Piri Halasz


Piri Halasz, a former writer for Time, currently writes From the Mayor's Doorstep, <http://www.mindspring.com/~piri/index.html>, an on-line column of art reviews. The charge of Greenberg being paid by art dealers brings to mind the continuing controversy over Bernard Berenson being paid to advise Duveen. I don't get it. Curiously, many of the charges are made by academics who are paid well to promote their own ideas. Presumably that's all right when one is protected by tenure.

-- TF

Clement Greenberg: A Life,
by Florence Rubenfeld
(Scribner, 336 pp., $30)

CLEMENT GREENBERG ALWAYS used to deny that art was a religion with him. "It makes life more interesting," he'd explain, but those who knew and admired him realized that he was passionate about it, and possessed extraordinary gifts, not only for being able to perceive greatness in it, but in being able to distinguish between that greatness and second-best. If you could share his vision and see what he saw, then you tolerated his frailties and were rewarded by his understanding, encouragement, support, and advice. If, on the other hand, you couldn't share his vision, you were all too likely to resent the fact, blame him for your own inadequacies and fantasize him into a monster with two horns and a tail. Thus did the art world divide itself into Greenberg admirers and Greenberg detractors (which is not to say that some of the detractors didn't have personal reasons for disliking him, but far more often, the adversaries were, and are, those who lack his esthetic vision).

Around Thanksgiving of 1989, I learned that Florence Rubenfeld was engaged in writing a biography of Greenberg (now published as Clement Greenberg: A Life, by Scribner). The more I heard about this woman's methods of research and the type of anecdote she was discovering, the more apprehensive I became that she belonged in the camp of the detractors, and I hoped the book would sink rapidly into the oblivion it most likely deserved. This was not to be, since Greenberg detractors occupy virtually all of the influential slots in the art world today. First I heard about Adam Gopnik, who in the March 16 issue of the New Yorker published a remarkably trashy article inspired by the Rubenfeld book but (as I later learned) carrying even its biased and distorted conclusions to new extremes. Gopnik's portrayal of Greenberg as a street fighter, neglectful father and dope user was such a travesty that my subscribers began calling and writing me, asking in worried tones if I'd seen this thing. Arthur Yanoff, I think, best expressed the feeling when he said he thought it belonged in the supermarket checkout aisles.

More worried questions ensued after a review by Arthur Danto appeared in the March Artforum. This one dwelt with relish upon Rubenfeld's portrait of Greenberg as S. O. B., and maintained that Rubenfeld had no apparent axe to grind. Not much. In my opinion, she has the same axe as Danto, and that's why he can't see it: the mote in his eye blinds him to the beam in hers. For years, Danto has devoted his considerable talents to the explication and furtherance of postmodernist art, as has Gopnik. Greenberg was a modernist, and modernism still calls postmodernism into question. I can't help feeling that the abysmal level of the Gopnik piece reflects the author's desperation, since there seems to be a growing consensus that the sort of art his magazine has been promoting since 1962 is so moribund that, as one gallery assistant puts it, it's now known as "the rotting edge."

Finally, I decided I had to review the book, and started flipping through it. It seemed oddly familiar, but less because I knew Greenberg than because of how he was being treated. Detail was piled upon detail, quotation upon quotation and incident upon incident, creating the impression again and again of what a horrible man he'd been (though admittedly an eloquent critic). Where had I seen this same sort of treatment, I wondered? Then it came to me. This is the kind of coverage that Time the weekly newsmagazine used to employ, back in the bad old days, when that rabid Republican and staunch anti-Communist, Henry Luce, was still alive and Time was practicing a highly-opinionated style of journalism that utilized facts to smear people it didn't like. If you asked me, I'd say that Rubenfeld's treatment of Greenberg is about as fair and balanced as the way in which Time was treating Adlai Stevenson during the 1952 and 1956 Presidential campaigns, or the way it was dealing with Ho Chi Minh in the middle of the war in Vietnam, say along around 1965 or 1966. We're talking industrial-strength bias.

It looked familiar because I cut my professional teeth at Time. Between 1956 and 1969, I worked there as a researcher and then a writer. In the process I learned a lot about how a story could be slanted, while still maintaining a pious basis in factual accuracy. For example, every Time writer knew that the two parts of a story that leave the most indelible impression on the reader's mind are the "lede" and the "kicker," i. e., the first and last sentences, and if you look at Rubenfeld's book, you can see that paragraphs begin or end with phrases like "Clem's reputation for vindictiveness....," "Clem was arrogant," or "Clem's a true sadist." References to his good qualities are more likely to wind up buried in the body of the text.

Is it just coincidence, I wonder, that in Rubenfeld's acknowledgments, the first personal friend she thanks is "Leona Schecter, my agent and friend, for the countless hours she devoted as first editor for every page of this manuscript," and the next person thanked is "Jerrold Schecter for advice and good counsel?" I used to know a Jerrold Schecter when I was on Time. He was one of the writers in the Business section when I was a researcher there, along around 1959 and 1960, and his wife was named Leona. In fact, if memory serves, Jerry Schecter went on to a long & distinguished career with Time.

What is so sad about Rubenfeld's book is that she doesn't appear to be aware of her own lack of sympathy toward Greenberg, or understanding of him, but the fact is, she can't relate to the art he admires. True, she interviewed Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland and Anthony Caro, and discusses not only their relationship with Greenberg but also that of Morris Louis. Alas, she never once comes out and says that any of these artists are superior artists, let alone great ones. They're presented with reasonable sympathy as people, but in terms of their achievements, all she's willing to concede is that they're Greenberg's "favored artists" or "chosen few." The artists whom she says are considered "major figures" are Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, and Frank Stella, all of whom Greenberg considered second-rate. From this fundamental inability to see art the way he did, all else springs.

Consider her discussion of how Greenberg fell out with Lee Krasner in 1959. At the Time, Greenberg was working as a consultant for French & Co. He wanted to put on a Jackson Pollock show, but Krasner, as executor of the Pollock estate, was willing to lend work only on the condition that he give her a show, too. Greenberg agreed, but when he saw her paintings was disappointed and told her so. He said he was still willing to do her show, but she was so upset by his opinion of her paintings that she canceled both her own show and that of Pollock. The quotations from Greenberg in the book describing this incident are based on tape-recorded interviews, and sound like him talking, but what I get from them is his customary display of unflinching honesty which is as unsparing of himself as it is of Krasner's paintings. It's clear to me that he hadn't expected the work to be as bad as it was, but didn't feel he could avoid telling Krasner he didn't like it because he had to let her know she was asking him to compromise his own reputation by putting on a show of work he considered inferior. Rubenfeld, however, doesn't appear to be interested in any pain or suffering he might be experiencing as a result of being blackmailed by Krasner. Instead, she takes Krasner's side, and accuses him of "self-absorption" and "psychological obtuseness." In my opinion, she's the one who's being self-absorbed and psychologically obtuse.

This book contains a wealth of material which purports to give us Greenberg's life and Times, and some of it is interesting. Some of it in my opinion serves to perpetuate myth at the expense of reality, and nowhere does this seem more apparent to me than in its treatment of the oft-repeated story that Greenberg took money from Andre Emmerich in exchange for promoting artists like Noland and Olitski. The way Rubenfeld deals with this is by devoting eight lines to retailing this story and quoting two people saying they believe it is true, Rosalind Krauss and Dore Ashton. Both have previously been identified as Greenberg detractors, and their attacks on him have already been given considerable space. Next, Greenberg and Emmerich are given three lines to deny the charges, and the next (quite long) paragraph is concerned with admitting that "it appeared" that Greenberg didn't enter into financial arrangements with a dealer after he left French & Co., but two more (short) paragraphs conclude the passage by mentioning four small works of art that Greenberg picked up at the Emmerich gallery in 1962, together with some indications that later he sold them. Neither Greenberg or Emmerich could remember anything about this incident (30 years later)but, says Rubenfeld, "Emmerich guessed the objects had been dropped off at the gallery for Clem to collect at his convenience."

If you're inclined to think the worst of Greenberg anyway, this open-ended conclusion (into which Emmerich's words have been carefully structured to create Rubenfeld's impression) allows you to continue to suspect Greenberg of foul play. If you trust Greenberg, you have no problem believing that the art he picked up didn't represent a payment from Emmerich, but again we're up against the same issue: either you can see things from his point of view or you can't. I believe the charges against him originate in fantasies created by the unconscious minds of people who simply couldn't understand why he admired the artists he did admire, and were accordingly forced to explain his advocacy of them by persuading themselves (and others) that he took money for it under the table. The fact that he had formerly been a consultant for French & Co. may have furnished the point of departure for this fantasy, but there was never any secret about his relation to French & Co. What makes the story about Emmerich giving Greenberg money so nasty is its implication that Greenberg was not only taking it but pretending he hadn't.

My direct experience of Greenberg's attitude toward taking money from dealers is as follows: in 1983 I told a dealer I'd like to write a magazine article about an artist to whom he was giving a show. The dealer offered to pay my plane fare so I could visit the artist and interview him. I'd never been offered such a subsidy before (and at Time, never missed it: whatever else may be said about Luce, he believed in editorial independence, and our expense accounts freed us from such temptations and obligations). Anyway, since this situation was new to me, I said I'd like to think about it, and I asked Greenberg about it. "You are paid by the magazine," he said. "You do not take money from dealers." I thanked the dealer and paid my own fare.

I was not interviewed for Rubenfeld's book. I knew Greenberg for 25 years, and in 1983 published a substantial article about his writings of the 40s which is listed in the bibliography of Greenberg's collected writings, but what I would have had to say might not have been much use to Rubenfeld. I say this on the basis of the list of interviewees she provides in her acknowledgments, compared with what she quoted from them. Charles Millard, Darby Bannard, Willard Boepple, and John Elderfield are all on her list, but not quoted. Maybe they only said negative things that they didn't wish to be quoted on, but knowing how fond most of these people were of Greenberg, and the respect all of them had for him, I think it far more likely that all they had to say was positive things. Grace Hartigan, Clement Meadmore, Al Held, Robert Miller, Max Kozloff and other people who had negative things to say about Greenberg are quoted at length, even when by no stretch of the imagination could they ever have been considered his intimates. Hilton Kramer, Karen Wilkin, Andrew Hudson and Elizabeth Higdon are quoted only when they had negative or neutral things to say about Greenberg. Again, knowing how much all these people admired Greenberg, I find it hard to believe they said ONLY negative or neutral things (not even Higdon, despite the fact that Rubenfeld seems to have interviewed her when she was in a particularly vulnerable frame of mind, just getting over an unhappy personal relationship with Greenberg and not yet married to the man who has since become her second husband). Does anybody perceive selectivity at work?

In journalism as in law, the key to an effective presentation is selecting and emphasizing those facts that will support your argument, while minimizing or omitting those that contradict it, and Rubenfeld's selective use of quotation also shows in the written sources she employs (or could have employed, but didn't). She does seem to have consulted the Clement Greenberg Papers, in the Archives of American Art, but kisses off the vast majority of the letters in it with a single sentence. Evidently she wasn't interested in expanding on the fact that dozens of artists from all over the English-speaking world, male as well as female and including many younger ones from whom Greenberg could have had no hope of political or pecuniary gain, wrote to him, sharing their innermost thoughts, seeking his advice and/or trying to get him to look at their work. The fact that he responded as generously as he did, giving freely of his time and wisdom, is not information that would help Rubenfeld earn back her advance, I suppose. When she signed that contract with Scribner, in 1988, the odds are excellent she received an advance, and I know enough about publishing to be aware that the size of advances is calculated on the basis of how many copies of a book the publisher expects to sell.

I would imagine that in her original book proposal, Rubenfeld maintained she was going to give a "balanced" presentation, and reconcile the opposing views of Greenberg's detractors with those of his admirers. However, I have difficulty believing that she was entirely unaware of how many more detractors there were, or of how they held the whip hand in the current environment. In any event, the finished manuscript is heavily weighted on their behalf. Could the publishers have welcomed this, assuming that the admirers would buy the book anyway, regardless of how unfair it was to Greenberg, and that the best way to broaden the book's appeal, and boost sales still further was by indulging the detractors? I wish Ms. Rubenfeld luck in earning her advance. I would imagine Kitty Kelly got a terrific advance for this cheapjack expose of the royal house of Windsor that hit the best-seller lists last spring, and has since sunk without a trace. Greenberg is the closest thing to royalty the art world has to offer, and as far as I'm concerned, this Kitty Kelly-like treatment of him should suffer a similar fate.

(©Copyright 1998 by Piri Halasz; originally published in Ms. Halasz's online column, "From the Mayor's Doorstep," 15 April 1998)