Clement Greenberg

Allan Walkinshaw talks with Clement Greenberg, March 15, 1978.
Joan Murray Artist Files,
The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, Ontario.

Greenberg visited Toronto in June 1957. This visit was crucial to Jack Bush, who's painting became more personal and original thereafter. In the interview Greenberg recalls details of the trip and provides an account of his practice in artists studios. Having accompanied him in studios, I can attest to its accuracy.
   -- TF

Jack Bush, November No. 9, 1956. Watercolor, ink, and graphite. Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, Ont.

ALLAN WALKINSHAW: For us here, it's hard to come to grips with what was happening in 1956 at the American Abstract Artists show at the Riverside Museum. Here in Toronto it would have been just the beginning of abstraction. This group of artists had been invited down to Riverside Museum. What did you see in that exhibition?

CLEMENT GREENBERG: I didn't see the show.

A.W.: You didn't see the show! You met Jock MacDonald.

C.G.: It was at Sam Kootz's party after the opening of Bill Ronald's first show there. Jock and Barbara came down with some other Canadians. The way I remember it, the Canadians were off in one group and the Americans in another. I got impatient wit Sam Kootz - I wanted to bring the two groups together. Then I got to know Jock. Bill Ronald said, "You ought to go up to Toronto and see those paintings." I said "sure", but pay my expenses, and that's how it started.

A.W.: You were aware at the time when you decided to go that not everyone wanted you to come?

C.G.: No, it was only afterwards when I got to Toronto.

A.W.: Was there any reason why?

C.G.: I was simply told that Harold Town and Walter Yarwood weren't interested.

A.W.: Was it a Canadian nationalistic spirit?

C.G.: No, that came later. A long while later Jack was talking that they didn't want any Americans.

A.W.: Your visit was in June of 1957 and it seems to be shrouded in mystery. As I understand it, you spent a half day with each of the artists with the exception of Harold Town and Walter Yarwood What happened in those studios? It's pretty much a mystery.

C.G.: It's hard to remember that much of what a visitor has told you about your art. You may remember certain points, certain remarks, but Jack said I didn't have too much effect on anyone except Jock and himself. Of course I was aiming for a certain effect but only so far as telling them what I liked and what I didn't like. A lot of what I saw I liked. I didn't feel it was necessary for me to lie. In many cases the artists themselves were a little intimidated by the out-side world in terms of strong work and that everyone should have shown a little more nerve going in the direction they went. I don't visit a studio and say a painting has to go this way or that way. It's rumored that I do that. I know damn well I don't. In Jack's case I was making the suggestion that I objected to the fact that his oils were so much better than his oils. Then I said, "You ought to try painting [thin like your watercolors] as an antidote." I thought the watercolors were the best art I saw on that visit. I remember getting very impatient with Jack and saying look at this and look at that - look at the oils and look at the watercolors. Then he went to New York to take a look at it. It wasn't that I believed that stain painting was sovereign, but it had something. To repeat, as an antidote, you untrack yourself. I think Jack did untrack himself and he didn't stay, but at the same time, he was too sophisticated. It was an intrinsic asset. I believe that Jock MacDonald had a hell of a lot on the ball, but wasn't nervy enough, wasn't going towards his strength.

A.W.: He spent a lot of his time teaching and he had financial problems.

C.G.: Talking about his painting, I said, "This is where you're strong. Go further." I wish I had some of his paintings because he had something all his own. He left enough behind to show that.

A.W.: What about William Ronald?

C.G.: Bill was in New York and I admired Bill's paintings at that time, I still admire his painting when I see it.

A.W.: It seemed that in the late 40's a lot of those artists were spending time with Hans Hofmann.

C.G.: Hofmann was a good teacher because he warned his students, "I don't want you to paint the way I paint." He was very reluctant to show his work for many years for that reason. That may not have been the only reason. I think that [Alexandra] Luke showed that she had assimilated the latest New York art without succumbing to it. Then I saw some of her work again when visiting Toronto, going out to Oshawa... She died too young, before she had done her best work.

A.W.: Do you think that in most cases [the Toronto painters] had been restricted by working in oil? William Ronald worked extensively in watercolor.

C.G.: It was like you tightened up when you have a piece of canvas in front of you. Canvas is more substantial than paper. You get less free, you want to make it good, which is usual -- general remarks; I'm shy of them. What I thought of Nakamura was that maybe he was a little too tasteful at times.

A.W.: What was the continuing saga after 1957?

C.G.: "See Jack and Jock." I would come to Toronto to see Jack and Jock.

A.W.: And Alexandra Luke?

C.G.: Yes.

A.W.: In the 60's the group had dispersed, had pretty well been broken up. You made one other trip to Canada - Emma Lake. Similar circumstances?

C.G.: No. There were mature artists in the workshops, not students -- a dozen or more. I found myself telling Dorothy Knowles to try and stop painting abstract. It was obvious her heart wasn't in it. I told one other person that. But for the rest I found myself much closer to all the artists because I was spending two weeks with them. It wasn't a half-day visit. The excitement came from the amount of time I spent with them. I remember telling some of them to see how little paint they could put on. I felt that most were over-finishing and tried to stop them ahead of time and not let them away with it. Not because I felt that was good in itself but that was a way of shaking them out of this business of packaging the picture.

A.W.: There was quite a difference between Emma Lake and Toronto.

C.G.: There was a time difference and I don't mean it was 62 instead of 57. We spent two weeks together. The Toronto visit was too short. When you have more time, you're able to say "Now look. I'm not telling you how to paint. Your art is just bouncing off me." Those two weeks were a real chance to say, "Don't do what I say; don't think that I'm telling you what to do; find out [for yourself] what you want to do. I can see that what you're doing now is imitating someone else, giving yourself a notion of where you want to go."

A.W.: The popular belief is that you tell artists what to paint.

C.G.: Yes, that's said about me, except none of the artists whom I visited here in Toronto in 1957 said that as far as I know. None of them said that!

A.W.: Do you enter a studio and say "I like this and it's good because"

C.G.: I don't get into "becauses." When you come into a studio you see a number of works. My habit is to go to the one I like most. If you start to say "because" you get into art jargon. You do most of your talking about the works and try to say why you think Every artist is a law to himself. There's no method.

A.W.: Both Jock MacDonald and Jack Bush were quite close friends of yours. Do you think that approach began an attitude and approach?

C.G.: It could have. I hope it didn't. I became friends with Jack immediately. I just thought that they were the better painters. They were, in my view. Jack's watercolors were good - not his oils which I didn't like at all.

A.W.: Some of the early watercolors that you were using in the film are from our collection. Were they some of the works that you would have seen?

C.G.: The watercolors were on the left side and his oils on the right side. I was impressed by them. Jack didn't think my words were gospel. Jack wasn't impressed by me at all.

A.W.: That's probably what made you friends.

C.G.: That helped.

A.W.: What about Jock? What was his strength when you saw his work? Watercolors?

Jock MacDonald Airy Journey, 1957. Oil on panel.
Hart House Permanent Collection, University of Toronto

C.G.: Jock was doing some good oils. As I remember there was a direction in which his better oils were going. In his case the oils were strong.

A.W.: Was it time and money that restricted him, not his inability?

C.G.: I don't know what kept Jock back. Then I don't want to say anything kept Jock back. I just think he was a damn good painter and that's it. Had he lived longer, he would probably be painting still better.

A.W.: Jack Bush and Jock MacDonald were good painters. Did Jack become something better? Did Jack have a place?

Jack Bush, Colour Pillar, oil on canvas, 1965

C.G.: Sure he has a place. He's one of the best painters North America has turned out in this century. He's not just a good Canadian painter or a good American painter. If you're a good painter, you're a good painter anywhere. It wasn't a business for Jack or Jock for that matter to become local heroes. They wanted more than that.

A.W.: That is a problem that could develop.

C.G.: I've seen it develop back in the States. I've seen the local stars, say in North Carolina, remain modest and aspiratious. What they paint is of interest.

A.W.: Could that have been the downfall of William Ronald; his coming home as a conquering hero?

C.G.: He didn't come home as a conquering hero. That's my impression. I think he was the youngest. He was the first one to show in New York. But ask Bill to tell you about what happened to him. Don't ask me. No one knows.