Peter Harris


Barbara McKay and Clement Greenberg (Photo: Cora Kelly Ward)

Soulmates in Art

Greenberg didn't confine his studio visits to big name artists. He traveled widely and made a point of encouraging artists wherever he went. He felt at home among artists, was welcmed in studios, had an intutive sense of the essence of each artist's originality -- often one that the artist hadn't grasped. The following account of his encouragement of an Australian artist could have applied equally to artists from Canada, England, Europe, and South America.
-- TF

WHEN A BUNDLE of letters is presented to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles later this year their acceptance will complete, for the public record, a surprising friendship between an obscure Australian artist and the American art critic Clement Greenberg.

The letters, written by Greenberg to the painter Barbara McKay, will join the collection of her letters to him in the institute's extensive Greenberg archive. McKay and Greenberg began their correspondence in 1980 when he was 70 and she was 39. It ended in 1987, seven years before Greenberg's death at the age of 85. McKay is still very much alive doing what she has always done ­ and as Greenberg urged her to keep on doing ­ painting pictures.

The growth of McKay and Greenberg's friendship, seeded and then supported by the letters, came about chiefly through direct personal contact. In the four visits Mckay made to New York in the 80s, either on her own or with her then husband and their children, she and Greenberg saw a good deal of each other: in his Central Park West apartment or at his Norwich country retreat, at cocktail parties, exhibition openings, dinners and social gatherings, or when he dropped into her studio.

When Barbara McKay first met Greenberg on his second, and last, visit to Australia, in 1979, she was a virtual nobody in the art world. She had been painting continually from her teenage years, even before she completed a Diploma of Art at the National Art School in 1960, but her art had gradually given way to her commitments as a wife to the sculptor Ian McKay and as a mother to their two boys, Ben and Alex. By the time she met Greenberg she had held six solo exhibitions and taken part in five group shows. She had become a middle-generation painter who felt slighted as an artist by her peers and unknown in the wider art world and to the general public.

Though talented and knowledgable as an artist McKay seemed nonetheless little more than a suburban housewife who painted in her spare time when she met Greenberg. There was nothing bohemian or overtly artistic about her. She might have edged into the middle class from her lower middle class upbringing in Northbridge but she still approved of the police (her father had been in the force and rose to be an Inspector) and she was still a Presbyterian. Educated at Presbyterian Ladies College, Pymble, she was definitely in manner and background a WASP. She had made three trips to the U.K. and Europe but remained provincial rather than cosmopolitan in her way of life.

In background and attainment Clement Greenberg was a complete contrast. His beginning was humble enough ­ born to Jewish immigrants in the Bronx ­ but he rose to become one of the leading intellectuals of his time, an editor of Partisan Review and a contributor to The Nation, and, of course, the dominant art critic of his generation. He was worldly and sophisticated, discerning and cultivated, at ease on the world stage and at home in that centre of the universe, New York. He had made his mark in life and supped it to the full.

"He encouraged me", says Barbara McKay, and in fact the encouragement of artists whose work he admired is one of the most prominent features of Greenberg's life in art. It was he who nurtured and promoted painters such as Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jack Bush and Jules Olitski, the sculptors David Smith and, to a lesser extent, Sir Anthony Caro. Greenberg more or less made these and other contemporary American artists, and he was a driving force in the great modernist art movement of which they were such a vital part. He forced not only the American public but the European as well to recognise that Abstract Expressionism, Post-Painterly Abstraction and their various offshoots constituted a potent new force in art.

His acclamation as the greatest American art critic and possibly the best from anywhere in the Twentieth Century is founded on more than his daring and perceptive advocacy of certain American artists. It springs essentially from the insight and lucidity he brought to his commentary on a wide diversity of artists, including such greats as Manet, Monet, Matisse and Picasso, and his penetrating diagnosis of the social conditions and "philosophical" basis of various art movements. The reach and the depth of his work can be measured by reading three compilations of his talks and/or writings: Art and Culture (1961), Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism (1986­93) and Homemade Esthetics (1999). Any serious attempt at a just estimation of his place in the history of art and art criticism will need to focus on these books.

If Barbara McKay's star had failed to rise, Clement Greenberg's was decidedly on the wane when he accepted an invitation from the Dobell Foundation to give a lecture at the University of Sydney in November, 1979. The style of art he had championed ­ modernist abstract formalism ­ was passé, its occupation of art's high ground swept away by sundry postmodernisms. Changes in taste and fashion set in motion by shifting social forces, not to mention the relentless pursuit of novelty, conspired to render him in the new art hegemony one of yesterday's men. Typically, the new mandarins were compelled to denounce him. "Clembashing" became de rigueur in the art orthodoxy of the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. The ebbing of Greenberg's influence was accompanied not so much by a thorough reassessment of his thought and values as by repeated denunciation of his supposed intolerance, belligerence and authoritarianism.

Still, he remained a stellar luminary for many of those who attended his Dobell Foundation lecture or participated in a later seminar at the Central Street Gallery in the city. This small attractive gallery was the home of the Institute of Contemporary Art, members of which, especially the painter Michael Johnson, arranged the seminar. Greenberg had written ahead to the Dobell Foundation, requesting that while he was in Sydney he meet some middle-generation artists, to whom he could show slides of work by some of their American counterparts.

Barbara McKay, perhaps because she was then married to the respected sculptor Ian McKay, was the only woman invited to participate. Prior to the event invited artists met to finalise arrangements for the seminar. Because it was to be held in a gallery, the artists decided that anyone who wanted to could bring along a painting to hang on the walls. "I can still hear John Firth-Smith saying", says Barbara McKay, "'If you don't have paintings on the wall it'll be like not having furniture, for a man like Greenberg'". McKay chose a painting Reflections that nobody except she herself liked. "I thought I should be brave and put up the most problematic painting in my studio. I never thought I would ever get to talk to this man anyway".

Greenberg's talk was wonderful, recalls McKay. "He was relaxed, the room was full, everybody in the art world was there". During question time someone said ­ McKay thinks it was Alun Leach-Jones ­ "Mr Greenberg, have you looked at the paintings on the wall?" "I sure have", Greenberg replied, "and I would like to meet the artist who painted that green painting over there". "I went absolutely crimson and was quite confused", McKay says. Michael Johnson led her over and introduced her to Greenberg. "I looked at Clem and he looked at me. I know it sounds crazy but I knew then that, wow, he and I were going to be mates".

They started talking and continued to talk , mainly about Aboriginal art, for the rest of the evening, first at a pub around the corner and then at a restaurant in Chinatown. "Everyone was talking, excitedly of course, about art. "We had all downed a few drinks and were very animated. It was a great night and I was absolutely over the moon", recalls McKay. Soon after, when she and her husband attended a dinner at the Johnsons, Michael Johnson told her that Greenberg had left a message and had suggested she write and send some slides of her work to him. "And that", says McKay, "is how the first letter came about".

"You can't write to him. He won't write back", her husband, Ian, remonstrated. But Greenberg did, almost straightaway. "It just continued from there", says McKay. It was not a voluminous correspondence ­ McKay wouldn't impose, and Greenberg was a busy man ­ just fifteen letters in seven years, but it records a growing intimacy and affection between Greenberg and McKay (and her family) and his increasing admiration for her work.

Greenberg's first three letters are, as one might expect, friendly but formal. They begin with "Dear Barbara Mckay" and close "Sincerely, Clement Greenberg". After he had spent time with the McKays', however, on their first visit to New York in October 1980, Greenberg becomes more personal and relaxed, beginning his letters typically with "Dear Barbara and Ian" and signing off with "Yrs ever, Clem". By early 1983, after Barbara and Ian and their children had spent a long sojourn in New York ­ the second of Barbara's four visits ­ Greenberg is closing his letters with "Lots of love" or "Love to you both". By his eleventh letter (27 August 1983) Greenberg acknowledges "I do feel you love me, but not for sex" and affirms "I'll stay fond of you forever".

Barbara McKay is at pains to insist that her love for Greenberg and his for her was purely platonic. "There was a spark between us but it had nothing to do with sex. Maybe at a different time and at different ageswho knows? When I shook hands with him in Central Street that night I looked at him and he looked at me and I could feel his eyes burning into my head. Clem had the biggest, blackest eyes, but they glowed and they twinkled. He became a soulmate. It's as simple as that". She continues: "You know when you meet somebody whether there's anything there. I had a deep respect for him as a friend. Then I grew to love him very deeply".

She knows that he loved her. Jennifer Cosgriff, a longtime friend of Greenberg, said to her in New York: "Honey, don't you know? Clem really loves you". And Greenberg himself said it. It was on the final night of the Triangle Workshop in 1985. There was a party to wrap up the two-week event at the local country club. The talking and the drinking and the dancing had petered out and McKay was sitting next to Greenberg on a lounge in the bar. In this setting it seemed perfectly natural to McKay that he should say "I love you, Barbara" and that she should reply "I love you, Clem".

McKay felt so completely herself with Greenberg. "When I first met Clem I realised that if we had a chance to be friends then I could be the artist I wanted to be, the person I wanted to be. Right from the start I felt completely at one with him. I was excitable and no doubt a handful at times but he never suppressed me. In fact he indulged me. If Barbara wanted to throw her arms around and argue with him, well, she could go ahead and do it. That's why I loved Clem. I could be Barbara. And he could accept it".

And what attracted Greenberg to her, apart from her talent as a painter? "I may be fanciful", McKay reflects, "but I think at that stage I was someone he could talk to. He seemed to enjoy my freshness. Here was a new person, full of life and art, younger ­ to him a young girl ­ who was interested in him as a person and what he knew about art. He had a chance to share some of his passions anew. We'd ride the subway together and he'd point out places to me, where the Partisan Review building was, and so on". Greenberg had a captivated audience.

McKay's Clem is almost the reverse of the abrasive, callous and troubled man who fills so many pages in Florence Rubenfeld's biography, Clement Greenberg: A Life, published four years ago. "There was a sweetness in Clem", she asserts, "in spite of all his huff and puff and gruff. He was a gentle man, an urbane, intelligent and civilised man. He was innately serious, that Jewish seriousness. He was a great host too, very generous. And I'll tell you another side of his nature that was wonderful: he acknowledged everything; he was thorough and scrupulous".

McKay readily admits Greenberg was a complex man and that he had his bad side. She witnessed a few episodes of his toughness and insensitivity towards others, and on one occasion he confessed his troubled mind to her. "You know, Barbara, I have such dark thoughts". "It had come up", recalls McKay, "because I'd asked him for an opinion of a lovely black and white Pollock he had in the hallway of his apartment. He'd talk about anything and everything but he wouldn't talk about that painting or about Pollock. 'No I won't talk about Pollock', Clem said. He was getting old, he felt lonely and he was thinking a lot about the past, and he always felt he hadn't done as much work as he should have".

The downside of Greenberg, though, was rarely seen by McKay. He never once said or did anything to hurt her. "The thing was with Clem that love him or hate him, you couldn't dismiss him. If you met him you couldn't deny his existence. He was a very potent person, but, as I said, I saw a very gentle, loving man, and I don't say that in a sycophantic way, either".

Whatever the personal feeling Greenberg and McKay had for each other, the heart of their correspondence is a mutual love of art. The greater part of each Greenberg reply is taken up with comments on the four slides of her latest work that McKay would include in her letters, and from time to time a brief report on the art scene in New York or remarks about various artists and their work.

His very first letter to her opens: "Thank you for the slides. The three 1979 paintings look even better than the 1978 one I saw at the ICA. Curious, I missed entirely the fact that the latter was on paper. Anyhow I was struck, to repeat, even more by the later paintings". "Of course", he continues", you should be shown over here". And by his fifth letter a year after, Greenberg's response to her four slides thrilled McKay: "So keep going. You most certainly have it".

Following that momentous affirmation Greenberg's commentary on her slides tends to be less detailed ­ as though she had graduated in his eyes and could now find her own way as a painter. The ninth letter in early 1983 does, however, record his perception of remarkable progress in McKay's painting. "I see a big jump forward in these big pictures, a big, big one. No more 2nd -generation Abst licks or flailings. A heavy lightness of color, or vice versa, to indulge in what's called an oxymoron".

Greenberg's twelfth letter, in March 1984, sees him acknowledging McKay's rise to an independent maturity. "Anyhow yr painting seems to me to get better and better. But I'm not surprised, I thought you'd digest yr NY experience, really assimilate it, only after you got away from NY. And it's not that you've taken anything from American painting' it's that you've learned from it enough to go off on yr own, much the way all those artists from elsewhere learned from Paris ptg between 1910 & 1920 or 25".

In his letters Greenberg's "crit" of M'cKay's work would often be followed by reports and comments on the art scene in New York. To see the latest work of admired artists was perhaps one of the few "distractions" he could allow himself without any regret. "Jules [Olitski] has another great show on, at Knoedler's", he enthuses to McKay in an early 1981 letter. In July that year he is reporting: "Ken Noland has done some very good pictures just lately, Tony Caro some extraordinary small sculptures, in paper of all things. I saw them both at work on a hurried trip to Westchester County last week".

In March 1984 he offers a summation of good news from the New York art world. "Olitski had a wonderful show that was as though designed to put people off. Poons paints better than ever, so does Bannard. Noland has come back ­ if that's the right way to put it ­ in a great way. Steiner's sculpture is better than ever, & will be better still". Seven months later he continues the good news from Norwich. "Good younger painters coming up, here in Syracuse just NW of me, and sculptors as well as ptrs coming up in Prairie Canada, all under 40 & a good proportion female

Overall, though, the art scene was "awful" and "trendy". In New York the best current art was "more opposed & isolated than ever". Greenberg was concerned at the "fuss still being made over Schnabel, the Germans, the Italians, bad sculpture from Ellsworth Kelly & others". Soho is a "scandal", and "the new art is 90% dreadful", he declares. He was exasperated by women art "professionals" too. After she had sent him a review by a Sydney female art critic in 1983 he reminds McKay: "Haven't I said ad nauseam that female art critics & curators were the bane of art life nowadays?"

Indeed, in the same letter Greenberg cautions Barbara and Ian McKay against the effects of New York and its art scene. Back in Sydney after their long second visit to New York both McKays were suffering from a "USA down". "As of now", Greemberg insists, "neither of you should over-rate the American ambiance, or rather the NY one. A dose of it is enough, then depart. What, do you want to paint like Schnabel or sculpt like Ellsworth Kelly?"

As they got to know each better, especially after the McKays' had visited Greenberg in New York, his letters naturally become more familiar and personal. Of this aspect of the correspondence, procrastination, for which he continually apologises, is a dominant theme. A key confession occurs at the beginning of a 1983 letter: "This is late because of me; I've let my correspondence go hang these last 6 weeks, & my work too. My way of going on strike, except I don't know what I'm striking against".

The letters contain so many hints of Greenberg's frustration and unsettledness, of an urgency to work fighting an irresistible urge to get away. No more does he want to reside in his Manhattan apartment, but he won't forsake it; just as he won't settle in Norwich or give it up. "My life is as scattered as ever, straddled as I am between city & country, & with going here and there to talk", he writes in a 1984 letter.

All but two of Greenberg's letters to McKay were written from his country home in Norwich, to which he had moved in the mid-seventies. It seems to have helped him either to regain or maintain some degree of order and composure. Norwich as haven is a theme that appears in his first McKay letter and recurs continually in the remainder. He regrets not spending more time in Australia, "but life seems to be hurrying me on. I should have lingered more on the Barrier Reef & in Bali, & even in Hong Kongbut some urgency about work kept pushing me on, or else it was the yearning to get back up here in the semi-wilderness in order to unbutton".

"And in between the trips", he says in his fourth letter a year later, "I've been straddled betw NY & here. Right now I'm luxuriating in the knowledge that I can stay put for a month & collect my self & work for a change. Snow & ice all around, & I love it (though not always)". Later the same year (1981), after the Switzerland trip, he writes: "Since then I've been sitting up here in Norwich mostly. It can be confining, but usually it isn't. It all depends on how well I'm working".

Even by his second letter, in June 1980, he admits to "travelling too much", a habit he cannot shake off. Early the next year he tells McKay: "It looks as though I'll be going to Lausanne in Switzerland around 8 April, for a conference on Old vs. New World contemporary art (hot air mostly), not to return till the end of the month. I half-wish I weren't, but can't resist first-class passage, luxury hotel, and above all, the chance to see Switzerland again for the first time since 1939: art & friends". "Too many trips", he confides in a letter three years later. "I still can't bring myself to turn them down, mostly because they're easy money".

As well as his travelling, he blames indolence and the to-ing and fro-ing of daily life for his slowness as a correspondent. Having returned from a visit to China Greenberg tells McKay in an August 1983 letter: "Unanswered correspondence from people I think something of hangs over my head. They've been too many since I got back from China, & I haven't had the chance yet to get back to work. Other things have stood in my way: my indolence, having to go here and there, petty business, etc.".

Getting back to work seems to have been a problem for Greenberg, at least at this stage of his life. "Me, I'm as slothful still as I've been since last summer -- & it doesn't apparently bother me as it should" he confesses in his 1986 letter. "I do booze less, thank God, but I could booze still less, and feel still better". That he thinks his "laziness", and his procrastination, is linked to his life-long drinking ("I'm embalmed in alcohol", he once told McKay) is made clear in his very next, and last, letter to McKay in 1987. Apologising for his delayed reply, Greenberg laments: "But the weakest excuse ­ one that accounts for most ­ is that I still booze too much".

In the late autumn of his life Greenberg worked (i.e., wrote) less and less. His heyday, both as a man and as an art critic was long gone. However, he still retained sufficient prestige to be invited to talk about art here, there and almost everywhere, and was revered among an embattled minority of artists, theorists and art lovers who valued quality in art and objectivity in its appraisal and were generally faithful to the modernist movement.

An inveterate lover of women he had two regular girl friends in the period that McKay knew him, but even they could not have entirely compensated for his sense of living a left-over life. Great achievers who long survive the era of their fame are fated to feel, not only increasingly lonely as their friends die before them, but beside the point. Greenberg knew he was pretty much living off the interest in his former greatness. He still had plenty to say, especially against the artistic evils of the day, but the new movers and shakers simply ignored him.

But the revelations about Greenberg's public and private life, his feelings about things and his incidental remarks on art ­ interesting and valuable as they might be ­ are peripheral to the main focus of the letters. Greenberg apparently wanted to keep in touch with McKay because he thought she was a talented painter whom he should encourage. For her part, McKay was obviously keen to benefit from Greenberg's advice and to receive the sort of scrutiny and guidance she was not getting in Sydney. Maybe she also hoped Greenberg's patronage would introduce her painting to a more responsive and discerning public, but she was not chasing fame and fortune through Greenberg, she insists ­ a view that had some currency initially in Greenberg's circle and among some perhaps envious Australian colleagues.

McKay suffered for her relationship with Greenberg. "It was watched and laughed at by quite a few people" she recalls. Maybe that's what Clem meant when he said I was one of the bravest people he had ever known". She remembers visiting Jenny Greenberg, Clem's then ex-wife, in her New York apartment and being grilled about her relationship with Greenberg. "Like all Americans she wanted to know where I was coming from. 'What's your angle?' she kept saying. 'What's your angle?' 'I haven't got an angle", I told her. 'Come on, Barbara, no one's that altruistic'. 'I am", I insisted. Michael Steiner too was continually trying to find out my motives. That's New York, I guess".

McKay says that even now she is still assimilating what she experienced and learned in New York. "New York gave me myself" she says. It was Greenberg who suggested to Ian and her that settling in New York for a while might help them as artists. "Of course it was an attractive idea to go and live in New York" Mckay declares. "When you can meet all the artists you've heard of and admired, why wouldn't you want to go there? Day in and day out you can live eyeball to eyeball with your passion. You can feed off the energy of New York. But eventually I was ready to come back".

Greenberg agreed. "Clem said: 'You'll go back to Australia and you'll paint the pictures'. And Larry Poons assured me "You'll always be a New Yorker, Barbara, no matter where you live'. That's the arrogance of coming from New York, but I know what he meant". A vital part of what Poons meant was a passionate commitment to art. He and the other "wonderful guys" McKay met in New York were "as mad as meat axes". They were all, she claims, as mad as herself ­ "mad in the best sense, totally, totally, obsessive about making art".

Greenberg's final piece of advice to McKay about her painting was: "All you have to do, Barbara, is keep painting". "And that's the truth" McKay believes. "I'll keep painting. He knew that I knew there were no guarantees. If you're a real artist you take the ups and downs and all the rest of it". Since McKay's contact with Greenberg ceased in 1987 there have been more downs than ups for her as an artist. She is convinced, and so are a few colleagues and writers on art, that her painting is of a high quality. However, it has not met with much critical notice or praise, and while no longer an obscure painter, at least in art circles, she is unknown to a wider public.

 

Although she hates labels (because they can oversimplify and constrict) McKay can be broadly described as a lyrical abstractionist in the modernist tradition. She responds to her major subject, the Australian landscape, with a joyous love and intensity of looking that find expression in dynamic compositions of vivid colour and movement. Her responsiveness to nature is akin to that of the writers, Gerard Manley Hopkins and D. H. Lawrence. For McKay too nature is "all in a rush with richness". As far back as 1979 she told Greenberg when she first met him: "Mr Greenberg, what I want to do is to paint as an Australian artist but I want to understand what the Aborigines are doing in their work". Later she put it a little differently: "I would like in Western terms to paint the true spirit of my Australia like the Aborigines have been doing in their own way".

Why did McKay and Greenberg stop writing to each other? McKay cannot say for sure. "Clem was ill and he had remarried Jenny. I was also having personal problems in my own life, and I felt ­ it was like a gut knowingness ­ that our intellectual relationship had fulfilled itself. Because Jenny was back with him I knew he wouldn't be lonely Probably it was a lot of reasons, nothing conscious. How can I put it? It was simply a sort of evolution. And then time went on and the next thing I knew was that he had died".

"He looked beyond the obvious, Old Clem", McKay says. When I saw him in the studio looking at art in the making I used to watch his eyes. They could get the essence of a painting so quickly, even a half-finished work. He was truly "the Eye" as the New York artists called him".

McKay scotches the "myth" that Greenberg told artists how to paint. "Bullshit! He didn't. You could see his focus. Why wouldn't you take from it? Why wouldn't you feel good about it? He never told any artist what to do. The artists he knew were strong people. They knew what they wanted to do. That's why I'm fiercely loyal to him and protective. In this country we have the wrong oil about him. He never told me what to do. He suggested. [The letters confirm this.] I'd send slides to him and he'd comment on them in reply. It was fun. Fun! I've tried this, what do you reckon? That's what it was all about".


Barbara McKay, After Rain

Although it is seven years since he died and fourteen since Barbara McKay last heard from him, Clement Greenberg is a vital ongoing force in her life. "Every time I have an exhibition and it's all hung, I just look up and say, 'Here's another one, Clem'. He'll always be alive for me, because he's still in my heart. If you love somebody you love them forever".

Barbara McKay's latest paintings were on show at Mary Place Gallery, Paddington, in June this year.

Peter Harris
May 2001

Peter Harris is the Contributing Editor (Sydney/Brisbane) for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News.