Greatest Art Critics Series
Clement Greenberg

Biography of American Modern Art Critic & Curator.

Art Critic Clement Greenberg.

Clement Greenberg (1909-94)


Life and Writings
Greenberg's Ideas on Art
Clement Greenberg's Art Collection

Art Criticism: Resources
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- How to Appreciate Paintings
- How to Appreciate Sculpture

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One of the most famous art critics in America, Clement Greenberg was a commentator and curator, who was closely associated with abstract art of the mid-20th century. In fact, he ranks with Harold Rosenberg (1906-78) and John Canaday (1907-85) as the most influential writer on modern art, just as the United States was overtaking Paris as the centre of world art. In particular, he championed the abstract expressionism of the New York School and, along with the wealthy collector Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979), was one of the first to promote the work of Jackson Pollock (1912-56). He also praised the 20th century sculptors David Smith (1906-65) and Anthony Caro (1924-2013). A believer in formalism in painting, Greenberg not only divorced art from its emotional or narrative content, but also detached it from all social and ethical considerations: an approach that made it difficult for him to appreciate contemporary art from the late 1960s onwards. Even so, his writings - frequently reprinted as exemplars of how to analyze art - were finally published in four volumes as Collected Essays and Criticism (1986-93). In addition, Greenberg was noted for his work Art and Culture (1961), as well as his studies of Joan Miro (1948), Matisse (1953) and Hans Hofman (1961).



Life and Writings

Born in the Bronx, New York, Clement Greenberg was born into a middle-class Jewish home, the oldest of three sons. Proficient in sketching from an early age, he studied at Syracuse University (graduating cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1930) and at the Art Students League in New York. During the period 1930-37, he took a series of different jobs, married, had a child, and got divorced, before finding his metier as a writer. After being published in a handful of small literature and theatre journals, he became the editor of Partisan Review in 1940, the regular art critic of the Nation (1942-49), and associate editor of Commentary (1945-57), while also contributing to numerous other magazines, including New Leader and Arts Digest. Some of his early writing reflected his left-wing political views, such as his 1939 Marxist-oriented essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch", published in Partisan Review.

During the late 1940s, in line with his theoretical outlook, Greenberg advanced the viewpoint that the best avant-garde art was being produced in America (New York), rather than Europe (Paris). In particular, he was highly impressed with Jackson Pollock's paintings, and the abstract paintings of Mark Rothko (1903-70), Barnett Newman (1905-70) and Clyfford Still (1904-80), describing them as representing the new phase of Modernist American art, in their focus on the "flatness" of the picture plane. He helped to arrange numerous introductions between his favoured artists and buyers like Leo Castelli (1907-99), and also helped to organize exhibitions. For instance, he set up a solo show for Barnet Newman at French & Company - a show which proved instrumental in helping to establish Newman as an important contributor to abstract expressionism.

Later, beginning with an exhibition of contemporary painting which he curated for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he championed a new second generation of abstract artists under the label Post-Painterly Abstraction.

Contemporary artists, such as those involved with Pop art, were something of a theoretical puzzle for Greenberg. On the one hand he appreciated the greater transparency of contemporary styles, while lamenting the fact that they didn't challenge the spectator on more than a superficial level. But his influence remained high throughout the 1960s, especially with younger art critics and historians like Rosalind Krauss (b.1941) and Michael Fried (b.1939).

Greenberg's Ideas on Art

Greenberg's writings on painting are not always crystal clear to readers: like most critics, he enjoyed wrapping his ideas in layers of intellectual prose. Here is a very rough idea of some of his views.

(1) Greenberg was a formalist: that is, he thought that the formal attributes of a painting (line, shape, colour) are of crucial importance, whereas its emotional or representational content is secondary, even redundant. However, he then went further. In each type of art, he said, there is an urge towards purity: that is, a focus on the unique characteristics of the art form in question. (Greenberg's so-called concept of medium specificity.) In painting, for instance, there is a natural and proper tendency to focus on its inherent two-dimensional character: that is, the flatness of the picture plane. By the same token, attempts to focus on linear perspective in order to create the illusion of three-dimensional depth were artificial and contrived. Painters should confine themselves, he said, to the exclusive presentation of colour and line, and not try to create things (three-dimensionality) which can be experienced more authentically in other media (sculpture). Greenberg's view of aesthetics coincided with his appreciation of abstract expressionist painting in America, during the late 1940s and 50s. In particular he was a fan of the all-over action-painting style of Jackson Pollock, and the flat surfaces of the Colour Field Painting movement, embodied by Mark Rothko and others. However, he had little time for mixed-media artists like Robert Rauschenberg, or gesturalist painters like Willem de Kooning.

Interestingly, two of the most highly priced painters in the world - Picasso and Pollock - are exemplars of Greenberg's medium specificity (emphasis on the 2-D picture plane): Picasso through his invention of Cubism (1908-14) and Pollock through his use of drip-painting. However, Greenberg was not impressed with Willem de Kooning, another expensive modernist, who was highly regarded by Greenberg's rival, Harold Rosenberg.

(2) Although Greenberg regarded the pioneers of abstract expressionism as highly original artists, the very success of the movement led (in his view) to the emergence of painters whose talent for imitation far exceeded their originality. He believed that the tradition had been "reduced to a set of mannerisms" by these artists, and pinned his hopes on a younger generation with fresh ideas on how to maintain the purity of two-dimensional painting. He christened the work of this new generation "Post-Painterly Abstraction" in order to distinguish it from Abstract Expressionism, or "Painterly Abstraction", as he called it. Post-Painterly Abstraction was a term given to a variety of second generation abstract art that reacted against the gestural painting of earlier abstract expressionists. PPA included Systemic Painting, such as the work of Josef Albers (1888-1976) and others; Hard-Edge painting practiced by the likes of Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly; Lyrical Abstraction, including works by Mark Tobey, and others; Colour Stain painting practiced by Helen Frankenthaler; and Minimalist art including pictures by Robert Mangold, Agnes Martin, and Robert Ryman.

(3) Proper modern art (he called it avant-garde art) is inseparable from critical thought or observation. By contrast, "kitsch" is an erzatz or fake type of visual art produced for the consumption of the working class: a social group hungry for culture, but without the education or resources to enjoy proper modern art. Kitsch epitomizes all that is spurious in modern life. Greenberg's alternative name for kitsch art is "novelty art". Kitsch, he said, includes movements like Pop and Kinetic art. In Greenberg's view, this basic type of sub-standard art (unlike proper art) fails to challenge taste or stimulate depth of thought. His only concession, was to admit that Pop art's transparency was a welcome distraction from the over-intensity of Abstract Expressionism.

Given the fragmented, subjective and populist nature of postmodernist art, it is no surprise that Greenberg had a pessimistic view of contemporary styles, in America and around the world. In response, postmodernist artists regarded Greenberg as hopelessly old-fashioned.

For a contrast, compare Greenberg with the eminent 19th century English art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900).

Clement Greenberg Collection

In 2000, Greenberg's personal art collection was acquired by the Portland Art Museum (PAM), and is on display at the museum's Jubitz Center, one of the best galleries of contemporary art. The collection features some 160 paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures by about 60 top contemporary artists, including: Jack Bush, Anthony Caro, Richard Diebenkorn, Enrico Donati, Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Georges Mathieu, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Jackson Pollock, David Smith, Anne Truitt, and many others.

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