Modernist Painting Essay Greenberg

"Where the Old Masters created an illusion of space into which one could imagine walking, the illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can look, can travel through, only with the eye."

Synopsis

Clement Greenberg was probably the single most influential art critic in the twentieth century. Although he is most closely associated with his support for Abstract Expressionism, and in particular Jackson Pollock, his views closely shaped the work of many other artists, including Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland. His attention to the formal properties of art - color, line, space and so forth - his rigorous approach to criticism, and his understanding of the development of modern art - although they have all been challenged - have influenced generations of critics and historians.

Key Ideas

Clement Greenberg introduced a wealth of ideas into discussion of twentieth century art, elaborating and refining notions such as "kitsch," the "easel picture," and pictorial "flatness," and inventing concepts such as that of the "allover" paint surface and "optical space."

Strongly associated with his support for Abstract Expressionism, Greenberg fervently believed in the necessity of abstract art as a means to resist the intrusion of politics and commerce into art.

Although he championed what is often regarded as avant-garde art, Greenberg saw modern art as an unfolding tradition, and by the end of his career he found himself attacking what many others saw as avant-garde art - Pop and Neo-Dada - against the values he held dear in earlier modern art.

Most Important Art

Composition in Brown and Gray (1913)

Artist: Piet Mondrian

This early painting by Piet Mondrian is a wonderful precursor to abstraction. It's also a strong example of what Greenberg considers the avant-garde, or the opposite of kitsch. Here, Mondrian is playing with space, color and shapes in a new way, and therefore avoids painting something that is predictable. According to Greenberg, something like Composition in Brown and Gray is daring and esoteric (avant-garde), not mechanical or formulaic (kitsch).

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Clement Greenberg Artworks in Focus:

Clement Greenberg Overview Continues Below

Biography

Childhood

Greenberg was born in the Bronx, the eldest of four children. His parents were first-generation Jewish Lithuanian immigrants who lived briefly in Norfolk, Virginia, but kept New York City their permanent home.

Greenberg's father was reportedly a difficult man to live with; emotionally distant and inflexible, he worked various jobs as a button-hole maker, candy store proprietor, and finally as the owner of a chain of clothing stores. Both before and after Clement's college years, his father repeatedly pressured him to enter the world of business, which for a time proved successful, but not for long.

Early Years

Greenberg graduated from Syracuse University in 1930 with a degree in English Literature. After graduation, he wandered aimlessly through a series of jobs with newspapers and credit agencies. While on a business trip to California in 1934, he met and quickly married a local librarian. They moved in with her mother in Carmel, and two years later they had a son, Danny, but a few years later Greenberg was divorced and moved back to New York City, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Back in New York, Greenberg began making connections with various critics and writers, most of whom were Jewish Trotskyites who became known as the New York Intellectuals (Harold Rosenberg was also part of this group). He first established his reputation writing for Partisan Review, which at the time was the seminal publication for culture and the arts in the city, with offices near Astor Place in Greenwich Village. In particular he published "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," an essay which undertook an ambitious analysis of the relationship of modern high art to popular culture. But other essays during this time also put forth his views on modern European painting by the likes of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso.

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Clement Greenberg Biography Continues

Post-World War II Years

After the war, Greenberg moved to Greenwich Village. By this time he was an associate editor at Commentary Magazine. He was also the art critic for the leftist magazine The Nation; during this time New York was beginning the phase that would see it outstrip Paris as a center for modern art. World War II and the atrocities of Nazi Germany had forced many artists, writers, and intellectuals to immigrate to New York, and many gravitated to Greenwich Village. Greenberg deeply loved the new modern art that was coming out of New York at this time. Artists like Arshile Gorky, David Smith, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock were all, in Greenberg's view, creating art that was far superior to that being created in Europe.

Greenberg's political views shifted greatly after the war. While he had been a strong supporter of Socialist ideas and anti-war sentiment prior to America's entry into the war, he soon became a staunch anti-Communist, and parted ways with The Nation in 1951. In 1950, Greenberg became a part of the CIA-sponsored American Committee for Cultural Freedom, of which Pollock was also a member. During the Cold War, this committee was designed to sponsor public intellectuals and create a forum for them, a forum which would be implicitly critical of Soviet Communism.

Beginning in the early 1950s, Greenberg started a love affair with the artist Helen Frankenthaler, which ended in 1955. He had a reputation for womanizing and is said to have seduced several female students while teaching at Bennington College. In 1957 he was relieved of his duties as an associate editor at Commentary - supposedly due to his erratic temper. At this time he decided to return to writing art criticism, and he began revising many of his essays in order to publish an anthology of his work that later appeared in the book Art and Culture (1961).

His work in the 1950s took on broader topics like French art and collage, and in his essay "'American-Type' Painting" he also put forth one of the most influential readings of Abstract Expressionism. Throughout most of the 1950s he was also something of a personal coach to the artist Morris Louis, and is thought to have had a great influence on him. After Louis' death from lung cancer in 1962, Greenberg altered much of the artist's work, editing lines, stripes and even the size of some canvases. (This level of intrusion would not be the last, as Greenberg also removed the paint from a number of David Smith sculptures after the artist's death in 1965 and had them refinished in a uniform brown. Greenberg justified the alterations by insisting that Smith was not an important colorist, thus his changes were not hurting Smith's works.)

Late Years

Greenberg's work as a critic slowed after 1960. Instead he focused his time on revising old essays to accommodate changes in the art world, as well as his own feelings about art. He also secured many speaking and lecturing engagements, and became an adviser to several galleries and museums.

In 1964, he curated a show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art titled Post-painterly Abstraction, a term he coined to showcase works by Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, and other prominent American artists whose work fell outside the realm of 1960s-era Pop art, of which Greenberg was critical.

Greenberg's Ideas

On the Avant-garde

Among Greenberg's most important early essays was "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," which appeared in Partisan Review in 1939. It formed the foundation for much of his later thought.

In it he put forth a complex argument about the genesis of the avant-garde and its continued purpose. High art had once been the authentic purveyor of the values of the bourgeoisie, Greenberg argued, but as the position of that class had been weakened in the late nineteenth century and as their culture had become increasingly materialistic, artists had begun to break away and form an avant-garde. This avant-garde was still supported by the more progressive members of the bourgeoisie, and it acted, in essence, as the guardian and defender of their ideals. This, Greenberg believed, was the basis of the continued value of the avant-garde, and more particularly of abstract art; as mainstream culture became increasingly commercial, and as the cultures of regimes such as those of the Nazis and the Communists became increasingly repressive, the only hope for the continued survival of high culture itself was the avant-garde.

On the Origins of Modern Art

Greenberg first laid down his interpretation of the development of modern art in "Towards a Newer Laocoon," an essay published in Partisan Review in 1940. The ideas presented here remained foundational for his later writing, although "Modernist Painting," his later essay first broadcast on the radio in 1961, made some amendments to those opinions.

"Towards a Newer Laocoon" took its inspiration and its title from Gotthold Lessing's famous essay of 1766, "Laocoon: An Essay Upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry." Lessing's essay advanced an argument about the differences between artistic mediums and the rationale for those differences, and Greenberg extended that to examine the development of the arts since Lessing's time. Greenberg's "Laocoon" echoes the ideas of his previous essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," but it takes a longer historical perspective and seeks to find the moment when the various artistic media began to separate from each other - the origin, for Greenberg, of modern, abstract art.

Mature Period

Greenberg outlined the basis of his belief in the value and necessity of abstract art in early essays such as "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" (1939) and "Towards a Newer Laocoon" (1940). It was later, however, in essays such as "Abstract Art" (1944) that he began to elaborate his understanding by discussing artists' changing treatment of form and space since the Gothic period. Later parts of "Abstract Art" concentrate on modern art since the Impressionists, and argue that the drive towards abstraction must be understood as simply a facet of the era's reigning scientific spirit: "..in a period in which illusions of every kind are being destroyed, the illusionist methods of art must also be renounced." Greenberg returned to these ideas in the essay "Abstract and Representational" (1954).
Critic Comparison: Greenberg vs. Rosenberg - Abstraction vs. Action

On Cubism

An evolution can be discerned in Greenberg's attitude towards Cubism. In "The Decline of Cubism," published in 1948, he calls it "still the only vital style of our time, the one best able to convey contemporary feeling, and the only one capable of supporting a tradition which will survive into the future and form new artists." It was, he believed, the great artistic expression of the modern age of experiment, but it had declined in the hands of French artists since the 1920s. In part, this attitude reflected Greenberg's growing chauvinism in the late 1940s; he remarks that "the conclusion forces itself.. that the main premises of Western art have at last migrated to the United States." Though it may also reflect an uncertainty which is cleared up in his later essay "'American-Type' Painting," in which, while arguing for the superiority of Color Field abstraction over action painting, he asserts that "we can realize now.. how conservative Cubism was" in its return to Paul Cézanne, and to modeling space using shades of light and dark.

'The Easel Picture' and the 'all-over' picture

Greenberg's essay "The Crisis of the Easel Picture" (1948) is notable for his introduction of the term "all-over," to describe a manner of handling pictorial space and surface in paintings, an approach he sees as an emerging tendency in American abstract art. The term soon became widely popular as a means to discuss the appearance and rationale behind work by artists such as Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman.

Greenberg begins the essay by praising the "easel or cabinet picture - the movable picture hung on a wall - [as] a unique product of Western culture." Its distinguishing feature is that it "cuts the illusion of a boxlike cavity into the wall behind it," and organizes within this an illusion of the world. However, this tradition has been threatened, Greenberg argues, by the advent of modern painting, and "the evolution of modern painting from Manet has subjected [it] to an uninterrupted process of attrition," as artists have striven to flatten out the picture space and emphasize the flatness of its material support. This has led, Greenberg argues, to the emergence of a new mode of painting: the "'decentralized,' 'polyphonic,' all-over picture which, with a surface knit together of a multiplicity of identical or similar elements, repeats itself without strong variation from one end of the canvas to the other..." The picture was dissolving into "sheer texture, sheer sensation." Greenberg argued that this answered to "something deep-seated in contemporary sensibility. It corresponds perhaps to the feeling that all hierarchical distinctions have been exhausted, that no area or order of experience is either intrinsically or relatively superior to any other."

On Abstract Expressionism

Greenberg's fullest response to the phenomenon of Abstract Expressionism can be found in one of his most important essays, "'American-Type' Painting" (1955).

In some respects "'American-Type' Painting" was prompted by Greenberg's desire to counter the increasing popularity of the ideas that Harold Rosenberg had launched with "The American Action Painters" (1952). The essay represents one of Greenberg's central statements about the development of modern art. It tackles the development of Abstract Expressionism; it argues for the radicalism of Color Field Painting - relating it to Impressionism rather than Cubism; and argues that modern art evolved while pursuing ever-greater pictorial flatness. Google Books: Text of "'American-Type' Painting"


Legacy

Greenberg cannot be summed up in a single phrase because he never did likewise with his subjects. The only things worth writing about, he believed, were the things that couldn't be easily solved, or solved at all. Puzzles are what fascinated him, and he believed that all great art can be experiential - it's an experience not only of what consumes the canvas, but what consumes the artist, and no truly great artist lives in a vacuum. Great art, and the artists who create it, are living and breathing vessels of the art that came before them. To experience great art is to experience the greatness of civilization.

Greenberg's analytical approach to art lent art criticism a degree of rigor that it had not previously enjoyed. While many of his ideas have been abandoned in contemporary criticism (no longer does popular art criticism make such a harsh distinctions between high art and kitsch), his objectivity and literary breadth have unquestionably influenced criticism.

Clement Greenberg (),[1] occasionally writing under the pseudonym K. Hardesh (January 16, 1909 – May 7, 1994), was an American essayist known mainly as an influential visual art critic closely associated with American Modern art of the mid-20th century. In particular, he is best remembered for his promotion of the abstract expressionist movement and was among the first published critics to praise the work of painter Jackson Pollock.

Early life[edit]

Clement Greenberg was born in the borough of the Bronx, NYC, in 1909. His parents were middle-class Jewish immigrants, and he was the eldest of their three sons. Since childhood, Greenberg sketched compulsively, until becoming a young adult, when he began to focus on literature. Greenberg attended Erasmus Hall High School, the Marquand School for Boys, then Syracuse University, graduating with an A.B. in 1930, cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa.[2] After college, already as fluent in Yiddish as English since childhood, Greenberg taught himself Italian and German in addition to French and Latin. During the next few years, Greenberg travelled the U.S. working for his father's dry-goods business, but the work did not suit his inclinations, so he turned to working as a translator. Greenberg married in 1934, had a son the next year, and was divorced the year after that. In 1936, Greenberg took a series of jobs with the federal government, from Civil Service Administration, to the Veterans' Administration, and finally to the Appraisers' Division of the Customs Service in 1937. It was then that Greenberg began to write seriously, and soon after began getting published in a handful of small magazines and literary journals.[3]

Avant Garde and Kitsch[edit]

Though his first published essays dealt mainly with literature and theatre, art still held a powerful attraction for Greenberg, so in 1939, he made a sudden name as a visual art writer with possibly his most well-known and oft-quoted essay, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch", first published in the journal Partisan Review. In this Marxist-influenced essay, Greenberg claimed that true avant-garde art is a product of the Enlightenment's revolution of critical thinking, and as such resists and recoils from the degradation of culture in both mainstream capitalist and communist society, while acknowledging the paradox that, at the same time, the artist, dependent on the market or the state, remains inexorably attached "by an umbilical cord of gold". Kitsch, on the other hand, was the product of industrialization and the urbanization of the working class, a filler made for the consumption of the working class: a populace hungry for culture, but without the resources and education to enjoy cutting edge avant garde culture. Greenberg writes,

"Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money – not even their time." [4]

For Greenberg, avant garde art was too "innocent" to be effectively used as propaganda or bent to a cause, while kitsch was ideal for stirring up false sentiment.

Greenberg appropriated the German word "kitsch" to describe this low, concocted form of "culture", though its connotations have since been recast to a more affirmative acceptance of nostalgic materials of capitalist/communist culture.

Art history, Abstract Expressionism and after[edit]

Greenberg wrote several seminal essays that defined his views on art history in the 20th century.

In 1940, Greenberg joined Partisan Review as an editor. He became art critic for the Nation in 1942. He was associate editor of Commentary from 1945 until 1957.[5]

In December 1950, he joined the government funded American Committee for Cultural Freedom. Greenberg believed Modernism provided a critical commentary on experience. It was constantly changing to adapt to kitsch pseudo-culture, which was itself always developing. In the years after World War II, Greenberg pushed the position that the best avant-garde artists were emerging in America rather than Europe.[6] Particularly, he championed Jackson Pollock as the greatest painter of his generation, commemorating the artist's "all-over" gestural canvases. In the 1955 essay "American-Type Painting" Greenberg promoted the work of Abstract Expressionists, among them Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still, as the next stage in Modernist art, arguing that these painters were moving towards greater emphasis on the 'flatness' of the picture plane.

Greenberg helped to articulate a concept of medium specificity. It posited that there were inherent qualities specific to each different artistic medium, and part of the Modernist project involved creating artworks that were more and more 'about' their particular medium. In the case of painting, the two-dimensional reality of their facture lead to an increasing emphasis on flatness, in contrast with the illusion of depth commonly found in painting since the Renaissance and the invention of pictorial perspective.

In Greenberg's view, after World War II the United States had become the guardian of 'advanced art'. He praised similar movements abroad and, after the success of the Painters Eleven exhibition in 1956 with the American Abstract Artists at New York's Riverside Gallery, he travelled to Toronto to see the group's work in 1957. He was particularly impressed by the potential of painters William Ronald and Jack Bush, and later developed a close friendship with Bush. Greenberg saw Bush's post-Painters Eleven work as a clear manifestation of the shift from abstract expressionism to Color Field painting and Lyrical Abstraction, a shift he had called for in most of his critical writings of the period.

Greenberg expressed mixed feelings about pop art. On the one hand he expressed that pop art partook of a trend toward "openness and clarity as against the turgidities of second generation Abstract Expressionism." But on the other hand Greenberg expressed that pop art did not "really challenge taste on more than a superficial level."[7]

Through the 1960s Greenberg remained an influential figure on a younger generation of critics including Michael Fried and Rosalind E. Krauss. Greenberg's antagonism to 'Postmodernist' theories and socially engaged movements in art caused him to become a target for critics who labelled him, and the art he admired, as "old fashioned".

In his book "The Painted Word", Tom Wolfe criticized Greenberg along with Harold Rosenberg and Leo Steinberg, whom he dubbed the kings of "Cultureburg". Wolfe argued that these three critics were dominating the world of art with their theories and that, unlike the world of literature in which anyone can buy a book, the art world was controlled by an insular circle of rich collectors, museums and critics with out-sized influence.[8]

Post-painterly abstraction[edit]

Main article: Post-painterly Abstraction

Eventually, Greenberg was concerned that some Abstract Expressionism had been "reduced to a set of mannerisms" and increasingly looked to a new set of artists who abandoned such elements as subject matter, connection with the artist, and definite brush strokes. Greenberg suggested this process attained a level of "purity" (a word he only used within scare quotes) that would reveal the truthfulness of the canvas, and the two-dimensional aspects of the space (flatness). Greenberg coined the term Post-Painterly Abstraction to distinguish it from Abstract Expressionism, or Painterly Abstraction, as Greenberg preferred to call it. Post-Painterly Abstraction was a term given to a myriad of abstract art that reacted against gestural abstraction of second-generation Abstract Expressionists. Among the dominant trends in the Post-Painterly Abstraction are Hard-Edged Painters such as Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella who explored relationships between tightly ruled shapes and edges, in Stella's case, between the shapes depicted on the surface and the literal shape of the support and Color-Field Painters such as Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, who stained first Magna then water-based acrylic paints into unprimed canvas, exploring tactile and optical aspects of large, vivid fields of pure, open color. The line between these movements is tenuous, however as artists such as Kenneth Noland utilized aspects of both movements in his art. Post-Painterly Abstraction is generally seen as continuing the Modernist dialectic of self-criticism.

Clement Greenberg Collection[edit]

In 2000, the Portland Art Museum (PAM) acquired the Clement Greenberg Collection of 159 paintings, prints, drawings, and sculpture by 59 important artists of the late-20th century and early-21st century. PAM exhibits the works primarily in the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art – some sculpture resides outdoors. Most of the artists represented are American, along with several Canadians, and a handful of artists of other nationalities. Artists represented in the collection include among others: Edward Avedisian, Walter Darby Bannard, Stanley Boxer, Jack Bush, Anthony Caro, Dan Christensen, Ronald Davis, Richard Diebenkorn, Enrico Donati, Friedel Dzubas, André Fauteux, Paul Feeley, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Goodnough, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Wolfgang Hollegha, Robert Jacobsen, Paul Jenkins, Seymour Lipton, Georges Mathieu, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, William Perehudoff, Jackson Pollock, Larry Poons, William Ronald, Anne Ryan, David Smith, Theodoros Stamos, Anne Truitt, Alfred Wallis, and Larry Zox.[9]

Greenberg's widow, Janice van Horne, donated his annotated library of exhibition catalogues and publications on artists in Greenberg's collection to the Portland Art Museum.[10] Greenberg's annotated library is available at the Portland Art Museum's Crumpacker Family Library which is open to the public free of charge.

In popular culture[edit]

Greenberg was portrayed by actor Jeffrey Tambor in the 2000 film Pollock, about the life of Jackson Pollock.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Greenberg, Clement. Art and Culture, Beacon Press, 1961
  • Greenberg, Clement. Late Writings, edited by Robert C. Morgan, St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
  • Clement Greenberg: A Critic's Collection by Bruce Guenther, Karen Wilkin (Editor), Portland: Portland Art Museum, 2001. (ISBN 0-691-09049-1)
  • Greenberg, Clement. Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste. Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Jones, Caroline A. Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg's Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses. University of Chicago Press, 2005.
  • Kuspit, Donald. Clement Greenberg: Art Critic. University of Wisconsin, 1979.
  • Marquis, Alice Goldfarb. Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg. Boston: MFA Publications, 2006.
  • O'Brian, John. Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism. 4 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986 and 1993.
  • Rubenfeld, Florence. Clement Greenberg: A Life. Scribner, 1997.
  • Tekiner, Deniz. "Formalist Art Criticism and the Politics of Meaning."Social Justice, Issue on Art, Power, and Social Change, 33:2 (2006).
  • Anatoly Rykov. Clement Greenberg and American theory of contemporary art in the 1960s” in Art History, Journal of the Russian Institute of Art History. 2007, no. 1-2, pp. 538–563.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^"Greenberg". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
  2. ^Alice Goldfarb Marquis, "Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg", MFA Publications, Boston, 2006, pp. 7–9, 12–13
  3. ^Greenberg, Clement (1995). "Autobiographical Statement". The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 3: Affirmations and Refusals, 1950–1956. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 195. ISBN 0226306232. 
  4. ^Greenberg, Clement. "Avant-Garde and Kitsch." Partisan Review. 6:5 (1939) 34–49
  5. ^Roger Kimball, Collected Essays and Criticism, by Clement Greenberg, edited by John O'Brian, Commentary, December 1987
  6. ^Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, New York: The New Press, 1999, pp. 158, 199, 255, 258, 275, 277.
  7. ^http://www.sharecom.ca/greenberg/ppaessay.html
  8. ^Davis, Douglas (June 9, 1975). "Crying Wolfe". Newsweek 88. In Shomette 1992.
  9. ^Clement Greenberg: A Critic's Collection by Bruce Guenther, Karen Wilkin (Editor) (ISBN 0-691-09049-1)
  10. ^Portland Art Museum Acquisition Announcement

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