Define Clement Greenberg Essays

"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).

Read More ...

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.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

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.

There has never been a time when art critics held more power than during the second half of the twentieth century. Following the Second World War, with the relocation of the world’s artistic epicenter from Paris to New York, a different kind of war was waged in the pages of magazines across the country. As part of the larger “culture wars” of the mid-century, art critics began to take on greater influence than they’d ever held before. For a time, two critics in particular—who began as friends, and remained in the same social circles for much of their lives—set the stakes of the debates surrounding the maturation of American art that would continue for decades. The ideas about art outlined by Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg are still debated today, and the extent to which they were debated in the past has shaped entire movements of the arts. Below are ten works of criticism through which one can trace the mainstreaming of Clement Greenberg’s formalist theory, and how its dismantling led us into institutional critique and conceptual art today.

 

 

The American Action Painters

Harold Rosenberg

 Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950

 

Harold Rosenberg, a poet who came to art through his involvement with the Artist’s Union and the WPA, was introduced to Jean-Paul Sartre as the “first American existentialist.” Soon, Rosenberg became a contributor to Sartre’s publication in France, for which he first drafted his influential essay. However, when Sartre supported Soviet aggression against Korea, Rosenberg brought his essay to Elaine de Kooning, then the editor of ARTnews, who ran “The American Action Painters” in December, 1952.

RELATED: What Did Harold Rosenberg Do? An Introduction to the Champion of “Action Painting”

Rosenberg’s essay on the emerging school of American Painters omitted particular names—because they’d have been unfamiliar to its original French audience—but it was nonetheless extraordinarily influential for the burgeoning scene of post-WWII American artists. Jackson Pollock claimed to be the influence of “action painting,” despite Rosenberg’s rumored lack of respect for the artist because Pollock wasn’t particularly well-read. Influenced by Marxist theory and French existentialism, Rosenberg conceives of a painting as an “arena,” in which the artist acts upon, wrestles, or otherwise engages with the canvas, in what ultimately amounts to an expressive record of a struggle. “What was to go on the canvas,” Rosenberg wrote, “was not a picture but an event.”

 

Notable Quote

Weak mysticism, the “Christian Science” side of the new movement, tends … toward easy painting—never so many unearned masterpieces! Works of this sort lack the dialectical tension of a genuine act, associated with risk and will. When a tube of paint is squeezed by the Absolute, the result can only be a Success. The painter need keep himself on hand solely to collect the benefits of an endless series of strokes of luck. His gesture completes itself without arousing either an opposing movement within itself nor the desire in the artist to make the act more fully his own. Satisfied with wonders that remain safely inside the canvas, the artist accepts the permanence of the commonplace and decorates it with his own daily annihilation. The result is an apocalyptic wallpaper.

 

 

‘American-Type’ Painting

Clement Greenberg

 

Frank Stella, Untitled, 1967

 

Throughout the preceding decade, Clement Greenberg, also a former poet, had established a reputation as a leftist critic through his writings with The Partisan Review—a publication run by the John Reed Club, a New York City-centered organization affiliated with the American Communist Party—and his time as an art critic with The Nation. In 1955, The Partisan Review published Greenberg’s “‘American-Type’ Painting,” in which the critic defined the now-ubiquitous term “abstract expressionism.”

RELATED: What Did Clement Greenberg Do? A Primer on the Powerful AbEx Theorist’s Key Ideas

In contrast to Rosenberg’s conception of painting as a performative act, Greenberg’s theory, influenced by Clive Bell and T. S. Eliot, was essentially a formal one—in fact, it eventually evolved into what would be called “formalism.” Greenberg argued that the evolution of painting was one of historical determinacy—that ever since the Renaissance, pictures moved toward flatness, and the painted line moved away from representation. Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were two of the landmarks of this view. Pollock, who exhibited his drip paintings in 1951, freeing the line from figuration, was for Greenberg the pinnacle of American Modernism, the most important artist since Picasso. (Pollock’s paintings exhibited in 1954, with which he returned to semi-representational form, were regarded by Greenberg as a regression. This lead him to adopt Barnett Newman as his new poster-boy, despite the artist’s possessing vastly different ideas on the nature of painting. For one, Greenberg mostly ignored the Biblical titles of Newman’s paintings.)

Greenberg’s formalist theories were immensely influential over the subsequent decades. Artforum in particular grew into a locus for formalist discourse, which had the early effect of providing an aesthetic toolkit divorced from politic. Certain curators of the Museum of Modern Art, particularly William Rubin, Kirk Varnedoe, and to an extent Alfred Barr are credited for steering the museum in an essentially formalist direction. Some painters, such as Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler, and Kenneth Noland, had even been accused of illustrating Greenberg’s theories (and those of Michael Fried, a prominent Greenbergian disciple) in attempt to embody the theory, which was restrictive in its failure to account for narrative content, figuration, identity, politics, and more. In addition, Greenberg’s theories proved well-suited for a burgeoning art market, which found connoisseurship an easy sell. (As the writer Mary McCarthy said, “You can’t hang an event on your wall.”) In fact, the dominance of the term “abstract expressionism” over “action painting,” which seemed more applicable to Pollock and Willem de Kooning than any other members of the New York School, is emblematic of the influence of formalist discourse.

 

Notable Quote

The justification for the term, “abstract expressionist,” lies in the fact that most of the painters covered by it took their lead from German, Russian, or Jewish expressionism in breaking away from late Cubist abstract art. But they all started from French painting, for their fundamental sense of style from it, and still maintain some sort of continuity with it. Not least of all, they got from it their most vivid notion of an ambitious, major art, and of the general direction in which it had to go in their time.

 

 

ABC Art

Barbara Rose 

 Donald Judd, Galvanized Iron 17 January, 1973

 

Like many critics in the 1950s and 60s, Barbara Rose had clearly staked her allegiance to one camp or the other. She was, firmly, a formalist, and along with Fried and Rosalind Krauss is largely credited with expanding the theory beyond abstract expressionist painting. By 1965, however, Rose recognized a limitation of the theory as outlined by Greenberg—that it was reductionist and only capable of account for a certain style of painting, and not much at all in other mediums.

RELATED: The Intellectual Origins Of Minimalism

In “ABC Art,” published in Art in America where Rose was a contributing editor, Rose opens up formalism to encompass sculpture, which Greenberg was largely unable to account for. The simple idea that art moves toward flatness and abstraction leads, for Rose, into Minimalism, and “ABC Art” is often considered the first landmark essay on Minimalist art. By linking the Minimalist sculptures of artists like Donald Judd to the Russian supremacist paintings of Kasimir Malevich and readymades of Duchamp, she extends the determinist history that formalism relies on into sculpture and movements beyond abstract expressionism.

 

Notable Quote

I do not agree with critic Michael Fried’s view that Duchamp, at any rate, was a failed Cubist. Rather, the inevitability of a logical evolution toward a reductive art was obvious to them already. For Malevich, the poetic Slav, this realization forced a turning inward toward an inspirational mysticism, whereas for Duchamp, the rational Frenchman, it meant a fatigue so enervating that finally the wish to paint at all was killed. Both the yearnings of Malevich’s Slavic soul and the deductions of Duchamp’s rationalist mind led both men ultimately to reject and exclude from their work many of the most cherished premises of Western art in favor of an art stripped to its bare, irreducible minimum.

 

 

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Philip Leider

 

Michael Heizer, Double Negative, 1969 

 

Despite the rhetorical tendency to suggest the social upheaval of the '60s ended with the actual decade, 1970 remained a year of unrest. And Artforum was still the locus of formalist criticism, which was proving increasingly unable to account for art that contributed to larger cultural movements, like Civil Rights, women’s liberation, anti-war protests, and more. (Tellingly, The Partisan Review, which birthed formalism, had by then distanced itself from its communist associations and, as an editorial body, was supportive of American Interventionism in Vietnam. Greenberg was a vocal hawk.) Subtitled “Art and Politics in Nevada, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Utah,” the editor’s note to the September 1970 issue of Artforum, written by Philip Leider, ostensibly recounts a road trip undertaken with Richard Serra and Abbie Hoffman to see Michael Heizer’s Double Negative in the Nevada desert.

RELATED: A City of Art in the Desert: Behind Michael Heizer’s Monumental Visions for Nevada

However, the essay is also an account of an onsetting disillusion with formalism, which Leider found left him woefully unequipped to process the protests that had erupted surrounding an exhibition of prints by Paul Wunderlich at the Phoenix Gallery in Berkeley. Wunderlich’s depictions of nude women were shown concurrently to an exhibition of drawings sold to raise money for Vietnamese orphans. The juxtaposition of a canonical, patriarchal form of representation and liberal posturing, to which the protestors objected, showcased the limitations of a methodology that placed the aesthetic elements of a picture plane far above the actual world in which it existed. Less than a year later, Leider stepped down as editor-in-chief and Artforum began to lose its emphasis on late Modernism.

 

Notable Quote

I thought the women were probably with me—if they were, I was with them. I thought the women were picketing the show because it was reactionary art. To the women, [Piet] Mondrian must be a great revolutionary artist. Abstract art broke all of those chains thirty years ago! What is a Movement gallery showing dumb stuff like this for? But if it were just a matter of reactionary art, why would the women picket it? Why not? Women care as much about art as men do—maybe more. The question is, why weren’t the men right there with them?

 

 

Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

Linda Nochlin

 Linda Nochlin teaches an art history class at Vassar in 1965

 

While Artforum, in its early history, had established a reputation as a generator for formalist theory, ARTnews had followed a decidedly more Rosenberg-ian course, emphasizing art as a practice for investigating the world. The January 1971 issue of the magazine was dedicated to “Women’s Liberation, Woman Artists, and Art History” and included an iconoclastic essay by Linda Nochlin titled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

RELATED: An Introduction to Feminist Art

Nochlin notes that it’s tempting to answer the question “why have there been no great women artists?” by listing examples of those overlooked by critical and institutional organizations (a labor that Nochlin admits has great merit). However, she notes, “by attempting to answer it, they tacitly reinforce its negative implications,” namely that women are intrinsically less capable of achieving artistic merit than men. Instead, Nochlin’s essay functions as a critique of art institutions, beginning with European salons, which were structured in such a way as to deter women from rising to the highest echelons. Nochlin’s essay is considered the beginning of modern feminist art history and a textbook example of institutional critique.

 

Notable Quote

There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol, any more than there are black American equivalents for the same. If there actually were large numbers of “hidden” great women artists, or if there really should be different standards for women’s art as opposed to men’s—and one can’t have it both ways—then what are feminists fighting for? If women have in fact achieved the same status as men in the arts, then the status quo is fine as it is.
But in actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.

 

 

Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief

Thomas McEvilley

 Exhibition view of “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern

 

One of the many extrapolations of Nochlin’s essay is that contemporary museum institutions continue to reflect the gendered and racist biases of preceding centuries by reinforcing the supremacy of specific master artists. In a 1984 Artforum review, Thomas McEvilley, a classicist new to the world of contemporary art, made the case that the Museum of Modern Art in New York served as an exclusionary temple to certain high-minded Modernists—namely, Picasso, Matisse, and Pollock—who, in fact, took many of their innovations from native cultures.

RELATED: MoMA Curator Laura Hoptman on How to Tell a Good Painting From a “Bogus” Painting

In 1984, MoMA organized a blockbuster exhibition. Curated by William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe, both of whom were avowed formalists, “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” collected works by European painters like Paul Gaugin and Picasso with cultural artifacts from Zaire, arctic communities, and elsewhere. McEvilley takes aim at the “the absolutist view of formalist Modernism” in which MoMA is rooted. He argues that the removal tribal artifacts from their contexts (for example, many were ritual items intended for ceremonies, not display) and placement of them, unattributed, near works by European artists, censors the cultural contributions of non-Western civilizations in deference to an idealized European genius.

 

Notable Quote

The fact that the primitive “looks like” the Modern is interpreted as validating the Modern by showing that its values are universal, while at the same time projecting it—and with it MoMA—into the future as a permanent canon. A counter view is possible: that primitivism on the contrary invalidates Modernism by showing it to be derivative and subject to external causation. At one level this show undertakes precisely to coopt that question by answering it before it has really been asked, and by burying it under a mass of information.

 

 

Please Wait By the Coatroom

John Yau

 Wifredo Lam, The Jungle, 1943

 

Not content to let MoMA and the last vestiges of formalism off the hook yet, John Yau wrote in 1988 an essay on Wifredo Lam, a Cuban painter who lived and worked in Paris among Picasso, Matisse, Georges Braque, and others. Noting Lam’s many influences—his Afro-Cuban mother, Chinese father, and Yoruba godmother—Yau laments the placement of Lam’s The Jungle near the coatroom in the Museum of Modern Art, as opposed to within the Modernist galleries several floors above. The painting was accompanied by a brief entry written by former curator William Rubin, who, Yau argues, adopted Greenberg’s theories because they endowed him with “a connoisseur’s lens with which one can scan all art.”

RELATED: From Cuba With Love: Artist Bill Claps on the Island’s DIY Art Scene

Here, as with with McEvilley’s essay, Yau illustrates how formalism, as adapted by museum institutions, became a (perhaps unintentional) method for reinforcing the exclusionary framework that Nochlin argued excluded women and black artists for centuries.

 

Notable Quote

Rubin sees in Lam only what is in his own eyes: colorless or white artists. For Lam to have achieved the status of unique individual, he would have had to successfully adapt to the conditions of imprisonment (the aesthetic standards of a fixed tradition) Rubin and others both construct and watch over. To enter this prison, which takes the alluring form of museums, art history textbooks, galleries, and magazines, an individual must suppress his cultural differences and become a colorless ghost. The bind every hybrid American artist finds themselves in is this: should they try and deal with the constantly changing polymorphous conditions effecting identity, tradition, and reality? Or should they assimilate into the mainstream art world by focusing on approved-of aesthetic issues? Lam’s response to this bind sets an important precedent. Instead of assimilating, Lam infiltrates the syntactical rules of “the exploiters” with his own specific language. He becomes, as he says, “a Trojan horse.”

 

 

Black Culture and Postmodernism

Cornel West

 

Cornel West

 

The opening up of cultural discourse did not mean that it immediately made room for voices of all dimensions. Cornel West notes as much in his 1989 essay “Black Culture and Postmodernism,” in which he argues that postmodernism, much like Modernism before it, remains primarily ahistorical, which makes it difficult for “oppressed peoples to exercise their opposition to hierarchies of power.” West’s position is that the proliferation of theory and criticism that accompanied the rise of postmodernism provided mechanisms by which black culture could “be conversant with and, to a degree, participants in the debate.” Without their voices, postmodernism would remain yet another exclusionary movements.

RELATED: Kerry James Marshall on Painting Blackness as a Noun Vs. Verb

 

Notable Quote

As the consumption cycle of advanced multinational corporate capitalism was sped up in order to sustain the production of luxury goods, cultural production became more and more mass-commodity production. The stress here is not simply on the new and fashionable but also on the exotic and primitive. Black cultural products have historically served as a major source for European and Euro-American exotic interests—interests that issue from a healthy critique of the mechanistic, puritanical, utilitarian, and productivity aspects of modern life.

 

 

Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power

Anna C. Chave

 Richard Serra, Tilted Arc, 1981

 

In recent years, formalist analysis has been deployed as a single tool within a more varied approach to art. Its methodology—that of analyzing a picture as an isolated phenomena—remains prevalent, and has its uses. Yet, many of the works and movements that rose to prominence under formalist critics and curators, in no small part because of their institutional acceptance, have since become part of the rearguard rather than the vanguard.

In a 1990 essay for Arts Magazine, Anna Chave analyzes how Minimalist sculpture possesses a “domineering, sometimes brutal rhetoric” that was aligned with “both the American military in Vietnam, and the police at home in the streets and on university campuses across the country.” In particular, Chave is concerned with the way Minimalist sculptures define themselves through a process of negation. Of particular relevance to Chave’s argument are the massive steel sculptures by Minimalist artist Richard Serra. 

Tilted Arc was installed in Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan in 1981. Chave describes the work as a “mammoth, perilously tilted steel arc [that] formed a divisive barrier too tall to see over, and a protracted trip to walk around.” She writes, “it is more often the case with Serra that his work doesn’t simply exemplify aggression or domination, but acts it out.” Tilted Arc was so controversial upon its erecting that the General Services Administration, which commissioned the work, held hearings in response to petitions demanding the work be removed. Worth quoting at length, Chave writes:

A predictable defense of Serra’s work was mounted by critics, curators, dealers, collectors, and some fellow artists…. The principle arguments mustered on Serra’s behalf were old ones concerning the nature and function of the avant-garde…. What Rubin and Serra’s other supporters declined to ask is whether the sculptor really is, in the most meaningful sense of the term, an avant-garde artist. Being avant-garde implies being ahead of, outside, or against the dominant culture; proffering a vision that implicitly stands (at least when it is conceived) as a critique of entrenched forms and structures…. But Serra’s work is securely embedded within the system: when the brouhaha over Arc was at its height, he was enjoying a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art…. [The defense’s] arguments locate Serra not with the vanguard but with the standing army or “status quo.” … More thoughtful, sensible, and eloquent testimony at the hearing came instead from some of the uncouth:

My name is Danny Katz and I work in this building as a clerk. My friend Vito told me this morning that I am a philistine. Despite that I am getting up to speak…. I don’t think this issue should be elevated into a dispute between the forces of ignorance and art, or art versus government. I really blame government less because it has long ago outgrown its human dimension. But from the artists I expected a lot more. I didn’t expect to hear them rely on the tired and dangerous reasoning that the government has made a deal, so let the rabble live with the steel because it’s a deal. That kind of mentality leads to wars. We had a deal with Vietnam. I didn’t expect to hear the arrogant position that art justifies interference with the simple joys of human activity in a plaza. It’s not a great plaza by international standards, but it is a small refuge and place of revival for people who ride to work in steel containers, work in sealed rooms, and breathe recirculated air all day. Is the purpose of art in public places to seal off a route of escape, to stress the absence of joy and hope? I can’t believe this was the artistic intention, yet to my sadness this for me has become the dominant effect of the work, and it’s all the fault of its position and location. I can accept anything in art, but I can’t accept physical assault and complete destruction of pathetic human activity. No work of art created with a contempt for ordinary humanity and without respect for the common element of human experience can be great. It will always lack dimension.

The terms Katz associated with Serra’s project include arrogance and contempt, assault, and destruction; he saw the Minimalist idiom, in other words, as continuous with the master discourse of our imperious and violent technocracy.

 

 

The End of Art

Arthur Danto

 

Andy Warhol carries a Brillo box in his Factory

 

Like Greenberg, Arthur Danto was an art critic for The Nation. However, Danto was overtly critical of Greenberg’s ideology and the influence he wielded over Modern and contemporary art. Nor was he a follower of Harold Rosenberg, though they shared influences, among them the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Danto’s chief contribution to contemporary art was his advancing of Pop Artists, particularly Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

In “The End of Art” Danto argues that society at large determines and accepts art, which no longer progresses linearly, categorized by movements. Instead, viewers each possess a theory or two, which they use to interpret works, and art institutions are largely tasked with developing, testing, and modifying various interpretive methods. In this way, art differs little from philosophy. After decades of infighting regarding the proper way to interpret works of art, Danto essentially sanctioned each approach and the institutions that gave rise to them. He came to call this “pluralism.”

RELATED: What Was the Pictures Generation?

Similarly, in “Painting, Politics, and Post-Historical Art,” Danto makes the case for an armistice between formalism and the various theories that arose in opposition, noting that postmodern critics like Douglas Crimp in the 1980s, who positioned themselves against formalism, nonetheless adopted the same constrictive air, minus the revolutionary beginnings.

 

Notable Quote

Modernist critical practice was out of phase with what was happening in the art world itself in the late 60s and through the 1970s. It remained the basis for most critical practice, especially on the part of the curatoriat, and the art-history professoriat as well, to the degree that it descended to criticism. It became the language of the museum panel, the catalog essay, the article in the art periodical. It was a daunting paradigm, and it was the counterpart in discourse to the “broadening of taste” which reduced art of all cultures and times to its formalist skeleton, and thus, as I phrased it, transformed every museum into a Museum of Modern Art, whatever that museum’s contents. It was the stable of the docent’s gallery talk and the art appreciation course—and it was replaced, not totally but massively, by the postmodernist discourse that was imported from Paris in the late 70s, in the texts of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jacques Lacan, and of the French feminists Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. That is the discourse [Douglas] Crimp internalizes, and it came to be lingua artspeak everywhere. Like modernist discourse, it applied to everything, so that there was room for deconstructive and “archeological” discussion of art of every period.

 

 

Editor’s Note: This list was drawn in part from a 2014 seminar taught by Debra Bricker Balken in the MFA program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts titled Critical Strategies: Late Modernism/Postmodernism. Additional sources can be found here, here, here (paywall), and here. Also relevant are reviews of the 2008 exhibition at the Jewish Museum, “Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976,” notably those by Roberta Smith, Peter Schjeldahl, and Martha Schwendener.

 

0 Thoughts to “Define Clement Greenberg Essays

Leave a comment

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *