldom wrote about them, and when he did he often got them wrong. In an early (1946) essay in The Nation, reviewing A.E. Popham’s selection of Leonardo drawings published by Phaidon, Greenberg complains of Leonardo’s “impure, mannered, cloying” drawing in the Burlington House cartoon of the Madonna and Saint Anne with Jesus and Saint John the Baptist, and then adds that it, “like Michelangelo’s Sistine frescoes, constitutes one of those rapes of the medium…that leave us admiring the scale and force of the artist’s nerve more than his art.” Such works “have…a deleterious effect upon artists who come afterward, they amount almost to acts of hostility toward art.”
Now we can be fairly sure that this would have come as a surprise to any professional artist whose life overlapped with Michelangelo’s—Vasari, say, or Pontormo. They all revered the Sistine frescoes as a triumphal demonstration of what “buon fresco,” the medium itself, liquid color painted on wet plaster and bonded into it to produce a matte surface, could do. Far from being a “rape” of its medium, the Sistine Chapel was experienced by virtually all painters within Michelangelo’s culture as a superlative example and vindication of it, virtually a definition of what fresco could do. So what was it that stuck in Greenberg’s craw? Apparently (though he doesn’t explicitly say so) it’s the sculptural character of Michelangelo’s figures. “We know how much Michelangelo preferred sculpture to painting, and how he complained at the task set him in the Sistine.” Hence, it seems, Buonarotti in his well-documented frustration put sculptural form where it should not be, in painting, bulging and buckling from the wall where all form should ideally lie in tense and decorative arrays, not violating the inherent flatness of fresco.
This is an extreme, but not unrepresentative, example of Greenberg’s habit of back-projection—of using standards deduced from an intense, narrow appreciation of one aspect of modernist art as a means of judging the past. He could do this because, on the evidence of the essays and notes in these four volumes, he didn’t feel or know anything like as much about art made before Courbet as art made after him. Not that Greenberg ever made the vulgar error of supposing that the Old Masters were, or could be, irrelevant to the experience of a living painter—in fact he cautioned the readers of Partisan Review against this, in a 1948 essay entitled “The Necessity of the Old Masters.”
Yet the necessity turns out to be an odd one—it is a matter, in part, of knowing your enemy. If “the advanced painter cannot withdraw his attention from the past with impunity,” it is because abstract art still belongs to the Western tradition—the artist who quotes, steals, or cannibalizes from other than Western European sources (Haida totems, for instance, or south-western American Indian sand paintings, or African carvings) does not join their traditions. “The moderns are not the primitives of a new tradition, but the liquidators of an old one.”
Liquidators: here the grim Trotskyist gong is heard, calling the cadres to order. So might a commissar instruct his juniors to study capitalism, the better to preside over its destruction. The past is purged by relentless self-criticism, enacted on the picture plane; Modernism’s repudiation of the past, and its cavernous illusionistic spaces full of perspective, chiaroscuro, and round embodied figures, means that we must “be very much aware of it, if only to overcome it” (my italics).
On the subject of Renaissance painting his writings are infrequent and routine, and they are rendered particularly thin by his indifference to iconography; he couldn’t have cared less whether the girl in the painting was Judith or Flora. But Greenberg’s convictions about the “New American Painting” were so strong that they enabled him to reshuffle—or, some would say, stack—the deck of past art in order to provide a convergent ancestry for it. Thus with Monet. We are so used to treating the big decorative cycles of Monet’s late years, particularly the Water Lilies, as the climax of his work that we tend to forget how novel this view seemed in the late 1950s, when Monet was regarded as distinctly old hat in comparison to the anxious and prophetic Cézanne. In 1957 Greenberg wrote an influential essay, “The Later Monet,” making this case for the first time—rescuing Monet, in effect, as an avant-gardist precursor of the same order of importance as Cezanne, and setting him up as the artist who saved the Big Picture from the hands of the pompiers and transmitted it, in a usable form, to Abstract Expressionism.
Today those huge close-ups which are the last Water Lilies say—to and with the radical Abstract Expressionists—that a lot of physical space is needed to develop adequately a strong pictorial idea that does not involve an illusion of deep space … right now any one of the Water Lilies seems to belong more to our time, and its future, than do Cézanne’s own attempts at summing-up statements in his large Bathers.
You might not think, reading this, that the core of Monet’s long pictorial struggle was in fact naturalism the creation of truthful relationships between things perceived in the world—sun through mist, a row of poplars, the dazzle of light on the waves off Bec de Hocq—and the sequence and structure of paint-marks laid on the canvas.
“It’s Athene whom we want,” Greenberg wrote in a footnote to “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” “formal culture with its infinity of aspects, its luxuriance, its large comprehension.” But where, in modernism, was Athene to be found? In Europe, Greenberg felt, that question had been at least partly answered by the achievement of Henri Matisse, whose sublime impersonality and august pursuit of the pleasure principle provided one touchstone; Matisse was to him what Cézanne had been to Roger Fry. The other came from Cubism, “the purest and most unified of all art styles since Tiepolo and Watteau,” which Greenberg treated as the fulfillment of a kind of modernism toward which Cézanne’s art had been moving but which it had not reached; Cubism, and Cubist collage in particular, embodied the “contempt for nature in all its particularity” he thought was necessary to “the great and absent art of our age.” The formal qualities of Braque’s or Picasso’s papiers collés were worthy of every endorsement; their use of vernacular, the proto-Pop sign-language of newsprint and labels, were not. Dada and Surrealist collage he simply brushed aside as “rectangles littered with small pictures connected by no aesthetic necessity, rectangles that do not delight the eye and whose value is wholly exhausted in literary shock effects that have now become unspeakably stale.”
So much for all collage that was not Cubist, from Tatlin in Russia to John Heartfield in Germany to Max Ernst and even Miró. (Greenberg’s hostility to German Dada collage seems odd, in view of his enthusiasm for Brecht; and his “reading” of Miró as a kind of late Cubist was a truly astounding misapprehension, based on his refusal to examine the content of his images, coupled with his belief that the “mainstream” of abstraction rose in Cubism and nowhere else.) Any form of modern art that was not positivist, rational, and materialist, that displayed spiritual yearnings or a leaning toward mysticism, risked a sharp rebuke. Greenberg felt van Gogh was a lesser painter than Monet; he admired Mondrian, but regarded his ideas of spirituality as Utopian rubbish. He made an exception for Paul Klee, whose “detached irony,” Greenberg felt, had saved him from the bad results of pursuing fantasy and transcendence. But he gave short shrift to the “messianism” of early American modernists like Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Indeed, Greenberg’s distrust of anything in painting that smacked of illusionism, irrationality, or mysticism was so severe that his early enthusiasm for Jackson Pollock is all the more remarkable. He did not “discover” Pollock (whatever that verb means) but he was certainly the first critic to write about him, in no uncertain terms, as a potentially important artist. And he did so despite a certain uneasiness, for Pollock’s rough expressive early style, full of archaisms and mystagogic imagery, bursting with coded symbols of obsession, was much closer in spirit to German Expressionism than to Matisse. “We have had enough of the wild artist,” he wrote in the 1947 essay, “The Present Prospects of American Painting and Sculpture,” which saluted Pollock and David Smith as the new white hopes of American art. “He has by now been converted into one of the standard self-protective myths of our society: if art is wild it must be irrelevant.” (These sage words went unheeded by Americans, of course—Pollock, in popular myth, was converted into the very prototype of the “wild artist,” a moody suicidal drunken cowboy lashing out at the canvas, his paint-dribbles prompted by the urination of an Inner Child envious of Papa’s penis; nothing that Greenberg or any other critic wrote could deflect the tide of vulgarity that engulfed Pollock after his death and shows no sign of ebbing even today. At least Lee Krasner is not around to see Barbra Streisand play her on film.)
But as John O’Brian points out in his introduction to Volume 3, he saw in or through the violence and extravagance of early Pollock to “qualities that could not be dismissed on the grounds of his preferences alone.” Greenberg’s ability to appreciate and espouse such a talent as Pollock’s, O’Brian argues, runs counter to the belief of the anti-Greenbergians that he allowed his ideal of a detached Apollonian art to wholly administrate his eye. But the direction Pollock’s art took in the late 1940s certainly gratified Greenberg’s theory of the way art ought to go, though it is unlikely that the critic, in this case, had any influence on the artist. Pollock’s “all-over” paintings, with their weave of subtly modulated pictorial energy from edge to edge and top to bottom, their unhierarchical marking, looked like the triumph of the mode set by late Monet: “This very uniformity,” Greenberg wrote in 1948, “this dissolution of the picture into sheer texture, sheer sensation, into the accumulation of similar units of sensation, seems to answer something deepseated in contemporary sensibility.” (One should remember, for perspective’s sake, that Greenberg was only as far in time from Mallarmé as we today are from 1948.)
Given that Pollock in the early 1950s began to circle back toward figurative imagery, it is possible that, had he lived, we would remember the “allover” paintings as an episode in the career of a basically figurative artist, rather than as the climactic achievement of an abstract one. But Pollock’s early death in 1956, combined with the powerful determinism of Greenberg’s writing on him, made such an idea unthinkable—at least to American formalist critics. Even now it is, at best, speculative. But it is a measure of the power that Greenberg’s reputation developed in the New York art world through the Fifties and Sixties that no one wished to challenge the scheme he had set up for Pollock, in which the black linear pictures with faces in them he did after 1951 were a kind of apostasy from the molecular beauties, the sheer “quality,” of works like Autumn Rhythm and Lavender Mist. And nobody could be more ruthless in fingering an artist’s “failure” than Greenberg—especially when he thought that History was at stake.
The other artist he put with Pollock as the main hope of American art, in 1947, was the sculptor David Smith. His choice was splendidly prescient; Smith undoubtedly was the best sculptor America had produced since Saint-Gaudens. And he was not the sort of artist to obey prescriptions from a critic. Nevertheless, after Smith’s death, Greenberg was made one of the trustees of his estate; and in the 1970s, in what must count as the most singular posthumous interference of its kind since John Ruskin burned Turner’s erotic drawings, Greenberg—who had never liked Smith’s experiments in polychroming the surface of his sculptures—had the color ground off a number of them, replacing it with a uniform brown which resembled, but actually wasn’t, rust. A critic’s “correction” of a deviant artist could hardly go further. “The message of modern art,” Greenberg had written in 1948, “abstract or not, Matisse’s, Picasso’s, or Mondrian’s, is precisely that means are content” (emphasis added). And if the means seemed wrong (in Smith’s case, putting paint on sculpture in a way that didn’t seem to him right) then Greenberg was quite capable of attacking them with all the zeal of an old-time iconoclast who perceived a carved Madonna as a temptation to idolatry.
As movements must, Abstract Expressionism ran out of steam, devolving into the mannerisms of second-generation adherents—the “Tenth Street touch,” which Greenberg was the first to identify and denounce. But the immense legacy it left was divided between two fundamentally opposed kinds of painting, one “pure,” the other not: Color-Field, and Pop. Each took from “AbEx” what it needed. The “touch” of Johns’s encaustic brushmarks owed much to Abstract Expressionism, though its slight distance and frigidity was all its own. Robert Rauschenberg made no secret of his debt to the paint-rich, accident-prone surfaces of de Kooning in the Fifties: the basic difference was that his images, instead of swimming up to the surface like de Kooning’s women or embedding themselves as landscapes in the structure and color, were imported directly—a real stuffed eagle wired to a real carboard box, or actual bedsheets slathered with exclamatory paint. (But de Kooning had glued a smile from a Life Magazine ad onto one of his women too.) Greenberg was able to find a little grudging praise for Johns, but for Rauschenberg he had no time at all, and he dismissed Pop Art as a whole just as harshly as, fifteen years earlier, he had brushed Dada and Surrealism aside. It, like Minimalism, was mere “novelty art,” without historical resonance—the result of a desperate desire for the Next Thing.
The only Next Thing that interested Greenberg was what he called “Post-Painterly Abstraction.” In 1962 his essay “After Abstract Expressionism” passed the palm from Pollock to Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clifford Still, who were pushing their color away from its “localizing or denotative function,” so that it “speaks for itself by dissolving all definiteness of shape and distance.” Space had to be indefinite and open, pigment thin, colors few, and canvases big—“Size guarantees the purity as well as the intensity needed to suggest indeterminate space: more blue being simply bluer than less blue.” In meeting these criteria, Newman, Rothko, and Still represented “the only way to high pictorial art in the near future.” Though skilled painters, they also showed that skill of execution didn’t matter—“the ultimate source of value or quality in art” had nothing to do with skill or training or performance, “but conception alone.” Back when art was naturalistic, “skill used to be a vessel of inspiration and do the office of conception,” but no longer. The real “triumph” was to suppress the evidence of skill. The results of this dictum for American art teaching, and thus for later painting, would turn out to be almost uniformly bad. It added to the growing convention that students need not be strongly trained in traditional formal skills in case that discipline impaired their “creativity.” But it is doubtful whether Greenberg could have imagined what kind of Pandora’s box he was opening thirty years ago.
In any case, this next phase of the Historical Imperative that was driving art towards openness, indeterminacy, thinness, and bigness produced its characteristic painters, whom Greenberg backed with all the force of a reputation solidified and enlarged by his early advocacy of the Abstract Expressionists: Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, and Morris Louis. Their stains, veils, and disembodied stripes of pure untextured pigment, soaked into the weave of unprimed canvas like enormous watercolors, represented the final triumph of the “high” decorative art he had been calling for all along—its elevation to a historical principle. By now, as Hilton Kramer pointed out in a percipient review of Art and Culture in 1962, Greenberg was writing less frequently and seemed more concerned to lay down the law than to argue positions at length, “to summarize rather than to elucidate a point of view.” But to influence museum policy and the taste of collectors, he didn’t need to—an oracle was enough. In the 1960s and early 1970s, more museum time and space was devoted to color-field painting than to any other American art movement or style. Besides, though the other art critics who had written in favor of Abstract Expressionism (Harold Rosenberg, Thomas B. Hess, and Fairfield Porter, to mention only three) were still very much around in the Sixties, only Greenberg had a school of younger writers prepared to develop and embroider his principles of taste: Michael Fried, Barbara Rose, Rosalind Krauss, Kenworth Moffett, and several others.
Those who saw the Museum of Modern Art’s Morris Louis retrospective in 1986, and remembered what had once been written about these sumptuously hedonistic paintings, must have felt a bump of transition. Did anyone still feel, as Michael Fried had felt when writing about Louis, that “nothing less than the continued existence of painting as a high art” depended on him? Could you see those lavish flowerings and cascades of paint, controlled in their spread by the most individually cunning of dyer’s hands, as fulfilling the “impersonality” Greenberg had called for? Louis was the last major American Mallarméan painter—and probably the last “Greenbergian” one as well, not only because his painting perfectly exemplified Greenberg’s sense of historical necessity, but because he depended to an extraordinary degree on Greenberg’s advice (and let him edit his output).
After him, color-field painting became more and more a matter of cuisine, and timid cuisine at that. “What abstraction promised in the sixties, it did not deliver in the seventies,” as Frank Stella argued in his 1983 Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. In these, he argued for the need to reconnect abstract art to the deep dramatic spatial energies of Caravaggio or Rubens.
The biggest problem for abstraction is not its flatness, articulated by brittle, dull, bent acrylic edges and exuding a debilitating sense of sameness, unbearably thin and shallow…. Even more discouraging is the illustrational, easily readable quality of its pictorial effects.
As a result, he thought, abstract painting “has rendered itself space-blind in order to assure its visibility to an audience that can only read.” He did not need to say what that audience had been reading.
There is little doubt that Greenberg’s version of modernism has had its day. Not only because of the victories of what he dismissed as “novelty art”—Pop, Minimalism, and mediabased imagery of all kinds; but, more importantly, because of the limitations of his positivist world view, based on a truculent materialism: one which excluded “spirituality” as an admissible word, and proclaimed that “there is nothing left in nature for plastic art to explore.” Try telling that to James Turrell, that astonishing manipulator of natural light and spatial effects, skygazing out there in the Roden crater, or (at the other extreme of materiality) to Lucian Freud, grappling with the massive facts of the human body in a small room.
The idea that art may give access to a spiritual realm is not necessarily to be dismissed as New Age maundering either, though it can easily become that; and since the Sixties we have become only too sharply aware of the lethal draining, the sheer cultural evacuation, that can occur when nature is ignored. Are such prejudices of Greenberg’s a reason for not reading him? Assuredly not. His work was so much a part of the dynamics of American culture between, roughly, the end of the World War II and the mid-Sixties that it can’t be ignored. No American art critic has produced a more imposing body of work: arrogant, clear, and forceful, a permanent rebuke to the jargon and obscurantism that bedeviled art criticism in his time and still does now. And it doesn’t just “impose”—it invites argument, all the way.
October 21, 1993