A Critic Lionized and Vilified
In an interview, Clement Greenberg looks back at the trends in modernist art
ANY reviewer or critic who has ever knocked an artist's work in an exhibition has heard the same refrain: ``The critics hated the Impressionists, too!'' And it's true. Many of the leading critics in Paris in the 1860s and 1870s blew it, labeling as ``lunatic'' and ``imbecile'' the work of the best artists of the time. But who were these critics and how important, ultimately, were they? Their names have long been forgotten, their criticism only recalled to point up how wrong they were and, implicitly, how powerless their condemnation really was.Skip to next paragraph
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Most critics have a short and shallow presence in the public's consciousness, but one contemporary figure stands out - Clement Greenberg. At age 81, he is no longer the commanding figure he was during the 1950s and '60s as the unofficial dean of contemporary visual arts. Yet, years after he has gone into semi-retirement, his name and ideas still generate passion and debate.
He now lives quietly on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where this interview took place. His living room is filled floor to ceiling with the large paintings (``they're all gifts,'' he said) of some of the artists he favored in his heyday - Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Jackson Pollock, and Larry Poons, as well as a few others. No longer writing regularly, as he did for 20 years for The Nation and other periodicals, or organizing exhibits of contemporary art, Greenberg lectures at universities from time to time and writes on certain artists.
When he began writing about art in the late 1930s, Greenberg reflected, ``I started to see modernism as art that is about itself, but no one was writing about art in this way. Critics wrote about layout, color composition, line, or else they wrote about art in a very romantic way, but it all seemed very unsatisfactory to me.'' He added that he learned about modern criticism less from other writers on art than from literary essayists, especially T.S. Eliot.
HE was no more pleased with the way museums presented works. ``Museums just put pictures up on the wall to be appreciated,'' he said, noting that the overriding theme was ```these are the great works of art.' It all looked like random choices to me.''
At times, it appears that there are two Clement Greenbergs - the one who is quietly lionized and the other who is regularly and openly vilified. Of the first Clement Greenberg, there is little question of his importance. He is the one whose ideas have become so much a part of the mainstream that they are no longer identified with him but are common assumptions.
These ideas include the concept of painting as either creating the illusion of three-dimensionality or, in more modernist works, depicting the inherent flatness of the canvas. He further viewed the subject of painting as a study of the medium - the material process, the physicality of paint - and the tensions between the colors and forms. The external world was no longer even a reference point for Greenberg.
Although he wrote for small-circulation periodicals, these ideas were picked up and absorbed into the teaching of art at universities and art schools around the country, leading to two generations of Americans who evaluate art through these precepts.