Autobiographical Statement

The books mentioned are hard to find these days, both long out of print. Matisse is a small, commercial paperback -- well worth reading, about an artist Greenberg admired and advocated at a time when Picasso ruled.

-- TF

I WAS BORN in the Bronx, in New York City, the oldest of three sons. My father and my mother had come, in their separate ways, from the Lithuanian Jewish cultural enclave in north-eastern Poland, and I spoke Yiddish as soon as I did English. When I was five we moved to Norfolk, Va., but moved back to New York -- Brooklyn this time -- when I was eleven, and we have more or less stayed there since. My father had by that time made enough money to change over from storekeeper (clothing) to manufacturer (metal goods). However, I can't remember there ever having been any worrying about money in our family, or any one in it lacking for anything. Which is not to say that we were rich.

I attended public school in Norfolk and Brooklyn, took the last year of high school at the Marquand School, and went to Syracuse University for an A.B. (1930). For two and a half years after college I sat home in what looked like idleness, but did during that time learn German and Italian in addition to French and Latin. The following two years I worked in St. Louis, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles in an abortive, left-handed venture of my father's into the wholesale dry-goods business; but I discovered that my appetite for business did not amount to the same thing as an inclination. During the next year I supported myself by translating. In 1934 I married and had a son, Daniel, a year later-and another year later I was divorced. At the beginning of 1936 I went to work for the federal government, first in the New York office of the Civil Service Commission, then in the Veterans Administration, and finally (in 1937) in the Appraiser's Division of the Customs Service in the Port of New York. Until then I had been making desultory efforts to write but now I began in earnest, in my office -- time leisure -- of which I had plenty- and fairly soon I began to get printed.

As a child I had been a precocious draughtsman, and I had drawn and sketched obsessively until college; but gradually I became much more interested in literature than in art (which I still find it hard to read about), and so when I began to write it was mainly on literature. Partisan Review was the first place to publish my criticism, in 1939, and in 1940 I became one of its editors. Late in 1942 I resigned from both the magazine and the Customs Service, and most of 1943 I spent in the Army Air Force. After a spell of free-lancing and translating I took a job, in August 1944, as managing editor of the Contemporary Jewish Record, a bimonthly put out by the American Jewish Committee; when the Record was replaced by Commentary I stayed on as an associate editor of the latter, which I still am.

In the meantime my interest in art had reawakened and become a good deal more self-conscious than before; that is, I no longer took my opinions in the matter of painting and sculpture as much for granted, and began to feel responsible for them. By the end of 194I I was writing an occasional piece on art for the Nation, for which I had already been doing book reviews, and in 1944 I became its regular art critic. At the same time I wrote art criticism now and then for other periodicals, and enough book reviews -- not all of them on art books -- to give me a belly-full of reviewing in general. So in 1949 I gave up the Nation column, though I continued for another two years writing more or less regularly for Partisan Review, which, being a bimonthly, gave me more breathing space between deadlines. But in 1951 I gave that up too, and have been trying ever since then to work on things, inside and outside art, that have less to do with the current scene. The only book I have to my credit so far is a short one, Joan Miro. I am now preparing an even shorter book on Matisse.

No one has written about me at any length, though some of my failings were discussed in the reviews of my Miro book -- and I do get referred to, rather unfavorably on the whole, in an occasional article or book. But I was pleased when Alfred Barr, in his book on Matisse, mentioned me as a painter as well as critic; and I have been painting more and more seriously in the last ten years or so. Art criticism, I would say, is about the most ungrateful form of "elevated" writing I know of. It may also be one of the most challenging -- if only because so few people have done it well enough to be remembered -- but I'm not sure the challenge is worth it.

-- Twentieth Century Authors (first supplement), New York: The H. W. Wilson Company, 1955. Reprinted in Selected Essays, Vol 3