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.

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.

Greenberg saw the recent history of art in terms of a general flattening of the painted image, and a growing concern with the physical characteristics of paint, beginning with Manet, continuing with C'ezanne and Picasso, leading to Abstract Expressionism and, finally, Color-Field painting. Since then, most modern art museum curators and directors have organized their collections along the Manet-C'ezanne-Picasso-Pollock axis. Artists not associated with this line of development, such as German Expressionists, Dadaists, Surrealists, American Regionalists, and other forms of representational art, are usually afforded less museum space since they are implicitly viewed as inferior.

Greenberg brought to the discussion of art some of the studio talk he had heard in lectures by painter/teacher Hans Hoffman in the late 1930s. His early thought was strongly influenced by the writings of Karl Marx and other socialists, and Marxist phrases and analogies peppered his essays then, and, still today, his conversation.

However, his interest in political and economic issues ends at the door of art, where he acknowledges himself an ``elitist.'' ``Marxism,'' he said, ``has nothing to say about art,'' and he objects vehemently when other critics ``bring in social and political factors into the discussion of art. Social factors don't help anyone understand a work of art, though these factors do affect the production of art in a variety of ways. There are traditions in art, and they have a continuity, and that continuity has to be pointed to. You have to look at art as art.''

He added that, ``There has always been an autonomous logic to the development of art through history, affected only momentarily but not very deeply by events outside art.'' This logic, he says, ``isn't always clear but it's there, and you can see it if you look carefully.''

Greenberg met Jackson Pollock in the early 1940s and was immediately attracted to what he called ``a genuinely violent and extravagant art'' that does not lose ``stylistic control.... What may at first sight seem crowded and repetitious reveals on second sight an infinity of dramatic movement and variety.''

FOR almost eight years, Greenberg touted Pollock's work, from the early swirling to the later drip paintings, and the critic's star seemed to rise with the artist's. He later moved on to highlighting the more chromatic wing of the Abstract Expressionists - Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Olitski, Poons, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still - as well as what became known as the Washington School of Color-Field painters, which included Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland.

No art critic before or since has had such a phenomenal string of successes in identifying the major artists of the time and been able to do it over as long a period.

Over time, a vision of what modernist art is, and what the modernist artist must do, emerged in his writing. This vision had a great influence on artists and other critics, as well as much of the art-interested public and others who hadn't read the essays but heard art discussed by Greenberg's adherents.

``Flatness, two-dimensionality, was the only condition painting shared with no other art, and so modernist painting oriented itself to flatness...,'' he wrote in the mid-1960s.

Ideas flowing from his typewriter were taken as dogma, seen as the Greenbergian laws of modern art, and were handed down as ``the truth'' for those who studied or read about art. However, Greenberg now claims that he was ``only describing the work of the best artists of the time,'' not prescribing for artists.

If the first Clement Greenberg is the critic whose ideas have become part of the art world's mainstream, the other is the focus of unrelenting attack by those who would dethrone these ideas and values.

``I'm through with Clement Greenberg,'' wrote critic Rosalind Krauss, who later announced her allegiance to structuralist criti- cism.

Another critic, labeling Greenberg's taste in art as ``academic'' and ``sectarian,'' complained that he ``degrades criticism to the status of fashion-picking,'' and yet another stated that ``Greenberg's assumptions of a constant modernist premise in the best art - as though that alone made it best ... seems to betray'' art itself.

The range of discontent with Greenberg - and, with him as lightning rod, the art establishment itself - covers most areas, from his dismissive approach to artists not included in the Manet-C'ezanne-Picasso-Pollock axis to his formalist approach to criticism, though there is generally no quarrel with his ability to spot quality.

Little that has been created over the past 25 years, Greenberg feels, is the best art. He finds that much of the most-celebrated art since the mid-1960s is a step back from the achievements of the Abstract Expressionists and Color-Field painters.

``With Pop art, Minimal, and Conceptual art in the 1960s and '70s,'' he said, ``I found artists were producing nothing but occasional minor, inferior work. It's said that I dismiss Pop art and all the other wholesale, but that's not right. I do compare them to Abstract Expressionism or the best art since the '50s, and then I do dismiss them.''

Claiming that ``Jules Olitski is the best painter working today,'' he added that contemporary art has failed to emerge from the 1960s - ``its all Pop in spirit, everything you see.''

PART of Greenberg's legacy is the impression he has given those who followed him of what one must do to succeed as a critic. His attachment to certain artists, especially Jackson Pollock, has led subsequent critics to attempt to find their own up-and-coming artists to promote, though no one has had the same success.

The polemical style of his writing has given rise to a breed of skilled arguers who view the discussion of art as a battleground of theories.

Despite the criticism of what he did or is perceived to have done, Greenberg's ongoing importance in the minds of other critics, and those interested in art as a whole, may reflect the significance of Abstract Expressionism - the last art movement which shifted Western culture. Subsequent art styles have merely added to, rather than supplanted, the momentous change in thinking that began to occur in the 1940s and '50s, and Greenberg was there leading the charge.

In general, art critics have little influence with collectors and artists over the long run. Some critics may gain a certain footnote longevity due to a coinage - such as Louis Leroy's ``Impressionism,'' Roger Fry's ``Post-Impressionism,'' Robert Coates' ``Abstract Expressionism'' or Lawrence Alloway's ``Pop Art'' - but most are quickly forgotten.

Greenberg, as a major player in the art world, has been largely forgotten, though his ideas live on. A new crop of writers with a bent toward neo-Freudian, neo-Marxist, French structuralist, or the many other eclectic brands of art criticism take on Greenberg before tackling their first painting. It is a tribute to the power of his ideas and connoisseurship that Clement Greenberg defined the framework of modern art discussion and criticism.

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