Piri Halasz

ART CRITICISM
(AND ART HISTORY) IN NEW YORK
The 1940s vs. THE 1980s

PART THREE: CLEMENT GREENBERG

 

This article, part of a dissertation for Columbia University, was published by Arts Magazine in 1983. It's one of the rare publications that examines in detail not only Greeberg's criticism published in the 40s, but also subsequent criticism of it, much of it based of partial readings and partisan preconceptions. The author's AFTERWORD, written in 2002 is illuminating and may be worth reading first.

LIKE ROBERT COATES of the New Yorker, and to a far greater extent, Clement Greenberg in the 1940s focused on the modern European tradition and the more experimental American artists. Like most of the reviewers of the day, Greenberg mingled fault-finding with his encomia, and varied his assessments of an artist's achievements from one exhibition to the next. Alone among these reviewers, Greenberg singled out not only Jackson Pollock but most of the other Abstract-Expressionist leaders then exhibiting for extended and essentially highly favorable treatment. This fact forms the basis for the critic's later eminence, but that same eminence makes doubly difficult a reconstruction of his first insights.(1)

Born in 1909, Greenberg majored in English before graduating from Syracuse University. Although he had taken drawing classes at the Art Students League as an adolescent, his initial interests as an adult were literary and political (he was a Trotskyite Marxist). His first published article on art, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," appeared in Partisan Review in the fall of 1939. It was followed the next summer by "Towards a Newer Laocoon," also in Partisan Review, and then by his first review in the Nation, in April, 1941. Although he contributed an appreciation of Klee to Partisan Review in May,1941, he concentrated his coverage of art on reviews and articles that appeared in the Nation from 1942 to 1947. In the latter year, he produced "The Present Prospects of American Painting and Sculpture" (the article Time excerpted) for Horizon, the British magazine, and further articles appeared in Partisan Review in 1948 and 1949. Greenberg continued reviewing for the Nation until mid-1949.(2)

By 1939, Greenberg had already established his commitment to the abstract (as the term was then used), to a visual art whose "excitement," as he defined it in "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," seemed to lie "most of all in its pure preoccupation with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, colors, etc., to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors.(3) He presented the emergence of this art as the product of social and historical evolution. . "Retiring from the public altogether," he wrote, "the avant-garde poet or artist sought to maintain the high level of his art by both narrowing it and raising it to the expression of an absolute...."(4) This preoccupation with pure art inevitably estranged the avant-garde from society, which turned for the most part to kitsch. While Greenberg's discussion of kitsch was amusing, it offered little explanation for his personal preference for the abstract. There were only two clues: that telltale word, "excitement," and the insistence that the avant-garde poet or artist was seeking to maintain "the high level of his art."

Greenberg did not much clarify the reasons for his own commitment with "Towards a Newer Laocoon." He argued that the "present supremacy" of abstract art was related to the emergence of music as the dominant art form among the arts. Because music is preeminently characterized by its 'remoteness from imitation,' he maintained that it had influenced the plastic arts in this direction. The dominance of literature, he said, had previously caused painting to assume literary characteristics. This reign of literature had been prolonged throughout most the19th century by the Romantic Revival or Revolution. Although this had seemed at first to offer new hope for painting, a few great artists-Delacroix, Gericault, and 'even Ingres' - had initially achieved "a greater boldness in pictorial means."(5) But the Romantic theory of art was "that the artist feels something and passes on this feeling-not the situation or thing which stimulated it-to his audience."(6) In practice, this came to mean that subsequent painters lost respect for their medium. For the first time, academicism emerged, and while academicism produced some good artists, painting on the whole sank "to a level that was in some respects an all-time low."(7)

The struggle of the avant-garde thus became to escape from this literature, which Greenberg equated to subject matter. Here he offered a significant distinction: "Subject matter as distinguished from content: in the sense that every work of a must have content, but that subject matter is something that the artist does or does not have in mind when he is actually working."(8) In this passage, Greenberg suggested one basis for the acceptance of abstract art: it did have content. That abstraction also stood for quality can be inferred only from his insistence that the literary art of the later 19th century represented painting at "an all-time low."

With his first review, Greenberg indicated more directly reasons for his own belief in the "supremacy" of abstract art. In this review, devoted to exhibitions of Miró, Léger and Kandinsky, he observed that although the demise of abstract art had been hailed "again and again" of late, it "continues to provide "our most stimulating pictures." He expressed his opinion that the fate of our particular tradition of art depends upon that into which abstract art develops." Conceding that three or four great painters were still using representation (Matisse, Picasso, Rouault, Vlaminck), he insisted that they "operate in very personal veins from which there is no issue for the future. They raise up no promising disciples, for those who follow them are imitators, eclectics, nothing else."(9)


Miro, The Poetess, 1940

Miro's pictures "continue to excite. They may puzzle the layman, but they do not bore his eyes," not even the watercolors, although these were "tenuous, precious and not altogether satisfactory." Léger had by force of repetition become "an interior decorator," but this was still "more creative than an academic painter." Most of Kandinsky's later works had become superficial, but even so, Kandinsky was "not a negligible painter. He still turns out good pictures occasionally."(10) While the examples of Léger and Kandinsky demonstrated how easy it was for abstract art to degenerate into mere decoration, nevertheless a painter:

... cannot resort to the means of the past, for they have been made stale by overuse, and to take them up again would rob his art of its originality and real excitement... when one has exposed oneself to enough contemporary art, one begins to realize that the unsuccessful pictures of a good many abstract painters are more interesting than the most brilliantly successful pictures of such painters as Grant Wood, Alexander Brook, etc., etc."(11)

This, then, was the real base from which Greenberg operated, empiricist in that it was based on an assessment of individual paintings, but also idealist in suggesting he had values which could be applied to all paintings, and standards that a painting of any kind had to live up to. These standards defined themselves in human terms. Only gradually did such human terms recede from Greenberg's writings, to be replaced in larger measure by literal descriptions. For the alert reader, however, these value judgments continued to pop out occasionally, forming an undercurrent that set the formal discussion in motion. A good painting had, in Greenberg's opinion, to be "stimulating," "interesting," "creative," "original," and "exciting" (but not necessarily "successful"). A poor painting could offend through being superficial, decorative, precious or tenuous, but more frequently because it was boring, imitative, eclectic, or employed means "made stale by overuse." The paintings of Miró, Léger, and Kandinsky were good when they possessed the positive human values; their abstraction was only a means to these ends.

One of the human qualities Greenberg admired in a painter was a willingness to be himself, and he saluted Masson for this in a review of 1942. He believed that the artist did not realize his ambitions, but "his failure is in the contemporary grand manner."(12) Greenberg also reviewed Walter Quirt, who in 1942 was still more of a surrealist than an expressionist, though he panned the show. Greenberg reviewed Arp in 1949, arguing that he was "at the very least a great minor artist."(13) The critic continued to esteem Miró. While he agreed that Miro's work might be playful, the artist's greater significance lay in his being a pure painter, whose emotion, however modest, found a complete expression in his pictures.(14) Greenberg's first book, in 1949, was on Miró.

Greenberg's reverence for Miró, his respect for Masson and Arp, and even his readiness to review Quirt, indicate that he took a lively interest in Surrealism. This can be dated from his first reviews, but he did not spell out his position until August, 1944, in two articles on Surrealist painting. In these, he distinguished between the two directions in which Surrealist painting had moved: one used the automatist method as a primary factor, while the other employed it only secondarily. To the first direction belonged Miró, Arp, Masson, Picasso, and Klee; to the second, Ernst, Dali, Tanguy, Dominguez, Brauner, Oelze, Fini, Roy, Magritte, "e tutti quanti."(15) For Greenberg, the automatist method, with its reliance on the unconscious and the accidental, offered advantages to the artist, enabling him to surrender himself more fully to his medium, and thus culminating the process "which has in the last seventy years restored painting to itself and enabled the modern artist to rival the achievements of the past."(16)

He reserved his castigation of Surrealism for those artists who had abandoned the unconscious except as a source of subject matter for pictures which were not automatist in execution, but instead relied on techniques learned in art schools. These pictures, he argued, were familiar, literary and academic and he criticized them severely and at length. However, it must be remembered that, in 1944, the illusionist branch of Surrealism was receiving the vast majority of the attention paid to the movement. Even readers of the Nation would have associated the word "Surrealist" with Dali and other illusionist practitioners of the school; it is therefore understandable that Greenberg normally preferred to discuss Miró as a painter who had taken the Cubist tradition beyond Picasso. He used the term "post-Cubist" in reference to Miró.(17)

Greenberg was not an admirer of Matta who employed academic devices of modeling and shading. In fact, the critic called Matta "that prince of comic-strippers," but he considered him an important influence on Arshile Gorky.(18) Greenberg remarked several times on the significance of Surrealism (specifically, Miró) for Pollock.(19) He commented on Adolph Gottlieb's use of "symbols" that supposedly derived from the unconscious and spoke to the same faculty in the spectator, although he rather sarcastically questioned the importance that Gottlieb, Clyfford Still, and Mark Rothko attributed to the symbolical or "metaphysical" content of their paintings.(20) Thus, although he viewed the diverse effects of Surrealism on the Abstract Expressionists with mixed feelings (depending on which branch of Surrealism was having the influence), he did not fail to report them.

Greenberg also recognized the importance of Kandinsky. While considering the Russian "provincial," in the sense that he never fully understood Cubism, Greenberg paid tribute to Kandinsky in 1945 as a "large and revolutionary phenomenon" who was "great" for a "relatively short time." The critic singled out as Kandinsky's best work "those paintings in fluid contour and gauzy color" executed between 1909 and the early 1920s, (in contrast, for example, to Coates who, in the reference cited In my previous article, could only respond to Kandinsky's late work.(21)

This division of opinion reflects a larger difference, because Greenberg was opting for a painterly mode of expression while Coates was still enmeshed in the common preference of the 1940s for more established geometric abstraction. Greenberg's tendency to favor the painterly can be illustrated by other preferences. Thus, he preferred the Romantic polarity of the Romantic-Classic duality of the early 19th century. Already cited in his reference to Delacroix, Gericault, and "even Ingres" as leaders of the Romantic Revolution. In 1944, he described an exhibition of Delacroix as "magnificent," and the artist himself as "one of the greatest painters, known or unknown, who ever lived."(22) In 1947, reviewing Lionello Venturi's Modern Painters for the New York Times, Greenberg referred to the late murals of Delacroix as "the greatest painting of the nineteenth century."(23)


Beckmann, Four Men around a Table, 1943

The critic also expressed approval of some painterly expressionists. He spoke kindly of Hyman Bloom in 1946, although he doubted that Bloom's relatively familiar style would allow him to make any genuinely original statements. Greenberg wrote reviews that were on balance favorable to both Max Beckmann and Marsden Hartley. Although the critic found Beckmann's color muddy at times, and too much reliance on black lines, he argued that "the power of Beckmann's emotion" and "the flattened painterly vision he has of the world" sufficed "to overcome his lack of technical 'feel' and to translate his art to the heights."(24)

"Character" was another trait that appealed to Greenberg in an artist, and his admiration for Arnold Friedman, a painter essentially Post-Impressionist in style, was based on the "character" evidenced by Friedman.(25) This emphasis on character indicates a predilection for the romantic, in the more general senses of the word.(26) Similarly romantic was Greenberg's admiration for ambition, emotion, and originality in the artist or his work. The centrality of feeling or emotion can be documented by many references. In 1947, Greenberg defended his espousal of the abstract on the grounds that art "succeeds in being good only when it incorporates the truth about feeling," and it "can now tell the truth about feeling only by turning to the abstract." (With characteristic empiricism, the critic added: "I do not say this out of dogmatism-art cannot be prescribed to-but only because the incidence of good art has become so much greater in the area of the abstract than elsewhere.")(27) Reviewing deKooning, Greenberg observed that "emotion that demands singular, original expression tends to be censored out by a really great facility," and argued that deKooning's effort to suppress his own facility led to contradictions in his paintings (contradictions which, however, "are the source of the largeness and seriousness we recognize in this magnificent show").(28)

Emotion was not only central to the creation of good art; it was also conveyed by it. When the Metropolitan in 1944 returned many of its Old Masters from wartime storage, Greenberg observed that "seeing the pictures again calls forth a surprising amount of joyous emotion."(29) Confronted by an abstraction by Philip Guston at the Whitney annual in 1948, Greenberg was "puzzled at first at not being more moved by it."(30) When the critic found fault with figurative expressionists, it was often because they failed to incorporate their emotion into their work. Of a Rufino Tamayo exhibition, Greenberg commented, "Emotion is not only expressed, it is illustrated. That is, it is denoted, instead of being embodied."(31) The problem with Abraham Rattner was that "what Rattner has produced so far is more the proclamation than the result of emotional pressure."(32) Conversely, the early Cubists were supremely capable of conveying emotion. In an early and particularly insistent passage, Greenberg wrote:

At the sight of the cubist paintings by Gris, Picasso and Braque, one wonders how it was ever possible to say that cubism is a dry, "intellectualized" art without emotion, for these pictures with their brown tones and vibrating planes communicate the pathos of their moment and place with an eloquence more than equal to that of Apollinaire's poetry.(33)

For Greenberg, emotion in work was closely allied to originality and content. We have already seen that as early as 1940 he expounded on it more fully in 1948. In response to Geoffrey Grigson's claim that "painters... need subject, which is another way of affirming that they need viable ends," Greenberg argued:

,,, if by ends Mr. Grigson really means content, and wants to reproach modern art for lack of it, then he has missed the whole point.
Must one argue this all over again? The message of modern art, abstract or not, Matisse's, Picasso's or Mondrian's, is precisely that means are content. . . . Human activity embodies its own ends and no longer makes them transcendental by postponing them to afterlife or old age. All experience is sanctified, all we can know is the best we can know. These may be errors, just as the myths of religion are errors, but they are capable of producing an art just as profound and "human" as that which incorporated the myths of religion.(34)

This passage was characteristic of Greenberg in its reconciliation of seeming opposites. On one hand, the 20th-century rational materialist was rejecting the "myths of religion" as "errors," and espousing a positivist position that "all we can know is the best we can know." On the other, the idealist was arguing that even under such circumstances, art could still be as profound and "human" as the art of the Old Masters.

Greenberg's manner of equating content with means may perhaps be illustrated by an analogy with literature: when a writer finds himself lapsing into clichés, he knows that he is unconsciously borrowing thinking originated by others and only in the effort to divest himself of the borrowed forms will he be able to express feelings and attitudes which are uniquely his. Thus, with Greenberg, the originality of the style meant that the painter was expressing more original and genuine feeling. This feeling was related to the content, and gained value in relation to its breadth, seriousness, and forcefulness. He expressed his preference for Pollock, as opposed to Dubuffet, not only in terms of his greater stylistic originality but because Pollock had "more to say in the end," and "a more reverberating meaning."(35) He argued that American art had outdistanced, European art on the basis of content. "American painting," he wrote, "in its most advanced aspects-that is, American abstract painting-has in the last several years shown here and there a capacity for fresh content that does not seem to be matched either in France or Great Britain."(36)

Despite his allegiance to such romantic ideals as originality and feeling, Greenberg took vigorous exception to the more conventional and, in his opinion, less genuine forms of romantic painting. In 1943, James Thrall Soby and Dorothy Miller mounted "Romantic Painting in America" at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition traced "romanticism" in America from Cole through Ryder and Marin, winding up with a group of quite traditional "romantic" painters, such as Jon Corbino. Darrel Austin, Henry Mattson, and Raymond Breinin. The show excluded all abstract painters; the most experimental ones included were Morris Graves and Loren MacIver. Greenberg reviewed this show with a lethal blast. He described it as part of a campaign against genuine modernism begun by the academic Surrealists and carried on by the Neo-Romantics Christian Bérard, Paul Tchelitchew, and the Bermans. This war, as Greenberg saw it, was essentially between those artists who continued to explore new aspects of expression, at the cost of being isolated from society, and those who had developed more familiar styles in hopes of being accepted by society.

The Neo-Romantics and academic Surrealists were also in Greenberg's opinion, impelled by a yearning to "put their art in a more explicit relation with the rest of their lives than post-cubist painting and sculpture would seem to allow." Greenberg conceded that "Cubism, or abstract art, gives the artist no room to express his immediate feelings about sex, for instance. They must first be transposed." If Soby were not "impatient" with the "thought and feeling" involved in the transposition, he would not exclude the possibility that "post-cubist" art could be as "romantic" as anything else. In fact, to Greenberg, the truth was that "Picasso, Miró, Braque, Arp, Lipchitz, Brancusi, the 'inhuman' Mondrian, and the 'intellectual' Gris have given the 'romantic' as well as the 'classical' aspects of contemporary life their most intrinsic expression in visual art."(37)

Greenberg observed that the latest "romantic" revival in painting "stands historical romanticism on its head." Unlike the original Romantics, the new movement was not revolting against authority and constraints, but trying to establish a new security and order. Greenberg set up an ironic polarity that contrasted the "imagination" of conventional romanticism (which he described as "conservative and constant") with the "reason" it opposed (which was to him ``restless, disturbing, ever locked in struggle with the problematical," i.e., far truer to historical Romanticism than the later painting which had assumed its name).38 This polarity had very likely been suggested by the catalogue to "Romantic Painting in America," where Soby defined Romantic painting as "the temporary triumph of Imagination over Reason in the war between the two which had been openly declared in the 18th century."(39) The artists who fulfilled the definition of "imagination" for Soby have already been given: not one more abstract than Graves or MacIver. Soby's appropriation of the word to describe this limited vision of painting goes far towards explaining Greenberg's aversion to it.

The critic judged the work of all American painters by the standards set by the Europeans he most admired, and even though he must have appreciated the fact that the American Abstract Artists shared some of his admirations, he could not work up much enthusiasm for their paintings. This may be seen from his first review of their annual exhibition, in 1942. Naturally, he had no wish to appear as derogatory as, for example, Edward Alden Jewell and Emily Genauer. At the same time, Greenberg's earliest associates in the art world were not members of the A.A.A, and he seems to have shared their detachment from it. As he later recalled, the A.A.A. exhibitions were places where "some abstract painters learned at least what they did not want to do."(40) The A.A.A. exhibitions were a stronghold of what Greenberg called "late cubism"; it was Late Cubism, rather than "post-cubism," because the painters were not yet employing the automatist process, and were still mostly laying on their pigments in hard, clear, sharply delineated forms. Accordingly, Greenberg saluted the A.A.A. exhibition courteously, but he concluded there were "no great successes as yet; a certain authority is lacking." He defended it mainly on the grounds that it was "a beginning, and beginnings can be found almost nowhere else in contemporary American art."(41)

In search of such "beginnings," Greenberg went to Graves' first one-man show in New York the following November, and to the Hananiah Harari exhibition in January, 1943, finding in both cases some things to admire. But his encounter with Pollock's art affected him more profoundly; while his advocacy of the artist is well known, its full effect on his criticism has not been studied. When Greenberg reviewed Pollock's first one-man show in the fall of 1943, which included Pasiphae, he did not accord him any superlatives. Nevertheless, it seems that Greenberg's horizons had been vastly expanded, and henceforth his standards for other American painters became increasingly demanding.

Greenberg's second review of Graves in 1943 was extremely censorious. Mark Tobey was praised in 1944 for the "intensity, subtlety and directness" with which he "registers and transmits emotion usually considered too tenuous to be made the matter of any other art than music. And yet again-his painting is not major."(42) Karl Knaths was admired in 1948 for his "purity of intention" and "genuine command of modern idiom," but his work was deemed "the product... of a minor artist, one who extracts and preserves the purity of a style into which its originators have put unviable passion."(43) Greenberg's pre- and post-Pollock positions are particularly well illustrated by his treatment of Stuart Davis. In early 1943, Greenberg conveyed a qualified approval. If Davis was perhaps at heart only a "superb wall-decorator," some of his pictures were still more than decorative."(44) In 1945, Davis was described in terms of his "felicity" "taste," and "charm," all lesser virtues in the critic's lexicon. While Greenberg believed that Davis had produced, around 1928, a number of Paris street scenes that were exquisite minor art," on the whole, "taste is not enough for a lifetime of art."(45)


Jackson Pollock, The Key, 1946

In April, 1945, at the time of Pollock's second one-man show, Greenberg called him "the strongest painter of his generation and perhaps the greatest one to appear since Miró." In the same article, the critic commented that the exhibition of the American Abstract Artists suffered from a lack of "strong personalities. The rules laid down by the epigones of cubism are a little too carefully observed."(46) In 1947, reviewing the association's show again, he concluded that "not one is bold, extravagant, pertinacious or obsessed.... Politeness covers all."(47) Greenberg continued to consider the show as part of a wider search for new talent, a search that also carried him to the exhibitions of the Jane Street group, the Pyramid Society, and the League of Present-Day Artists. In all these exhibitions, he found individual works to recommend but no new artists he considered major.

In Greenberg's post-Pollock period, in fact, he could substantially praise only a few American abstract painters. They included William Baziotes and Robert Motherwell, whose exhibitions were reviewed in November, 1944, with many criticisms but fundamentally high praise. Greenberg did not review a one-man show by Baziotes again, but he referred to him in his review of the 1948 Whitney annual as "a serious and vastly superior artist" (i.e., superior to Theodoros Stamos, who had in Greenberg's opinion borrowed most of his style from the "lower registers" of Baziotes).(48) Greenberg reviewed Motherwell's shows of 1946, 1947, and 1948. The critic disliked the 1946 exhibition held in January, but he enthusiastically praised the later ones arguing, in 1948, that "the big step forward" taken by Motherwell "makes his inclusion among our more important contemporary painters obligatory."(49) The critic paid homage to Hans Hofmann once, in reviewing his 1945 exhibition.

The one-man exhibitions of Gorky were covered by Greenberg in 1945, 1946, and March, 1948, and he singled out Gorky's picture in the 1947 Whitney annual for extended praise. The first review commented that Gorky had abandoned the influences of Miró and Picasso for Matta and the early Kandinsky. It seemed to Greenberg that Gorky was taking "the easy way out... corrupted perhaps by the example of the imported [i.e., academic] surrealists and such neo-romantics as Tchelitchew." In other words, by adopting the less spontaneous variants of biomorphism being practiced by Matta, rather than the more spontaneous biomorphism of Miró, Gorky was succumbing to worldly "corruption," and becoming merely "charming." At the same time, Gorky was "definitely a first-rate painter" who had done more with the biomorphism of Matta et al. than they themselves could do. Greenberg concluded that Gorky was still an artist "of promise."(50)

In 1946, Greenberg was even more impressed. In his opinion, Gorky's new paintings still did not "constitute an eruption into the mainstream of contemporary painting" (as Pollock's did), but the show included "some of the best modern painting ever turned out by an American."(51) By the time of the 1947 Whitney annual, Greenberg believed that Gorky had assimilated the influence of Matta and had gone beyond him to achieve "a genuinely new style."(52) Gorky's first one-man show of 1948 produced the opinion that he had at last taken his place "among the very few contemporary American painters whose work is of more than national importance."(53) Greenberg reviewed Gottlieb's paintings in essentially favorable language in 1947 and 1948. The critic's reaction to deKooning's first one-man show of 1948 has already been cited. Thus, of the major Abstract Expressionists exhibiting in the 1940s, Still, Rothko, and Reinhardt were the only ones whose shows were not reviewed.

In the Horizon article, Greenberg was assessing the possibilities before an international audience for an American art that would compare favorably with the greatest European work of earlier eras. Much as the critic admired Pollock, David Smith and Hofmann, he believed that prospects for the attainment of an internationally viable art were, at present, dim. This was partly because "the dominant creative tradition in America during the last century and a half, as in England and Germany, has . . . been Gothic, transcendental, romantic, subjective."(54) To enable American artists to overcome the narrowness induced by this tradition, the leavening influences of "skepticism and matter-of-factness" were needed.

Also needed was an improvement in the low level of contemporary American taste, which failed to appreciate Pollock, Smith, or the other "seven or eight" artists whose "tentatives" were "promising." Condemned as these artists were to the role of social outcast, they might never be able to abandon the despairing Dionysian mode they currently favored for the more tranquil Apollonian, although the Apollonian was in Greenberg's opinion aesthetically superior. The critic was not prescribing the forms that such a new mode would take; he was hoping only for "a bland, large Apollonian art in which passion does not fill in the gaps left by the faulty or omitted application of theory but takes off from where the most advanced theory stops, and in which an intense detachment again informs all."(55) The dual goals of passion and detachment again suggest a seeming contradiction which can be resolved only by those willing to view the achievements of the Old Masters in that light, as Greenberg did.

Within months after the Horizon piece was published, Greenberg became much more optimistic, and commented in the Nation that the "rising general level of advanced or 'radical' art in this country is on the point of becoming a substantial fact."(56) In January, 1948, in Partisan Review, the critic advanced for the first time his claim that the best American abstract art was superior to that being produced in France or Great Britain. In the Nation, Greenberg had also harshly treated a number of popular American artists of the 1940s. When Georgia O'Keeffe had a retrospective at MOMA, Greenberg called most of the work "tinted photography."(57) Ben Shahn's art, seen in his retrospective at MOMA, "is not important, is essentially beside the point, and is much more derivative than it seems at first glance."(58) Yasuo Kuniyoshi's retrospective at the Whitney revealed him as "a much weaker artist than one had expected . . . Kuniyoshi hardly matters to serious painting in America."(59) Almost the only really well-known living American painter whom Greenberg admired was John Marin.

The foregoing discussion of Greenberg's writing of the 1940s has been extended for two reasons. First, only by assessing his full range and outlook can we understand how and why he was able to achieve his remarkable insights. Secondly, the failure to consult the full record by previous writers on Greenberg has led to the promulgation of some conceptions regarding him that, are, in my opinion, inaccurate. Greenberg himself has compounded the problem of understanding him by continuing to develop-and write. In later life, he has evolved consistently towards a more "classical" position, in both the art-historical and general senses of the word. More and more space is given to formal analysis and theory; less and less does he offer value judgments, and he rarely discusses content, originality, or emotion in art. Among painters of the past, he now prefers Ingres to Delacroix. His endorsement of the "post-painterly" abstraction of the 1960s is well known. I would suggest that some of the less than entirely accurate assessments of Greenberg have developed from confusing the later Greenberg with the earlier (certainly, none of the authors I shall discuss cites any writings by Greenberg from the 1930s or 1940s other than those outlined above).

During the 1950s, Greenberg's interpretations of Abstract Expressionism were challenged by Harold Rosenberg, who emerged into the wider arena with his article on "Action Painting" in Art News in 1952.(60) The ensuing debate essentially belongs to the history of criticism in the 1950s, and some articles dealing with Greenberg in the 1960s belong more to the history of criticism in that decade than they do to scholarship. However, the 1960s also saw the publication of more scholarly articles dealing with Greenberg's role in the 1940s. First among these was that of Max Kozloff, published in 1965.

Kozloff's treatment of Greenberg was sympathetic in some respects but imprecise in others. For example, he quoted from Greenberg's somewhat censorious review of Gorky in 1946. He quoted negative excerpts only, neglecting to mention that Greenberg had said Gorky had produced some of the best modern paintings ever turned out by an American. Kozloff failed to refer to the later and even more favorable reviews altogether and then concluded that Greenberg could see in Gorky "no more than an immensely gifted celebration of French taste."(61) Possibly Kozloff was unfamiliar with the later references.

Kozloff argued that Greenberg's "expectations were remarkably unsuited" to evaluating Abstract Expressionism because he had "strong reservations" about a "painterly reaction" to Cubism.(62) In support of this assertion, Kozloff quoted a 1951 article by Greenberg voicing reservations about Soutine. Kozloff did not appear aware that Greenberg's criticisms were made in relation to a specific artist, and did not constitute a blanket rejection of the painterly. Perhaps Kozloff was unfamiliar with Greenberg's admiration for the "fluid contour and gauzy color" of the early Kandinsky, or his respect for Beckmann, Hartley, Delacroix, and Gericault. On the other hand, Kozloff was very much aware of Greenberg's later, more linear orientation in relation to "post-painterly abstraction."(63) Possibly he confused the later Greenberg with the earlier.

Kozloff quoted Greenberg's review of Howard Putzel's 1945 exhibition, "A Problem for Critics." This show is remembered because it included work by Pollock, Hofmann, Gorky, Rothko and Gottlieb, but as Greenberg's review indicates, the show also included work by Matta, Masson, Picasso, Miró, Richard Pousette-Dart, Lee Krasner, Arp, Tamayo and Charles Seliger. Greenberg liked Putzel's idea that a new movement was being born and deserved fuller attention from the critics. But the show as a whole did not impress the critic, being heavily weighted, as it was, on the side of older schools and pictures still employing familiar and relatively illustrative devices (Gottlieb, Rothko, Seliger, Pousette-Dart, and of course Tamayo were still producing comparatively conventional paintings at that stage). Greenberg decided that what the show really demonstrated-in its entirety-was "a swing back" to "poetry" and "imagination." He criticized this development because it entailed a return to "too obvious emotion and academic subterfuges."(64)

Kozloff argued from this that Greenberg was suspicious of poetry and imagination.(65) He seems to have overlooked the fact that Greenberg put both words in quotation marks, thereby indicating that he was using them ironically: compare his references to the "inhuman" Mondrian and the "intellectual" Gris in his review of "Romantic Painting in America." This review clearly shows that Greenberg considered the word "imagination" debased by its associations with conventional romantic painting. The word "poetry" is a little more ambiguous, but I would suggest (if this review were read in the spirit in which it was written) that Greenberg was not condemning the artists in Putzel's show for having poetry and imagination. Rather, he was suggesting that the relatively familiar methods some were still using prevented them from achieving a more genuine poetry and displaying more real imagination.

Kozloff maintained that Greenberg "focused entirely on one single concern . . . the 'purity' of the painter's vision... There was something irreversible-although never explicitly designated-about the course painting was supposed to be taking".(66) Kozloff excused himself from the need to cite Greenberg directly by the phrase "never explicitly designated." In fact, direct citation of Greenberg reveals that he defended abstraction in art not because he considered it inevitable, but because he believed it to have produced the best paintings-an empiricist argument, not a determinist one.

Kozloff further observed that "Greenberg, with his hostility to Surrealism, does not even mention Pollock's revolutionary drip method in the latter's 1949 show."(67) But Greenberg, in his reviews of the 1940s, virtually never discussed technique. He had as noted, already described Pollock several times as being influenced by Miró and Surrealism in general; he had also described (and applauded) the automatism of Surrealism in his articles on Surrealist painting. Possibly Kozloff was unfamiliar with these references.

Kozloff concluded that "Greenberg's comment is essentially compressive, Procrustean: lopping off those qualities in the art which didn't fit into his field of vision...."(68) This comment loses a certain degree of emphasis when a fuller examination of the record shows that Greenberg did not exclude poetry, imagination, the importance of the painterly, or the influence of Surrealism from his "field of vision." Kozloff further concluded, "There is no provision in Greenberg's ideology for translating analysis into some record of feeling . . . It is hard to accept the apprehension of two forms working together in space as an account of an emotional experience, that is, of the final, aesthetic end of the work."(69)

I would agree that it is indeed sometimes hard to accept this apprehension, and that Greenberg's formal analyses often make singularly thorny reading. But the fact that something is difficult does not make it a failure, unless one assumes that the purpose of criticism is to make art intelligible even to those viewers with no capacity to respond to purely visual stimuli and no willingness to make an effort. Moreover, it is inaccurate to say that Greenberg's ideology made no provision for the translation of analysis into a record of feeling. This has been indicated by his discussion of why he was not more "moved" by Guston's painting, by his responding to the Old Masters at the Metropolitan with "joyous emotion," by his interpretation of the early paintings of Gris, Picasso, and Braque as "communicating pathos with eloquence," and so on.

Barbara Reise's article on Greenberg in the 1940s appeared in 1968. She observed that Greenberg's "early" penchant for discussing art "in terms of form rather than content" was noted by some critics after reading Art and Culture.(70) But this book, published in 1961, reflected Greenberg's later concerns more than his earlier ones. Although it included some early articles, the author selected only those which represented his ongoing positions, more theoretical and formal interpretations, and later considerations of Abstract Expressionism.(71) Reise's opposition of "form" to "content" suggests that she was unfamiliar with Greenberg's concern for content in the 1940s, as well as his distinction between content and subject matter. Form and content were not polarities to Greenberg: they were intimately related.


Willem de Kooning, Gansevort Street.1949

Reise said that Greenberg had championed Pollock, Gorky, de Kooning, Smith, and Motherwell in the 1940s, and that he seemed "only peripherally aware" of Rothko, Still, Newman, Baziotes and Gottlieb, who were more closely involved with the French Surrealists than with the Graham-Hofmann circle." She added, in a footnote, "Greenberg did not like the Surrealists... His aversion was so strong that he rarely mentioned their presence in New York in his accounts of immigrant artists."(72) This footnote was documented not by any reference to Greenberg's writings but by a citation of Kozloff. It again indicated a lack of familiarity with Greenberg's writings on Surrealism. The linkage of Gorky and Motherwell with "the Graham-Hofmann circle" and their contrast with other artists "who were more closely involved with the French Surrealists" ignores the fact that Gorky and Motherwell were closely involved with the French Surrealists (while Still was not). The statement that Greenberg seemed only "peripherally aware" of Baziotes, Gottlieb, and Newman suggests that Reise was unfamiliar with Greenberg's references to Gottlieb and Baziotes in the 1940s, as well as the fact that Newman did not exhibit during the decade. On the subject of Greenberg's "accounts of immigrant artists," I confess to ignorance. To the best of my knowledge, Greenberg wrote no such accounts concerning the 1940s.(73)

The Triumph of American Painting, by Irving Sandler, was published in 1970. Sandler began his discussion of Greenberg by quoting from his review of Putzel's show. Sandler's misreading of this review followed that of Kozloff, and enabled him to set up a contrast between Greenberg who, he said, favored "purity" in art, and the artists, who by implication were seeking to inject content. Sandler later commented that "the refusal to consider content in art constituted a serious gap in Greenberg's criticism."(74) Actually, however, Greenberg was much concerned with content--as he defined it.

Sandler presented Greenberg's arguments on behalf of the need for painting to purify itself, and then added that Greenberg "considered this process, which he called self-criticism, inexorable and controlled by a kind of art historical determinism."(75) His documentation for this statement was nothing Greenberg ever wrote, but rather a letter by Fairfield Porter, the latter-day Impressionist, to Partisan Review in 1940. (Porter had derived this impression from reading "Towards a Newer Laocoon.") While he might be excused for misreading Greenberg's single article, Sandler did have later and more explicit references available which elucidated Greenberg's preference for "purity" or abstraction on empiricist, not determinist grounds.

Sandler observed that "during the 1940s, Greenberg favored a Cubist aesthetic. He called for an impassive abstract art, 'governed by the structural or formal or physical preoccupations that are supposed to exhaust the intentions of cubism and its inheritors."(76) Actually, the full citation from Greenberg begins: "Until recently, abstract painting in this country and elsewhere was governed by the structural . . . [etc.]."(77) Greenberg was saying this was the way painting had been in the past, not the way it should be in the future, and he was not saying that such art was "impassive." Notice the word "supposed." Greenberg was indicating he did not believe Cubist painting was concerned only with structural or formal or physical preoccupations.

Sandler said that Greenberg's point of view was "influenced by that of the American Abstract Artists, and at first he naturally found in their works its fullest embodiment. In 1942, he acclaimed the AAA's sixth annual exhibition."(78) Sandler may have been unaware of the hostility with which other critics treated the A.A.A., and of Greenberg's subsequent necessity to put his assessment in the most courteous possible terms. Perhaps if Sandler had had this awareness, he would have realized that the real nut of Greenberg's opinion was contained in his statement that there were "no great successes as yet; a certain authority is lacking," and in the critic's rather condescending reference to the show as "a beginning." These phrases indicate a good deal less than "acclamation."

Sandler maintained that "Greenberg was hostile to Surrealism."(79) In support of this statement, he quoted Greenberg's 1945 review of Gorky, concluding with Greenberg's comment that the artist was taking "the easy way out." Sandler seems to have missed the point that Greenberg was making, namely, that Gorky was abandoning a more genuine form of Surrealism (Miro's) for a less genuine one (Matta's). Sandler did read Greenberg's 1944 articles on Surrealism, and concluded that "by 1944," Greenberg "had overcome his doubts, even to the extent of endorsing automatism."(80) If, perhaps, he had also read Greenberg's 1941 and 1942 reviews of Miró, Masson and Quirt, he would have realized that the 1944 articles were not an announcement of a conversion but rather an amplification of previous positions.

Sandler stated that "Greenberg worried about the AAA for a half-dozen years after it had ceased to be a force in the evolution of vanguard art because he yearned for an impassive, rational art." (81) To support this statement, he quoted the first half of the passage from Greenberg's Horizon article in which the critic had called for "the development of a bland, large, balanced Apollonian art...." Sandler did not quote the last half of this passage, with its reference to "passion," nor did he appear to appreciate the fact that Greenberg was making a comparison not between Abstract Expressionism and the A.A.A. (of which his English audience had probably never heard), but between Abstract Expressionism and the grand European tradition. As far as the A.A.A. was concerned, Greenberg seems to have continued to review its shows because he hoped they would provide some interesting work-just as he hoped the Jane Street group, the Pyramid Society, and the League of Present-Day Artists would turn up fresh prospects (Sandler may have been unfamiliar with the way Greenberg "worried" about them, too).

Sandler said that "during the early and mid-1940s, Greenberg preferred Cubist abstraction to other styles, but, turning slowly against its derivativeness, he began to favor 'painterly' abstraction, which broke from Cubism and which 'continues the centuries-old tradition of painterly-malerisch-'loosely' executed, 'brushy' painting."82 But Greenberg had already espoused the painterly well before the emergence of Abstract Expressionism Moreover, his "preference" for Cubism did not prevent him from admiring Miró, Kandinsky or Klee; this wider consciousness of the full range of sources for Abstract Expressionism helped make it possible for him to respond to it not "slowly" but indeed faster than any other critic then practicing.


Arshile Gorky, The Plough and the Song, 1947

Dore Ashton's book The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning was originally published in 1972. It stated that Greenberg's "bêtes noires were the surrealists... "(83) Ashton cited a reference to Greenberg (Nov. 14, 1942), but overlooked the fact that this referred to the academic or illusionist branch of Surrealism. She described Greenberg as "denouncing" Kandinsky in 1945.(84) Yet this review refers to Kandinsky as "great" and "a large and revolutionary phenomenon"-hardly denunciatory phrases. Ashton said that in Greenberg's 1945 review of Gorky, he didn't mention Kandinsky as an influence on Gorky. She ignored the two references to Kandinsky in that piece. Her misinterpretation of Greenberg's review of Putzel's show followed those of Sandler and Kozloff.

While Stephen Foster's book The Critics of Abstract Expressionism was not published until 1980, his chapter on Greenberg in the 1940s was essentially a reprint of an article that appeared in 1975. Foster was much intrigued by Greenberg's political interests of the 1930s, arguing from them that "according to Greenberg, the redirections in art were no less predicable than in politics... the logic of the history of art was conceived as constant struggle for each of the arts to purify its means."(85) Like Kozloff, Foster did not seem to be familiar with Greenberg's empiricist defenses of the abstract. Foster, like Kozloff described Greenberg as "loath to admit the importance of Surrealism."(86) He agreed with Sandler that Greenberg had "endorsed" the A.A.A.(87) He followed both Kozloff and Sandler in appearing unfamiliar with Greenberg's painterly orientation of the 1940s. Foster's treatment of Greenberg's reviews of Gorky was similar to that of Kozloff.

Barbara Cavaliere and Robert C. Hobbs presented their frankly labeled case, "Against a Newer Laocoon," in 1977. This was based almost exclusively on an interpretation of "Towards a Newer Laocoon," although the authors did excerpt other passages from Greenberg that appeared to support their argument. They stated that Greenberg "had a blind spot regarding Surrealism . . . and thus he ignored its influence on the Americans."(88) They also said he viewed the "emphasis on feeling as unessential to the discipline of working within the confines of a specific medium."(89) They added that Greenberg "viewed automatism as suspect...."(90) Perhaps a wider exposure to Greenberg's writings of the 1940s, in particular those dealing with Surrealism and the references to emotion, feeling, and passion cited earlier, would have spared the authors the necessity of repeating these already familiar but nonetheless inaccurate statements.

Donald Kuspit, in Clement Greenberg: Art Critic (1979), has made the most serious effort to deal with Greenberg's entire writings. The fact that Kuspit relied on later writings as well as early ones makes it somewhat difficult for me, with a more limited command of the literature, to comment with full justice on this book, particularly since-although the author cited Greenberg frequently-he even more frequently presented his interpretations of Greenberg's thinking without citing him directly.

However, a few observations may be permitted. The first is that Kuspit made no real distinction between the earlier and later Greenberg. Although he commented on some of the changes between the original texts and their revised versions in Art and Culture, and remarked on the general change in tone, he nonetheless proceeded, for the entirety of his book, to cite early and late references interchangeably.(91) From first to last, the book was written in the present tense.

It seems to me that Kuspit was more aware of the later Greenberg. His preface, for example, defined the critic as "the latest heir and reviser" of the "classic outlook,"(92) and he offered a number of very interesting interpretations of Greenberg's theories that unfortunately cannot be considered in detail in the context of this somewhat art-historical study.(93) Kuspit's fuller examination of Greenberg's theoretical position enabled him to avoid some of the more obvious misinterpretations of Kozloff, Sandler, and Foster with regard to "determinism." As Kuspit phrased it, more justly, "by historical necessity Greenberg means the weight of the past, not certainty of the future, nor determination of the present."(94) Kuspit took Greenberg's statements of an empiricist basis for his judgments very seriously, but he still failed to appreciate the full extent of Greenberg's empiricism in practice. For example, Kuspit referred to "Greenberg's assumption of a constant modernist premise in the best art-as though that alone made it best--from Manet to the present...."(95) But Greenberg, in the 1940s, did not assume that "the modernist premise" in "the best art" alone made it the best. On the contrary, he observed the full range of what was to be seen, and found that the most genuinely modern art was also, more often than not, the best.

Kuspit maintained that Greenberg's value for American art was arguable, on the grounds that "the picture he gives of it is distorted by his antiromanticism and his reluctance to recognize romantic influences in what he regards as classic abstraction."(96) This judgment would seem to derive, at least in part, from Greenberg's attacks on Neo-Romanticism in the 1940s. But it seems to me again that Kuspit did not appreciate the full extent to which Greenberg distinguished between theory and practice. For example, what he was objecting to in his review of "Romantic Painting in America" was not the fact that the Neo-Romantics were romantic, in the sense of being true to the goals of historical Romanticism, but rather the fact that they had in practice abandoned those goals. A variety of references also indicate that Kuspit was under the impression that Greenberg was hostile to Surrealism.(97) He failed to appreciate the distinction Greenberg made between artists who were putting the principles of Surrealism into practice, and the Surrealists who had rejected the practice in favor of more traditional techniques.

Kuspit defined Surrealism, Expressionism, and Neo-Romanticism as "modern romantic art," and implied that Greenberg was hostile to them for this reason.(98) This suggests he did not consider the definition of the term "romantic" in an art-historical context. Since the 17th century, and the battle of the Rubenists and the Poussinists, color has been equated to emotion and line or draftsmanship to reason. This conflict was renewed in the 19th century with Delacroix as the great exponent of the emotional, with its emphasis on color and the malerisch, and Ingres as the champion of "reason" and draftsmanship. Kuspit did not discuss this distinction, but Greenberg's preference for Delacroix and the painterly generally placed him very decisively in the Romantic camp. Moreover, this stylistic quality is central to an understanding of Abstract Expressionism as romantic, more romantic in this sense than academic Surrealism or Neo-Romanticism. In "Towards a Newer Laocoon," Greenberg was expressing his distaste not for the Romantic emphasis on feeling in theory, but for the practices it had led to: 19th century Salon painting generally. And Salon artists such as Gérome and Meissonier were rather more linear than painterly. They were also less concerned, generally, with conveying the tempestuous emotion Delacroix strove for, the emotion that was so central to Abstract Expressionism.

It is indeed interesting to see how Kuspit wrestled with Greenberg's many early references to emotion. Certainly he tried very consciously to reconcile them with his conception of Greenberg as a representative of the "classic outlook." But he never seemed to appreciate the fact that Greenberg's repeated emphasis on emotion made him, in the 1940s, quintessentially romantic. The nearest Kuspit came to dealing with the problem was to argue that "Greenberg's own belief in the necessity of truth to feeling in the best art contradicts his rejection of romantic intention...."(99) But Greenberg never rejected "romantic intention." He did reject ways in which "romantic intention" was imperfectly realized in practice (for example, by expressionists such as Rattner and Tamayo).

Kuspit dealt with Greenberg's equally romantic concepts of ambition and originality only in passing. He never did consider "character," and at least one of his references to content suggests he did not fully appreciate Greenberg's distinction between content and subject matter.(100) It may have been the failure to consider this distinction that led him to his definition of Expressionism, Neo-Romanticism, and Surrealism as "romantic art," while abstract art was therefore "classic." Expressionism, Neo-Romanticism, and academic Surrealism do present emotions in very direct relation to subject matter. This, however, does not necessarily make them "romantic," any more than the absence of direct reference to external reality in abstract art makes it "classic."

The writing about Greenberg continues. Three of the most recent articles I have seen were by Fred Orton and Griselda Pollock (Art History, September, 1981) and T.J. Clark (Critical Inquiry, September,1982), with a rebuttal to Clark by Michael Fried in the same issue. None of these articles repeated any of the inaccuracies I have pointed to, although Clark's manner of trying to equate the practices of purity "which Greenberg extols" with the "practices of negation" in modern art would have become even more complicated and even less satisfactory had he addressed himself to Greenberg's consideration of emotion, originality, character, and ambition in his writings of the 1940s (Clark ignored them).

I have to say that I feel Greenberg lends himself to attacks such as Clark's by failing to continue to deal with such issues. No doubt the kind of sweeping generalization he used to use would now seem inappropriate or imprecise, but I do not believe the critic has abandoned his earlier convictions altogether. He has quite recently discussed content, pointing out that it cannot be equated to subject matter; in the course of his discussion, he alluded to the "feeling" conveyed by a Mondrian and its capacity to "move" him.(101) But I would have welcomed more discussion about the relation of content to character, ambition, and originality. Apparently Greenberg is now inclined to consider "emotions" not central to content, to the extent that a picture is "about" them, but I would suspect he still believes that genuine feeling of some sort must go into a picture before it can convey that feeling.

I think it was the recognition that a picture could have content, whether or not it possessed readily identifiable subject matter, that enabled Greenberg, among other things, to respond initially to the Abstract Expressionists. While as an art historian I remain interested in uncovering links between these pictures and external reality, I would suggest that a major share, perhaps the major share, of the greatest Abstract-Expressionist work was intended to be abstract, at most symbolizing reality rather than representing it. For example, I have not yet seen any evidence that Pollock was deliberately or consciously trying to paint jazz, nature, or any other subject in his poured paintings of 1947-1950 (though I would not exclude the possibility that unconscious associations enabled him to allude to these subjects in his canvases, together with a myriad of others).(102)

Thus, Greenberg, in responding to such compositions as non-objective pictures, was reacting essentially in relation to the painter's intentions and ambitions. By contrast, some historians of Abstract Expressionism, it seems to me, limit themselves-by their insistence on discerning referential imagery in each painting-to immature work or lesser artists, or fail to appreciate the real substance and scope of the painters they admire. Greenberg may have erred in the opposite direction, with his failure to comment on subject matter in Abstract-Expressionist paintings of the 1940s, for certainly there was some of it; but I would suggest this error is of lesser importance, since the subject matter in itself was not what made the paintings exciting.

As far as Greenberg's writing of the 1980s is concerned. I find it much more difficult and in some ways less rewarding than his writing of the 1940s. The articles are still controversial (Greenberg has never been anything if not controversial), but the preponderance of the controversy has shifted from a defense of new and difficult artists to attacks on popular attitudes, and to discussions of styles that Greenberg does not admire, e.g. post-modernism and performance art. Greenberg, as I have shown, was attacking icons and prevailing tastes in the 1940s but he has not for some time taken on the cause of younger artists, except in catalogue essays and monograph prefaces. I, for one, would very much like to read a review or article by him on some contemporary artist he admires. The artists may or may not need it, but Greenberg would benefit: a critic's reputation is never based on what he debunks, but on whom he celebrates.

There are times when I think Greenberg's fondness for startling opinions tempts him to underrate the painters he formerly admired. One of the best pieces he has recently written was a review of Clyfford Still's exhibition at the Metropolitan (Arts Magazine, October, 1980). The article showed the critic getting down to basics, telling us how he analyzed specific picture. But I felt he was made uncomfortable by the fact that Still had become an accepted master and was being canonized by the show at the Met. It somehow seemed to run against Greenberg's grain to praise too highly somebody whom everybody else was praising, too. At any rate, he paid only passing tribute to Still's originality, a subject he had a good deal more to say about in the 1950s.

It is this same reluctance to mellow into an elder statesman, this same backhanded modesty, l think, that prevents Greenberg from reminiscing more in print about the early years, and comparing them with the present on the basis of his own experience. That's another kind of article I would welcome from him. After all, my historical perspective on the 1980s, based on my study of the 1940s, is essentially literary, primarily achieved by reading and looking at pictures. Greenberg was there, in the 1940s; he really knows what's changed and what's remained the same. Tracing the history of modern art back to Manet, as he so often does, he, too, is dealing essentially with common property, the fruit of his reading and looking at art. His reading and looking are extremely extensive by now, and the resulting insights valuable, but I wish they had more immediacy. There was a wonderful immediacy about those reviews and articles from the 1940s-and there remains the same sort of immediacy about the man himself.

AFTERWORD, 2002. When I wrote this article, nearly 20 years ago, I was convinced that I was giving a detached, correct summary of Greenberg's writing during the 40s, and that the other writers I was taking issue with were wrong. Greenberg had no such illusions. When he called up to thank me, he said this was the first time that anybody had attempted his "defense." In other words, what I'd written my interpretation was a defense of his position, hence partial to it. By the same token, what the other writers had written was not necessarily wrong, merely different interpretations -- but all, to one degree or another, attacks as opposed to defenses, rather more hostile than favorably disposed.

In those days, I was also innocent enough to believe that what seemed to me like misinterpretations were based upon ignorance, not malice. After all, Greenberg,s collected writings had not yet been published. The only writing from the 40s by him dealing with the art of that period and in general circulation were 12 of the 37 essays in Art and Culture. To get the full range of his writing from the 40s, I had to consult many back issues of the Nation, Partisan Review, and so on. I assumed that once I'd made this extensive additional source material evident, Greenberg,s critics would acknowledge their mistakes, and revise what they,d written, but when the first two volumes of the collected writings appeared, in 1986, many reviews were just as unsympathetic to Greenberg as the writing I've discussed in this article.

Ultimately, I concluded that neither ignorance nor malice were involved, but rather an inability to see more recent art from Greenberg,s perspective, to respond to all the greatness in art that he was aware of, and to reject as of secondary importance all the art he considered second-rate. In other words, it was less a question of personalities than -- as I see it --- differences in tastes or preferences in art since 1950, but Greenberg never had any hesitation in expressing his ideas, even when they didn't conform to established norms. His only criticism of this article to me was that I shouldn't have said his article on Still was critical because Still had become so famous. He criticized Still's paintings, he said, because that was the way he saw them, and in retrospect, I'm more than willing to agree that this must have been the way it was.

-- Piri Halasz

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1. This article is based, in part, on my dissertation, completed for Columbia University in 1982, entitled "Directions, Concerns and Critical Perceptions: Paintings Exhibited in New York, 1940-1949: Abraham Rattner and his contemporaries." I would like to thank Drs. Donald Gordon and Kenneth Silver for serving as my advisors, the Smithsonian Institution for granting me a fellowship to pursue the research, and Drs. Theodore Reff, James Beck, and in particular Gerald Silk for their guidance in the early stages of the project. The part of this article dealing with Greenberg in the 1980s was not included in the dissertation.

2. During some months in 1942, when Greenberg was in military service, Jean Connolly contributed brief, occasionally perceptive notes on army life to the Nation. Greenberg resigned from full-time reviewing to devote more time to other writing.

3. Clement Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," Partisan Review, Fall 1939, p. 37.

4. Ibid., p. 36.

5. Clement Greenberg, "Towards a Newer Laocoon," Partisan Review 7 (1940) pp. 299-300.

6. Ibid., p. 299.

7. Ibid., p. 300.

8. Ibid., p. 301.

9. Clement Greenberg, "Art," Nation, 152 (Jan.-June, 1941), p. 481.

1O. Ibid.

11. Ibid., p. 482.

12. C[lement] G[reenberg], "Art Notes," Nation, 154 (Jan.-June, 1941) p. 293 Greenberg reviewed Masson a second time in 1944, again finding fault with his work but arguing that he "has been an ambitious painter from the beginning." Clement Greenberg, "Art," Nation, 158 (Jan.-June, 1944), p.604.

13. Clement Greenberg, "Art," Nation, 168 (Jan.-June, 1949), p.165.

14. Clement Greenberg, "Art,'' Nation, 168 (Jan.-June, 1949), p.604.

15. Clement Greenberg, "Surrealist Painting," Nation, 159 (July.-Dec. 1944) p. 219. This distinction between the two directions of Surrealism was not entirely original with Greenberg, but was not widely known outside of his circle. Graham had adumbrated it, as Irving Sandler has pointed out (John Graham's System and Dialectics in Art, 1937, cited in Irving Sandler, The Triumph of American Painting, [New York: Icon Editions, Harper & Row, 1970]. pp. 22-23. However, three earlier and more widely read books on Surrealism, by James Thrall Soby (1935), Julian Levy (1936), and Alfred Barr (1936), had not made the distinction. It did not, in fact, receive really wide currency until the publication of William S. Rubin's two books, the 1968 Museum of Modern Art catalogue, Dada and Surrealism and their Heritage, and the 1968 Dada and Surrealism (Abrams).

16. Greenberg, "Surrealist Painting." P. 193.

17. Clement Greenberg, "The Present Prospects of American Painting and Sculpture," Horizon (London), Oct.,1947, p.26.

18. Clement Greenberg, "Art," Nation, 160 (Jan.-June, 1945), p. 343.

19. See Greenberg, "The Present Prospects. . .," p. 26; also Clement Greenberg "Art," Nation,164 (Jan.-June,1947) pp. 579 and 693.

20. Clement Greenberg, "Art," Nation, 165 (July-Dec.,1947), p. 630.

21. Clement Greenberg, "Art," Nation, 160 (Jan.-June,1945), pp. 52-53.

22. Clement Greenberg, "The Art of Delacroix," Nation, 159 (July-Dec., 1944), 617.

23. Clement Greenberg, "The Wellsprings of Modern Art," New York Times, Nov. 9,1947, Sec. 7, p.7.

24. Clement Greenberg "Art," Nation 162 (Jan.-June 1946) p. 610.

25. Clement Greenberg "Art," Nation 158 (Jan.-June 1944) p. 456.

26 Webster's New World Dictionary has several definitions of "romantic" which seem relevant. One is "full of or dominated by thoughts, feelings, and attitude characteristic of or suitable for romance: as, a romantic youth." Greenberg's emphasis on such qualities as character, ambition, the willingness to be oneself etc., suggests a dedication to ideals more commonly celebrated in literature than found in daily life; hence, he was something of a romantic in this sense of the word. Another of Webster's definitions is "characteristic of... the Romantic Movement'' which in turn is defined as "the revolt of the 18th and 19th centuries against the artistic, political and religious principles that had become associate with neo-classicism: characterized in literature and the arts by liberalism in form and subject matter, emphasis on feeling and originality, the use of imaginative suggestion, and sympathetic interest in primitive nature, medievalism and the mystical." Greenberg had little interest in primitive nature, medievalism or the mystical but he was certainly liberal in his concepts of form and subject matter (suggesting that the latter could be dispensed with altogether); his emphasis on feeling and originality will be documented forthwith.
Webster also points out the general disfavor the word "romantic" has fallen into by presenting a number of pejorative definitions, e.g., "without a basis in fact, fanciful, fictitious or fabulous," "not practical, visionary, quixotic" and "wit implications of unrestrained sensuousness, vague imagery, lack of logic precision, escape from the realities of life, etc." Some of Greenberg's attacks on romanticism were in reality attacks on these debased definitions of the word-he certainly had no use for 'unrestrained sensuousness"-but even here, I might suggest that defending Abstract-Expressionist painting in the 1940s could indeed be described as "not practical, visionary, quixotic."

27. Clement Greenberg, "Art," Nation, 165 (July-Dec., 1947) p.629.

28. Clement Greenberg, "Art" Nation 166(Jan.-June 1948) p.448.

29. Clement Greenberg, "Art " Nation 158 (Jan.-June 1944) p.688.

30. Clement Greenberg, "Art," Nation, 167 (July-Dec., 1948), p. 676. The critic subsequently analyzed this failure to convey emotion on the grounds that the picture was only "academically modern," and "saying nothing new," indeed "fundamentally empty".

31. Clement Greenberg "Art," Nation, 164 (Jan.-June,1947), p.284.

32. C[lement] G[reenberg], "Art Note," Nation, 159 (July-Dec.,1944), p. 445.

33. Clement Greenberg "Abstract Art " Nation, 154 (Jan.-June,1942), p. 527.

34. Clement Greenberg "Irrelevance versus Irresponsibility," Partisan Review, 15 (1948), p. 577.

35. Clement Greenberg, "Art," Nation, 164 (Jan.-June,1947), p.139.

36. Clement Greenberg, "The Situation at the Moment," Partisan Review, 15 (1948), p.82.

37. Clement Greenberg, "Art," Nation, 158 (Jan.-June,1944), p. 24.

38. Ibid.

39. James Thrall Soby, in James Thrall Soby and Dorothy C. Miller, Romantic Painting in America (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1943), p, 7.

40. Clement Greenberg, "The Late Thirties in New York," in Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press,1965) p.232.

41. Greenberg, "Abstract Art " p.527.

42. Clement Greenberg. "Art," Nation, 158(Jan.-June,1944). p. 495.

43. Clement Greenberg, "Art," Nation, 166 (Jan.-June,1948), p.51.

44. Clement Greenberg, "Art,'' Nation, 156 (Jan.-June,1943), p.284. I

45. Clement Greenberg "Art" Nation 161(July-Dec,1945) p 533-534.

46. Clement Greenberg "Art " Nation 160 (Jan.-June,1945), p.397.

47. Clement Greenberg, "Art,'' Nation, 164 (Jan -June,1947), p. 525.

48. Clement Greenberg, "Art, Nation, 167 (July-Dec. 1948) p. 675. Greenberg described the Stamos painting in the exhibition as "sickeningly sweet, inept and utterly empty."

49. Clement Greenberg, "Art," Nation, 166 (Jan.-June, 1948), p.612.

50. Clement Greenberg "Art" Nation 160 (Jan-June 1945), p 469.

51. Clement Greenberg "Art " Nation 162 (Jan -June 1946) pp. 552-553.

52. Clement Greenberg, "Art," Nation, 166 (Jan.-June, 1948), p.52.

53. Clement Greenberg, "Art," Nation 166 (Jan.-June,1948), p.331.

54. Greenberg, "The Present Prospects . . .," p.24.

55. Ibid., p. 27.

56. Clement Greenberg "Art " Nation 165 (July-Dec., 1947), p.629.

57. Clement Greenberg "Art " Nation 162 (Jan.-June, 1946), p.727.

58 Clement Greenberg, "Art," Nation, 165 (July-Dec,1947), p 481.

59 Clement Greenberg, "Art," Nation, 166 (Jan.-June,1948), pp.556-557.

60. The only publications in journals by Rosenberg dealing with painting in the 1940s that I have been able to find are a brief statement on Baziotes and a reprint of a catalogue statement for the Kootz Gallery, both in Possibilities (Oct.,1947).

61. Max Kozloff, "The Critical Reception of Abstract Expressionism," Arts Magazine, (Dec.,1965), p.28.

62. Ibid., p. 31.

63. Kozloff had differed with Greenberg at some length in appraising "post-painterly abstraction," in an article in Art International in 1963.

64. Clement Greenberg, "Art," Nation,160 (Jan.-June,1945), pp. 657,659.

65. Kozloff, p. 32.

66. Ibid.

67. Ibid., p. 67.

68. Ibid.

69. Ibid.

70. Barbara M. Reise, "Greenberg and the Group: A Retrospective View," Studio International, 175 (Jan.-June, 1968) p. 255.

71. The only piece in Art and Culture from the 1940s that refers to Abstract Expressionism is "The Crisis of the Easel Picture." It is also one of the most detached and analytical articles Greenberg produced during this period.

72. Reise, pp. 254, 256.

73. Possibly Reise was thinking of "The Late Thirties in New York," but as the title indicates, this article deals with the late 1930s, when virtually none of the Surrealists had yet arrived in the United States (with the exception of Dali, who's work Greenberg admittedly did not admire).

74. Sandler, p. 274.

75. Ibid., p. 84.

76. Ibid.

77. Clement Greenberg, "Art," Nation, 160 (Jan.-June,1945), p.657.

78. Sandler, p. 84.

79. Ibid.

80. Ibid., p.85.

81. Ibid.

82. Ibid., p. 272. The last part of this passage was a citation from Greenberg, defining Abstract Expressionism as "malerisch" in a 1964 article.

83. Dore Ashton, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning (New York: Viking, 1973), p.158.

84. Ibid., p. 159.

85. Stephen C. Foster, The Critics of Abstract Expressionism (Ann Arbor, Mich. UMI Research Press,1980), p.16.

86. Ibid.

87. Ibid.

88. Barbara Cavaliere and Robert C. Hobbs, "Against a Newer Laocoon," Arts Magazine, April,1977, p.115.

89. Ibid.

90. Ibid.

91. For example in Kuspit's chapter on "Taste and the Concept of Criticism," the first eight footnotes to Greenberg's writings referred, in sequence, to articles written in 1942, 1962, 1945, 1950, 1948, 1950, 1967, and 1961.

92. Donald Kuspit, Clement Greenberg: Art Critic (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press,1979) p. ix.

93. Briefly, l found Kuspit's discussions of the concepts of unity and dialectical conversion in Greenberg's writings very interesting. His discussion of the decorative had much to recommend it, although his description of Motherwell as a "disappointment" to Greenberg, because of his decorative qualities, was notably unsubstantiated by any reference to Greenberg's writing on Motherwell and in fact contradicted by what Greenberg has written on the subject of that artist.
If Kuspit's analysis of Greenberg's concept of taste lacked conviction, it may have been because he himself did not share Greenberg's more recent preferences (in fact, he referred to such work as "shopworn hedonism"). The book did a certain amount to establish Kuspit's claim that Greenberg is not merely a capricious arbiter, but has a broader, underlying philosophy. However, Kuspit's failure to establish his claim more persuasively may also be related to his own assumption that Greenberg was unable to reconcile dialectic with empiricism. In my opinion, Greenberg, even in his earliest writings on art, was already placing dialectic at the service of empiricism.

94. Kuspit, p. 25.

95. Ibid., pp.164-165.

96. Ibid., p. 164.

97. Ibid., pp. 93, 95, 99, 128, 133, 136-137.

98. Ibid., pp 96-97,133.

99. Ibid., p. 99.

100. "Art for Greenberg is the struggle between abstract style and real content (natural objects and natural emotions)..." (Kuspit, p. 99). I would suggest that while "natural emotions" were indeed central to Greenberg's concept of content, "natural objects" were not.

101. Clement Greenberg, "Seminar Eight," Arts Magazine, June,1979, pp.84, 85.

102. I mention jazz and nature in particular because these have been the subject of two very interesting articles dealing with Pollock's poured paintings: one on jazz by Chad Mandeles in Arts Magazine, Oct. 1981, and one on nature by Ellen Johnson in Studio International , June, 1973. Neither author was able to come up with any proof that Pollock deliberately intended to paint the subject in question; the nearest thing to evidence cited was that a number of poured paintings contain allusions to nature in their titles (Sounds in the Grass, Autumn Rhythm, Summertime, etc.). Unfortunately, Johnson did not establish any qualities unique to these paintings which were not also possessed by pictures with non-nature titles like Lucifer or Cathedral, or simply numbers for titles. I am forced to the conclusion that the paintings were named after they were completed, and probably on the basis of what seemed congenial to Pollock at that moment, rather than on the basis of what he was intending to paint at the time of creation.


(©Copyright 1983 by Piri Halasz; originally published in Arts Magazine, April 1983)