Karen Wilkin

A Critic and His Critics:
the reception of
Clement Greenberg: A Life by Florence Rubenfeld

KAREN WILKIN contributes frequently to New Criterion and Partisan Review. She has also organized exhibitions and witten several books on 20th Century painters, sculptors, and art movements. As the Rubenfeld biography appeared to justify what had become known as "Clembashing", her assessment of of several prominent reviews of the book -- based on familiarity with both the man and his writing -- was timely and necessary.

-- TF

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

OFF AND ON, over the past decade, there were rumblings in the art world about an imminent biography of Clement Greenberg. The author, Florence Rubenfeld, seemed to be getting in touch with just about everyone who knew the controversial critic (I suppose this is the place to say that I was one of them, although we stopped speaking the last four years of his life) and the word during Greenberg's lifetime was that he approved of the project, at least at first. The book was eagerly awaited by both friends and foes, especially after Greenberg died, aged 85, in 1994. Whatever you felt towards the man -- who was a master at alienating even those who admired and respected his work -- it was obvious that an intelligent, carefully researched Greenberg biography would complement the four volumes of his collected critical writings published between 1986 and 1993. At best, it could provide a context for the evolution of his thought and, at the very least, might set the record straight about some of the more vexed issues of Greenberg's career -- and there were plenty of them -- both public and private, all grist for the rumor mill over the years and in need of clarification (which is not the same as justification or even explanation).

Unfortunately, the first thing to be said about Rubenfeld's Clement Greenberg: A Life, which finally appeared this spring, is that it's a wretched book -- confusingly organized, poorly written, and despite its author's vaunted years of preparation and long interviews with her subject, surprisingly sloppy. Anyone who knew Greenberg will recognize the mercurial, sometimes brutal personality and the harsh, pitiless voice evoked by Rubenfeld's study and find much of the behavior she describes familiar, but it's hard to see why anyone would pay attention to the complicated, flawed, abrasive individual who emerges from her pages -- if you didn't already know that he had been in proximity to some of the brightest intellectual and cultural lights of the recent past. Rubenfeld states at the outset that she has not written an "intellectual biography" but rather a "social" one -- a curious distinction, given that her subject's reputation was established by his articulation of ideas and aesthetic perceptions. She does attempt -- very superficially -- to summarize Greenberg's thinking and to grapple with some of the factors that influenced his formation as a critic, but most of her discussion draws heavily on other publications. You won't learn anything new, for example, about Greenberg and the New York Intellectuals, or anything substantial about Greenberg's contribution to art critical writing, or anything illuminating about the nature of his connection to the artists with whom he was most closely associated. You certainly won't get much sense of his wholehearted passion for art or of how his eye and his thinking were affected by his studio relationships with painters and sculptors. Instead, Rubenfeld perpetuates old accusations and half-truths, dredges up old grievances and resentments, without being too scrupulous, for the most part, about presenting all the evidence. A great deal of the information in the book, from small points to large ones, can't be trusted. The one thing we can demand of a biographer is getting the facts right, whatever conclusion he or she draws from them; Clement Greenberg: a Life is so riddled with errors that it is impossible to rely on anything Rubenfeld tells us.

Yet despite its evident inadequacies, this disappointing effort has been received with respectful attention, even praise. Because it is the first biography of the most notorious, celebrated, and disputed of American critics and because anyone seriously interested in the history of 2Oth century art must take Greenberg's criticism into account, Clement Greenberg: A Life has been reviewed everywhere -- from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times, from Artforum to The New Yorker -- by everyone from Arthur Danto to Adam Gopnik. And more. When Greenberg's collected critical writings, edited by John O'Brian, appeared, their publication set off a similar flurry of articles. That responses ranged from the admiring to the hostile was not surprising; since Greenberg's reading of the development of modernist art has come to be regarded not as a definitive tracking of the course of adventurous, innovative art, but as only one of many possible ways of describing what happened in painting and sculpture during 19th and 20th centuries. But whether they agreed or disagreed with Greenberg's views, writers discussing his collected essays made enormous efforts to come to terms with what the critic had actually said during the thirty years -- 1939 to 1969 -- covered by the four volumes. Whether they posited the influence of the New Criticism on Greenberg's method or found a Marxist notion of historical inevitability in his reading of modernism as each discipline's gradually purging itself of everything not intrinsic to its medium, reviewers of the collected writings were attentive to Greenberg's words and, albeit to a lesser extent, to O'Brian's introductions and notes.

By contrast, most reviewers of Clement Greenberg: A Life seemed notably uninterested in weighing its merits or flaws as a biography. Instead of evaluating the book, many seized the opportunity to evaluate its subject, both as a critic and as an individual, airing their most cherished, longest-held ideas about Greenberg, treating Rubenfeld's book as a handy source of anecdotes to bolster their preconceptions. Others used the occasion to parade their own aesthetic values. As a group, the articles offered more information about their authors' prejudices than about the biography in question.

The most egregiously self-serving review -- and one of the first to appear -- was Gopnik's long, sophomoric effort, whose subtext was the author's evident wish to convince his readers that he was much smarter than the person he was writing about. Even ostensibly positive comments seemed worded in ways calculated to offend, leaving no doubt about Gopnik's innate sense of superiority and basic hostility. "Greenberg became a dictator-critic," Gopnik writes, "because his judgements were, at a crucial moment, courageous, and right. He was never the pilot of the New York School, but for a long time he was the wind in its sails, and it wasn't all hot air." (Greenberg would have been horrified by the idea that anyone other than the artists of any "school" should be their "pilot;" "art gets along just fine without criticism," he often said when anyone trotted out the old accusation that he "told artists what to do."

Gopnik's strategy is typified by his precis of some of Greenberg's ideas about the evolution of abstraction: briefly, that modernist artists increasing engaged with "purely" aesthetic issues as traditional languages of representation and narrative became increasingly exhausted. Gopnik begins by discussing Monet and Matisse and ends with a comparison drawn from popular culture -- Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Busby Berkeley are invoked -- whose only function is to remind readers of how tuned-in the writer is, in contrast, presumably, to the outmoded Greenberg. Most of what Gopnik has to say is mean-spirited and so silly that it doesn't warrant discussion. He may have read Rubenfeld's book, he hasn't much read Greenberg, which doesn't stop him from opining on the critic's lasting contributions. Gopnik admits the importance of Greenberg's "crucial revaluation upward of the reputations of Matisse and Monet" and further concedes that Greenberg was "an inspired amateur historian and a great curator without portfolio," but he dismisses him as a critic. "Good criticism leaves a halo around its objects, like a ring around the moon." Gopnik pontificates. "Power criticism leaves only a residue, like a ring around a bathtub." Apart from the fact that the "ring around the moon" simile seems meaningless, I would have said that good criticism illuminates its objects, not like a halo, but like a good, strong, revealing light shining on them. Power criticism -- like Gopnik's -- illuminates not the object, but the critic's desire for attention. To change metaphors, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

William Corbett, writing in Boston's Artsmedia, is less self-involved than Gopnik, but he, too, reveals more about himself than he does about the book under scrutiny. Corbett describes Rubenfeld's mission as an effort "to rehabilitate Greenberg's reputation as an art critic" by showing him to have been a detestable man whose enemies revenged themselves by burying his art criticism. Rubenfeld's "totally engrossing" biography, Corbett declares, convinced him both that Greenberg was "every bit as arrogant and belligerent as gossip has made him out to be" and that "many of the attacks against Greenberg the thinker and writer were really attacks against the man." But that's as far as he is willing to go. Grudgingly acknowledging Greenberg to be "a plain, powerful, persuasive writer" possessed of "fine powers of analysis," the review goes on to describe him as "irrelevant, a crank whose ideas can be neither sustained nor convincingly argued by his examples." The proof7 The inadequacy, in Corbett's view, of the art that Greenberg "believed embodied quality." Corbett sees no merit in the work of Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, or Morris Louis -- magnanimously, he allows that he can accept "the standard of Pollock, de Kooning and David Smith" -- so none of Greenberg's criticism is significant.

What art Corbett responds to and what he dismisses is, of course, his business -- if you can ignore his irritating, self-congratulatory tone -- yet one sentence in his review suggests that his difficulties with Greenberg stem not from differences of taste, but quite simply from a profound misunderstanding of everything the critic wrote or espoused. "Rightly or wrongly," Corbett writes, "I find myself responding to too much in art to put a theory before the testimony of my eyes.", (italics mine.) Whether you share Greenberg's conclusions or reject them, the one irreducible constant in his approach was not his adherence to theory, but his reliance upon direct, unmediated encounters with works of art. (Greenberg himself never claimed to be doing anything but abstracting from his experience, describing his observations and remaining faithful to the involuntary judgements of value that he, following Immanuel Kant's reasoning, believed that the critic was obliged to make.

Fortunately, other reviewers seem to have understood Greenberg's method far better than Corbett. Witness Terry Teachout's judicious, measured article in National Review, which includes a good, if simplified summary of Greenberg's contribution to what would now be called "the critical discourse" of the 194Os, 'St)s, and '6~)s -- a far better summary, in many ways, than that provided by Rubenfeld. Teachout emphasizes the crucial point that "...Greenberg never allowed his ideology to prevent him from seeing clearly the painting and sculpture about which he wrote, and though he believed devoutly that 'the very best painting, the major painting, of our age is t. abstract,' he was no less capable of responding sensitively to the work of such gifted | representationalists as John Marin, Milton Avery, and Edward Hopper."

Teachout shares some of Corbett's distaste for the Color-Field painters, believing that Greenberg overestimated their long-term importance, but unlike Corbett, he doesn't assume that this obviates Greenberg's own long-term significance. ''This time," Teachout writes, "...the prophet of abstract expressionism had bet on the wrong horse, for the high seriousness of late modernism was already in the process of being supplanted by the playful nihilism of the post-modern era." But that matters less to Teachout than Greenberg's "having produced a body of writing about art that is- fully worthy of comparison with the best work of the best critics of the twentieth century. Even now, it is impossible to read him without being stirred by the compelling force of his aesthetic convictions." ;.

Curiously, whatever their own aesthetic convictions, almost none of the reviewers questioned Rubenfeld's accuracy. They appeared to believe implicitly everything she reports, especially, it seemed, the more scurrilous stories. Mind you, Rubenfeld obviously believes them herself, according ample space to anyone with anything really discrediting to report -- from corrupt dealings to thuggish behavior --whether the claim can be substantiated or not. A good deal of this sort of thing is plainly verifiable. There is ample documentation, for example, for Greenberg's heavy drinking and the predictably deplorable effect it had on how he treated even people he was close to. The peculiarities of the branch of psychiatry he adhered to are a matter of public record. And so on. But Rubenfeld relies heavily on innuendo, quoting at length sources who say things like "I can't prove it, but I am sure..." and "We all | believed that ....," not so much to demonstrate how colleagues and peers reacted to Greenberg, but to imply malfeasance. (Rubenfeld constantly speculates about Greenberg's motives, but she rarely questions those of her informants.) And even reviewers who should have known better -- Peter Plagens, in a skeptical, street smart article in the Los Angeles Times, for example -- swallowed Rubenfeld's assertions ~-whole.

Plagens, who is justifiably proud of his cool independence of mind, is neither ; Greenbergian or an anti-Greenbergian, but he takes Pollock, Frankenthaler, and Louis seriously. More important, Plagens genuinely admires Greenberg's writing and value] his contribution to the discipline of criticism; Whatever his disagreements with the t. critic's aesthetic, "...we who love art owe a hell of a lot to Greenberg," Plagens writes. I'd rather have spent half an hour reading a wonderfully limpid, if naggingly obstinate, Greenberg essay than a whole afternoon plowing through an argot-laden volume by some anti-Greenberg academic whiningly preoccupied with telling me that everything art can do, partisan sociology can do better. Then ~ could spend the time l saved looking at art."

Plagens is an insider, both painter and critic, old enough to have been a player in the art world during the last decades of Greenberg's life -- they met in 1980 -- yet he, too, assumes that Rubenfeld's most outrageous, unsupported statements are factual. He gleefully repeats her claim that Greenberg "smoked pot and hashish regularly, sniffed coke four, five, even six times a week, [and] sniffed heroin" during the 197Qs. Plagens (and I suspect, Rubenfeld), like anyone who spent any time in Greenberg's company, must know that alcohol and unfiltered Camels, both in large quantities, were the critic's drugs of choice. Seventies parties were, admittedly, seventies parties, and I am sure Greenberg tried whatever he was offered, but a steady habit? Anyone who knew the man would say it was extremely unlikely, if for no other reason than utter improbability of the modest-living, parsimonious critic's actually spending the sort of money regular use would entail.

This, I suppose, is open to conjecture. What's more disturbing is that Plagens perpetuates the frequently made accusation that Greenberg grew rich by skimming profits from galleries who sold the art he told collectors to buy. Plagens states as fact that Greenberg earned $100,000 a year as a consultant to the Andre Emmerich Gallery -- a tidbit to be found in Rubenfeld's uncorrected bound galleys but removed, along with several other questionable assertions, from the published edition of the biography since it was both untrue and actionable; Emmerich could easily prove that Greenberg never received any compensation from him and the motives of Rubenfeld's informant turned out to be, to say the least, cloudy. Why Plagens wasn't sent a corrected review copy of the book is only one question. What's more interesting is why such an informed observer was willing to believe the tale in the first place. Was it because Rubenfeld's unsavory stories fulfilled Plagens' expectations?

Almost no reviewer had anything derogatory to say about the book itself, no matter how eager they were to expand on the shortcomings of its subject. Some of this ill-feeling was, no doubt, justified, since Greenberg left many people who came in contact with him feeling battered. This is, of course, one of Rubenfeld's main points and it's true enough. (There are things he said in the nearly twenty years when we were on speaking terms that I will never forgive.) Part of it was pure belligerence and competitiveness, fueled by booze, but some was an even purer refusal to say anything he didn't mean or to sugar-coat unpalatable truths, qualities that made him a precious, if potentially devastating, presence in the studios of the artists who sought his reaction to their work. "(Clem kept me honest," I've heard more than one serious, tough-minded artist say.)

But if Greenberg's ability to be provoking has survived him, so has the ability of his ideas to be provocative. The more enlightening reviews of Rubenfeld's biography took both aspects of his legacy into account. Arthur Danto, in a thoughtful piece in Artforum, used this duality as a point of departure, beginning his article by quoting a description of Greenberg as "one of the great critics of the 2Oth century" and a "#@!!". Danto acknowledges delicately that when he and Greenberg met, towards the end of the critic's life, they were "too distant intellectually for either of us to believe a further relationship possible," yet there seems to have been mutual respect. Not surprisingly, Danto is uncomfortable with Greenberg's insistence on the primacy of value judgements -- his often-stated belief that the critic must sort out the best from the good and the less good -- since his own inquiries have been directed toward separating works of art from what he calls "mere real things," but despite the radical differences in their approaches Danto is unstinting in his praise for Greenberg's thinking: "...whatever my reservations as to his character or, in candor, his criticism I regard him as among the century's great philosophers of art... He was unique in seeing Modernism as a problem."

I'm not sure that Danto is entirely accurate about how Greenberg perceived modernism's relation to the past -- Danto emphasizes the notion of rupture, when Greenberg often stated that modernism was a "holding action for quality," an effort sustain in (necessarily) new terms what modernist artists saw as the excellencies of traditional art. But Danto has notably perceptive and informative things to say about Greenberg's contribution: "[he] saw Modernism as a totality, sufficiently discontinuous with what came before to require a special account, and he was systematic enough to realize that 'almost the whole of what is truly alive in our culture' had to be explained with reference to the same factors. This he credited to a ascent to a level of critical self-consciousness."

The absence of critical self-consciousness both within and without the work of art, the assumption that value judgements, whether made by the artist or the viewer, are unimportant compared to other, often non-aesthetic, non-visual issues addressed by a work of art, are fundamental to a great deal of present day postmodernist art writing. Such "texts", which substitute theoretical "explication" for the articulation of direct experience, deem Greenberg's approach to be both distasteful and beside the point. Yet even devout postmodernists who dismiss Greenberg's qualitative judgements as dogmatic and prescriptive -- "patriarchal and elitist" are also popular -- -find it necessary to declare what they think about him in order to establish their bona fides. Paradoxically, despite their insistence on Greenberg's irrelevance, they can't ignore him and he is invoked as the Antichrist must have been invoked in medieval sermons. Michael J. Lewis, writing in Commentary, was one of the few reviewers to discuss this curious phenomenon. (He's also, along with Teachout, one of the few to point out that Rubenfeld's book virtually ignores the complicated politics, changing loyalties, and maturing attitudes towards Marx that marked relations among the New York Intellectuals in Greenberg's day.) The art world, Lewis says, is still haunted by Greenberg's discredited "ideas and prescriptions" because "virtually every one of them has been turned on its head." If Lewis reads the collected criticism more carefully, he'll discover that what he calls "prescriptions" are in fact descriptions, but he still makes an interesting point. It's all too true that the desire for order and clarity, like the aspiration toward excellence that spurred on Greenberg and the adventurous artists of his generation, have been discarded. "The notion of a coherent and logical course of artistic development intrinsic to every genre," Lewis writes, "has been jettisoned in favor of a willed celebration of the provisional, the improvised, the personal, and the arbitrary." The result, in Lewis's view, has not been "an improvement upon the cultural vitality of an earlier age, but a distinct and disastrous decline." In contrast to the self-indulgence and slackness of postmodernism, as a corrective to its indifference to formal rigor in the face of good intentions, or even as a "secret ideal," Lewis suggests that we reexamine some of the things Greenberg believed in most strongly, some of what he stood for: "austerity, high intellectual integrity, the devotion to formal perfection." "If we are lucky," Lewis says, these high-minded notions may "be with us for some time to come." Happily, we have the four volumes. They preserve for posterity what for many of us was the best of Rubenfeld's subject.

Originally published Partisan Review, Fall l998