Terry Fenton

 

GREENBERG THE CRITIC

I wrote this in early 2001 for inclusion in a book on criticism to be published by Routledge. I don't know what happened to the book in the aftermath of Sept 11, but I suspect that my essay wasn't quite what they had in mind. In any event, communication ceased. Piri Halasz's Greenberg in the 40s -- His Critics in the 80s would probably have been more in keeping with the scope of the book, although much too long for their purposes. In any event, this brief overview points out Greenberg's essential theoretical point: his definition of modernism. Greenberg didn't care much for theories and thought of criticism as an intuitive discipline (although he never stooped to referring to it as "critical practice"). He looked at art openly, everywhere, and seemingly always in museums, galleries and studios around the world. He had the rare ability to communicate his enthusiasm when he did so. He made the experience of art exciting, at every level. -- TF

 

JUSTLY CELEBRATED FOR his advocacy of contemporary American art in the '40s and '50s and for his description and definition of modernism, Clement Greenberg is by all accounts the most influential critic of the mid and late 20th century. Although his criticism focused mainly on the art of the past century and a half, which he perceived to be the modernist era, Greenberg's taste (a word he insisted upon) was informed by a wide appreciation of art from all previous cultures. Modernism, as he conceived it, began in France with Flaubert and Manet, flourished under the School of Paris through Impressionism, Postimpressionism, and Cubism, and spread throughout Europe and across the Atlantic in the 2oth century.
In the 40s and 50s, his writing in Partisan Review, The Nation and Commentary set a standard that aroused both admiration and heated opposition. In 1961, he published a revised selection of these essays under the title of Art And Culture. The book became the most influential and controversial book of critical writing on art since Berenson's Italian Painters of the Renaissance. Although he continued to write and to lecture, Greenberg published nothing after that in book form until The Collected Essays and Criticism 1939 through 1969, edited by John O'Brian, was released in four paired volumes in 1986 and 1993 .

By the mid-seventies, opposition to Greenberg had grown to the point of demonization. He was accused of manipulating reputations, of telling artists what to paint, and, specifically, of arrogantly presuming to edit David Smith's sculptures after the latter's death. For two decades thereafter, one couldn't pick up an art magazine without encountering at least one condemnation of Greenberg's taste or opinions, usually based on misconstruction or hearsay. This demonization culminated in Florence Rubenfeld's biography, released shortly after his death in 1994, which added drug addiction to his list of sins (he was, in fact, an alcoholic). Since that time, publication of The Harold Letters (early correspondence edited by his wife, Janice Van Horne) and Homemade Esthetics (based on seminars given at Bennington College in 1971 and refined throughout the decade) has done much to restore his reputation as a "philosopher of art," if not yet as a critic. That he was a philosopher-critic is unquestionably true. That his eye matched or surpassed the quality of his insights only time will tell, although time I suspect will incline his way.

Greenberg never did post-graduate studies, never taught, never worked in a museum; he wasn't an academic. Following his graduation from the University of Syracuse in 1930 he embarked upon a decade-long period of solitary self-education, during which time he crossed America selling neckties, married, and later found employment in NYC with the US Customs department. During this period his primary interest was in literature, one that that led eventually to critical assessments of Kafka, Brecht, Eliot, and others. He came late to visual art, led by his working criticism in the early 40s.

If such a thing is possible, Greenberg was a born critic. From the beginning, his taste in both literature and art was high and discerning . He had a remarkably sophisticated "eye," rare enough among professional curators and art historians let alone literary people. Added to this was a rare ability to generalize from its judgments and test those generalizations against wide reading and fresh experience. The Harold Letters reveal another unique and seemingly inherent faculty, an ingrained sense of what might be called the "domain" of art, a sense that remained with him throughout his life. He insisted that human life and the moral values that supported and maintained it were necessarily superior to aesthetic values, and that while art enhanced life it was helpless - as art - to change it; as he put it in his later years: aesthetic value is an ultimate value but not a supreme one.

Although he professed to prefer artists to writers, the fact that painting was organized on a surface and in the present may have made it strike him as a paradigmatic modernist medium. Unlike literature, painting wasn't faced with the problem of organizing sequentially ­ something he pointed out from time to time in his writing.

Above all, Greenberg loved art. He relished looking at it wherever it could be found, and the intuitive experience of it always preceded analysis or generalization. Received opinion insists that Greenberg's taste was "narrow", that after from his discovery of Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists in the 40s and 50s, his judgments ossified. As he aged he became increasingly critical of many developments in contemporary art, which he dismissed as "novelty art." This was widely interpreted as an inability to appreciate the new, or evidence of a vested interest in art that satisfied his supposedly prescriptive theory of modernism. In fact, he never advocated any art uncritically, and continued to seek challenging new work throughout his life.

His interest wasn't limited to the work of his American contemporaries. It ranged over a good deal of art history in reviews of books and museum exhibition. He insisted always that standards were set by great art of the past, hence his taste in contemporary art was always qualified by his experience of the great art of the past. His accounts of modernist art from Manet through to Pollock always clarify and illuminate. "Collage" remains a seminal essay on Cubism, while his various writings on Matisse reveal him to be an early and discerning champion.

Greenberg burst onto the intellectual scene in 1939 with his publication in Partisan Review of "Avant Garde and Kitsch," which provided an initial foray into the place of high art in industrial civilization. In the face of the leveling effect of mass culture, high art, he suggested, was maintained by an avant-garde consisting of artists who sought to narrow and focus art in relation to the conditions of its medium. This notion was clarified throughout the 40s and 50s and was published as "Modernist Painting" in 1960:

the essence of modernism lies in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence. Modernism used art to call attention to art. The limitations that constitute the medium of painting - the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of the pigment. came to be regarded as positive factors, and were acknowledged openly.

In "Avant Garde and Kitsch," the menace of leveling was seen, in Marxist terms, to stem from the sentimental, bourgeois art ­ Kitsch ­ that flourished in industrial civilization. In later years, Greenberg came to believe high was threatened not by Kitsch, but by "middlebrow" taste of which "novelty art" was a symptom. Characteristically, his sense of the character of the threat and the solution to it was found in the visual arts. This fact notwithstanding, his conception of modernism remains the most telling and elegant that we have.

In later years, he became increasingly devoted to aesthetics rather than to culture per se. He believed Kant's Critique of Judgment to be the foundation of modern aesthetics. Marxist accounts of "culture" disappeared from his writing. Culture was touched upon in "Detached Observations" (1976), but the main issues in that remarkable essay are more art historical and phenomenal. Its wide-ranging speculations are closer in spirit to Fernand Braudel than to Marx.

His influence on criticism reached a peak in the 1960s. Young critics such as Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, Kenworth Moffett, and Walter Darby Bannard were encouraged by him and came under his influence. Fried, in particular, became a seminal figure in that decade. His accounts of work by Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella, and the sculptor, Anthony Caro, set a tone that was influential, even when resisted. Krauss turned against Greenberg in the 70s over his handling of primed but unpainted sculptures by David Smith as executor of the Smith state.

The accusations of narrowness that pursued Greenberg in the 70s, 80s, and 90s concerned his admiration of abstract artists of the 60s, notably (but by no means limited to) Kenneth Noland; Jules Olitski; Helen Frankenthaler; the British sculptor, Anthony Caro; and the Canadian painter, Jack Bush. Time, as always, will tell. Against his "narrowness" can be set the cultural and aesthetic relativism that set in the 60s and is with us still. Greenberg, who stood for the universality and objectivity of taste, not only seemed out of step with the times, but was faced with art which had, in many cases, been created to contradict or confound his presumed tenets.

Greenberg held that speculation about "content" in art was idle, that in successful art content was bound up inextricably with form and that form could essentially be pointed to and described in individual works of art but couldn't be interpreted or explicated as content in any meaningful way. This led to a widespread assumption that he didn't believe in content (which he quite rightly denied) and to the appellation of "formalist" not only to his writing, but to the kinds of art that he was presumed to advocate. To some detractors, the term meant abstraction of any kind (sometimes identified with American imperialism.) In reaction, many artists contrived to create works that dealt ostensibly with "issues," a shibboleth they conflated with "content". This art proclaimed itself to be "post-modernist," presumably in reaction to Greenberg's account of modernism. That his theory was the description of a historical phenomenon rather than a prescription for making art was disregarded. Ironically post-modernist artists, themselves, boasted of their dependence on "critical theory" (another shibboleth of the 80s & 90s), which was itself blatantly prescriptive.

Avant-Garde and Kitsch notwithstanding, Greenberg's theories were buttressed and informed by his practice as a working critic. The evidence of the reviews supports this, reviews of books as well as exhibitions. Although a champion of the Abstract Expressionists, he was among the first to examine the change in direction of abstraction in the 60s. In his introduction to the catalogue of "Post-Painterly Abstraction," an exhibition he organized for the Los Angeles County Museum, he examined the phenomenon for the point of view of a letter-day Wölfflin. "Post Painterly Abstraction" was a generalized overview, description not prescription, but not a work of criticism.

The idea that contemporary art had been driven to abstraction by a concentration on the conditions of its medium (i.e. "flatness" and picture shape) was one of Greenberg's most influential and hotly-contested ideas. Because Post Painterly Abstraction appeared to be a culmination, it was presumed that Greenberg was an advocate of post-painterly flatness. That he admired some extreme painterly abstraction in the '70s and '80s didn't register. Greenberg's name became synonymous with flatness.

In fact, after the 60s, Greenberg's written criticism became less frequent. But if the written criticism declined in frequency, the practice of criticism continued. Greenberg visited artists' studios for the remainder of his life ­ not just in New York City, but around the world. Studio visits were undertaken wherever he traveled, and he was in constant demand as a lecturer.

His eye was remarkable ­ as hundreds of artists will attest. He saw art afresh ­ in museums as well as studios ­ and could account for the kernel of originality in what struck him. He also brought to the studio his skill as an editor (honed at Commentary) but translated into visual terms. Far from telling artists what to paint, he had the rare ability to discover what they did best and encourage them to develop it. To my knowledge, no critic of visual art during the past century has played such an important role -- and in the literary world no one since since Pound and Eliot.

© Terry Fenton Dec. 2002