Terry Fenton

 

THE MAN WHO LOVED PICTURES

 

I wrote this as a memorial tribute in 1994 for publication in the Mendel Art Gallery's newsletter, Folio. At the time I was dirctor of the Mendel. Ironically, the night he died, I attended (endured is more accurate) an interminable and incomprehensible lecture at the gallery by the British feminist art historian, Griselda Pollock. Added to the irritation was her seemingly obligatory remark about artists waiting for Greenberg to tell them what to paint (something Ms. Pollock presumably wanted to reserve for herself). Whatever his faults, Greenberg wasn't incomprehensible and didn't tell artists what to paint...

-- TF

I MET CLEMENT GREENBERG in Regina, Canada, in 1965 and we visited for the last time at his home in New York about a month before he died. In between I saw him countless times in many places -- in his home, in galleries and museums, and in artists studios east and west. I can't begin to describe what his friendship meant to me apart from the commonplace that its absence has left a void. I enjoyed his company.

When we met I was 25 years old and he 55. I was new to art museums and knew little about Greenberg apart from a few articles I'd read as an art student and what I'd been told by a handful of artists. In short, I knew him first by reputation -- then as now a reputation maintained largely by embittered artists and ambitious critics and academics, what have come to be known as Clembashers. I heard then for the first time that he was "past it", that he was a reputation maker (as Harold Rosenberg put it, a "tipster"), and that he told painters what to paint. As the years passed, these allegations grew even more common and will most likely continue long after his death, much as similar ones still obscure the achievement of Bernard Berenson. In the past two decades it became mandatory for aspiring critics to take swipes at Clem, often snide ones, to repeat obsessively that he didn't matter any more.

It wasn't until I'd read him at greater length and had seen more art in museums, galleries, and studios that I came to realize his true stature. Clement Greenberg was a great critic -- as passionate and revealing about the visual arts as T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis were about literature. But he was less academic than they. In his vitality he reminded me of Samuel Johnson, a combination of olympian judgment and grand idiosyncrasy. He was fearless in his judgments yet relished acknowledging his mistakes. He was candid to a fault. No art critic of this century can match him -- not even Roger Fry.

He could see art better than anyone. He could see it in its infancy and its most challenging maturity. He found quality in art of all kinds -- at times in such unlikely places that, as they say, it didn't help his career. Unforgivably, he didn't always find it where he was expected to -- in Pop art, in most of Dadaism and Surrealism, in what he came to call "novelty art". As a result, as I've mentioned, he reported to have missed it: missed Rauschenberg and Johns; missed Warhol; missed Judd, André, and Morris; missed Kiefer; missed all of conceptual Art and Installation; is short, missed most of the art that clamors for attention today.

He was reported to advocate Modernism in general and flatness in particular. He didn't; he defined its character and flatness was part and parcel of that (as "Collage", his masterful essay in Art and Culture makes clear.) Curiously, in all the time I knew him, we seldom talked about Modernism, let alone flatness. When we talked about art it was usually about artists and works of art and related puzzlements, sometimes about aesthetics, never about "theory." He complained frequently that when he wrote or said "was" his critics assumed and reported "should". Certainly he cared a lot about the future of art, but little about the future of modernism per se. Back in the '60s he was pointing out that the avant-garde as modernism's generative attitude had lost its power and authority. Avant-garde pop stuck him as an oxymoron.

Over the years I learned many things from him, but if If he taught me one big thing it was how to approach art, how, as it were, to give up expectation in the face of experience, and how to not fear the uncertainty that experience, raw and intuitive, brings. Clem always "just looked," but in just looking brought his whole being to bear with a kind of sophisticated innocence. He encountered new and old art alike as though for the first time. He never cared who the artist was, and indeed had trouble remembering works he'd seen. He also professed to have tunnel vision; -- sometimes he had to be pointed towards pictures; but as just as often caught them out of the corner of his eye. Admittedly poor at attribution (where Berenson shone) he once described a supervisor at the customs office where he once worked who could spot fakes. CG: "What a beautiful Corot!" Supervisor: "It may be beautiful, but it isn't Corot. " To his credit as a critic, Clem didn't care.

Although he admitted reluctantly to the existence of "museum pictures," he believed that works of art were best lived with. He wasn't a collector in the acquisitive sense, but he lived surrounded by art -- mostly given by his artist friends. He was fond of suggesting that the best way to discover superior art was to imagine that, upon visiting an exhibition, one should pretend to choose work for one's own home -- given the ideal home and acquisition budget. He insisted that the best art for any individual was and could only be what that individual liked best, but that taste developed from the pressure of continual re-exposure and comparison.

He loved art of past, and found as much challenge there as from the present. To his judgment quality of past was never a given -- if judgment was synonymous with appreciation, what would be the point in that? I remember a bitter after-dinner argument between him and the curator of a major museum about just that. The curator maintained that the excellence of some artists' work could simply be assumed -- for example late Mondrian (CG: "Especially not late Mondrian") or late Rembrandt ("Especially not late Rembrandt!) He expressed the desire, from time to time, to write about the art of the past in the great museums. That would have been a treat, and one filled with the Greenbergian provocations: dissatisfaction with Rubens in the Prado and the sculpture of Michelangelo, high praise of Gothic sculpture, acute interest in photography, admiration of countless "minor" artists. Alas, the book was never written.

His love of art drove him to seek it everywhere -- in England, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia, as well as in America. Not all the artists he admired could by any definition be called "major" -- he loved the best because he admired so much of the less than best. He didn't profess to value originality above quality. Yet he'd found that abiding originality was somehow inseparable from quality. He was a great coach and editor and he could see originality in the kernel, often before the artist himself was aware of it. This made him the rarest and best of critics in the studio. His behaviour there was the very opposite of pushing artists in "his" direction, let alone telling them what to paint. On the contrary, he taught them how to help themselves and to help each other: to find the best; to point to it; as Johnny Mercer put it, to "accentuate the positive." In this he was the enemy of the notion of the artist as an isolated genius, a notion that continues to floourish in the post-modern era, this age of art "stars." He offered living proof of the reason great art tended to emerge in groups of artists and moreover suggested the mechanism.

His appreciation of good minor art was a key to his appreciation of the best. Once upon hearing a restaurant pianist attempting Chopin, I asked him if he liked the music of that composer. "Of course I like Chopin" he exclaimed. "If you don't like Chopin, you don't like music." He paused and added, "but if you don't like schmaltz you don't like music," concluding, in Yiddish "schmaltz means chicken fat."

-- © Terry Fenton 1994