What Clement Greenberg Knew
Among his various distinctions, Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) is one of the few art critics to have been portrayed in a movie. He figures prominently in Pollock, Ed Harris’s 2000 biopic about the life of the painter Jackson Pollock. Indeed, there would have been no way to tell Pollock’s story without at least some mention of Greenberg, whose reviews in Partisan Review and the Nation in the 1940’s and 50’s had been substantially responsible for making Pollock the first Abstract Expressionist artist to become known to the public at large.
Unfortunately—and ironically—Harris chose to have the part of “Clem Greenberg” played by Jeffrey Tambor, a comic actor who specializes in cringingly obsequious characters. It would have been hard to contrive a less apt characterization. In real life Greenberg was quarrelsome, bullying, and cocksure to a fault. His arrogance made him both a powerful critic and a formidable adversary, but it also earned him enemies by the score, and he lived to see them win out over him and to become ascendant in the world of postmodern art.
About the Author
Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.