Commentary Magazine

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.

In falling from grace, Greenberg fell from a great height. He had been the first person to write both favorably and frequently about Pollock and the other painters now collectively known as the “New York School.” Thanks to his prescient advocacy, he was for a time America's most powerful art critic. When he later wrote with similar enthusiasm about “color-field” abstractionists like Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski, museum curators and collectors responded to his cue, and those painters, like the New York School before them, moved into the spotlight of renown.

But no critic of integrity can remain in the vanguard of fashion forever, and Greenberg's refusal to embrace the postmodern Pop Art of the 1960's cost him dear, not least because, in rejecting it, he also rejected the aesthetic relativism that was central to the postmodern project. “The practiced eye,” he wrote in 1961, “tends always toward the definitely and positively good in art, knows it is there, and will remain dissatisfied with anything else.” This position made him anathema to a new generation of academically trained art critics, many of whom had once been his disciples but who now were denying the existence of any such thing as “the definitely and positively good in art,” not to mention the possibility that a mere journalist might be capable of discerning it.

By then, Greenberg had ceased to publish other than sporadically (though he continued to lecture into the 80's). Not until 1986, when the University of Chicago Press started to bring out a four-volume Collected Essays and Criticism, did commentators begin to reconsider his groundbreaking contribution to the reception of modern art in America. To this day, however, he is reviled by younger critics who find abhorrent his commitment to “quality” as the essential criterion for the evaluation of art.


It stands to reason that a figure like Greenberg should have attracted the attention of biographers, and Alice Goldfarb Marquis's newly published Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg is in fact the second full-length treatment.
1 It was preceded eight years ago by Florence Rubenfeld's Clement Greenberg: A Life. Billed as a “social” rather than an intellectual biography, and written with Greenberg's cooperation, it proved to be both error-ridden and full of gossip (some of which, reportedly under threat of litigation, was trimmed from the text after bound galleys had already been sent out to reviewers).

Art Czar is a different proposition altogether. To begin with, though Marquis is rightly unsparing in cataloguing Greenberg's personal failings, I detect no malice in her portrait of a man who by most accounts was all too easy to dislike. More important, she is generally sympathetic to her subject's critical positions. Having been granted full access to Greenberg's private papers, and having interviewed many of his surviving friends, colleagues, and family members, she has used the resulting information wisely and well.

Unlike most biographies, this one is too short rather than too long. Many aspects of Greenberg's life and work thus go unexplored, some of them important (nothing is said, for example, about his fascinatingly contrasting views on Matisse and Picasso), others less so (Art Czar offers the reader no insight into what so many women found so attractive about so seemingly disagreeable a man).

In addition, Marquis, a scholar and journalist best known for her 2002 biography of Marcel Duchamp, apparently knows little of prewar American modernism or postwar American representational painting. This leads her, in common with most other critics, to undervalue Greenberg's catholicity of taste. It says much about her own point of view that she makes no mention of Milton Avery and almost none of John Marin, two important American modernists about whom Greenberg wrote extensively and acutely. She does no better by Fairfield Porter, whom Greenberg engaged in brief but violent battle in the pages of Partisan Review in 1955 and whom Marquis calls a “respected but more traditional artist”—a uselessly vague description that fails to note that Porter was himself a critic, and as fine a one as Greenberg.

On the other hand, Marquis has made a serious and mostly successful effort to explain Greenberg's place in the wider circle of the New York-based intellectuals among whom he lived and contended. This may well be the most daunting task facing any present-day writer seeking to come to grips with Greenberg's critical legacy. Just as few students of the New York intellectual scene know much about modern art, few art historians know much about magazines like Partisan Review, the Nation, or COMMENTARY (where Greenberg served as an associate editor from 1945 to 1957). Yet without this knowledge there is no making sense of Greenberg, whose career cannot be fully understood outside the tangled history of these publications and the world that spawned them.

Complicating matters still further is the fact that Greenberg became, in his own phrase, “an ex- or disabused Marxist”—one who rejected Soviet Communism (and, later, socialism) without ever freeing himself from the Marxist belief in historical inevitability that shaped his idiosyncratic view of modern art. To have been an anti-Stalinist, and to have broken with Marxism, continue to be viewed as unforgivable sins in many art-historical circles, and much of what has been written about Greenberg in recent years reflects that unfortunate reality.

To her credit, Marquis is unshocked by Greenberg's heterodoxy, though she is rather too inclined to accept the now-prevalent notion that the postwar popularity of Abstract Expressionism, a quintessentially “American” art, was directly related to the simultaneous emergence of cold-war anti-Communism. Even here, though, she presents Greenberg's own views clearly, acknowledging that he was above all an aesthete who never permitted his belief that “there are more important things than art” to color his visceral responses to the paintings about which he wrote so passionately.


Greenberg's passions were many. One of them, as we learn from this book, was his loathing for the bourgeois culture into which he was born in 1909. His parents were Lithuanian Jews, and Yiddish was his first language. In America, Joseph Greenberg became a successful businessman who understood the customs and manners of the bourgeois world for which his eldest son would develop only contempt. Indeed, the son's surviving letters are full of laments over the philistinism of his father, who sent him to Syracuse University but expected him to enter the family business: “O papa, if you could only read poetry.” They are also full of shockingly crass anti-Semitic epithets. Though Greenberg would later admit that “a quality of Jewishness is present in every word I write,” it is clear that he never came to terms with his own Jewish heritage.

After graduating from college, Greenberg, unwilling to embrace the middle-class existence of his parents but unable to earn his own keep, continued to live at home, working by turns for his father and at a string of miscellaneous jobs that led nowhere. He walked out of a brief, ill-advised marriage to a Gentile divorcée with whom he had little in common beyond sexual attraction (to which he would always be susceptible), leaving behind a schizophrenic son whose existence he resented and, in the end, ignored.

Not until 1938 did Greenberg move into a Greenwich Village apartment of his own, a development that coincided with his entry into the circle of Trotskyite intellectuals clustered around Partisan Review. William Phillips and Philip Rahv, the magazine's editors, had by then broken with the Communist party and were seeking a radical “third way” in politics that, however uncomfortably, could somehow be made to coexist with their belief in the modernist movement in the arts. Those were the days of the Popular Front, and of the line, dictated by Moscow, that art should place itself at the service of the struggle against capitalism—a view no less philistine in its implications than was the aesthetic indifference of Greenberg's father. It is thus hardly surprising that Greenberg should have been drawn to Partisan Review, so much so that he would later speak with something like nostalgia of “how ‘anti-Stalinism,’ which started out more or less as ‘Trotskyism,’ turned into art for art's sake, and thereby cleared the way, heroically, for what was to come.”

Around the same time, Greenberg attended a series of lectures on abstract art by Hans Hofmann, an émigré painter from Germany who was soon to emerge as the most influential art teacher of his day. Abstraction was then little known and less appreciated in the United States. Electrified by Hofmann's aesthetic radicalism, Greenberg began to immerse himself in visual art, making his first trip to Europe in the spring of 1939 and declaring himself soon thereafter to have become “extraordinarily sensitive to painting” by “simply thinking about it.”


Later that same year, Greenberg began to publish in Partisan Review. In his second essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” he declared that the aesthetic methods of such disparate modernists as T.S. Eliot in poetry and Pablo Picasso in painting were “necessary” to the serious artist—indeed, that “by no other means is it possible today to create art and literature of a high order.” For, in opposition to high art and high culture, there stood always the lethally seductive forces of commercialized popular culture, which Greenberg disdainfully summarized in the German word “kitsch” but whose power to subvert high art he feared and respected:

Kitsch's enormous profits are a source of temptation to the avant-garde itself, and its members have not always resisted this temptation. Ambitious writers and artists will modify their work under the pressure of kitsch, if they do not succumb to it entirely.

“Avant-Garde and Kitsch” put Greenberg on the left-wing intellectual map, but it remained to be seen where he would go from there. For all the aggressive certitude of his literary style, he was not a truly systematic thinker. Nor was he at ease with the cut and thrust of the face-to-face debate favored by the New York intellectuals into whose ranks he had propelled himself. (He later admitted that “they could outtalk me, and how.”) But his growing interest in the visual arts offered an alternative route to distinction, and he opted to turn himself into an art critic by sheer force of will. Despite the yawning gaps in his own knowledge, he began to write about art for Partisan Review and, later, the Nation with a deceptive self-confidence that in retrospect would seem almost laughable were it not for the high quality of the reviews that soon began to pour out of him.

Unsure of his authority when it came to the art of the past, Greenberg specialized in modernism. He was, as Marquis says, an amateur, but one with an astonishingly good eye, as well as a “homemade aesthetic” (in his own later phrase) that he had cobbled together out of historical determinism and Hans Hofmann's belief in the expressive power of abstract form. For Greenberg, the flattened-out cubism of Picasso and Georges Braque, and the abstraction that arose from it, was indeed the only way for artists to create what he would always refer to as “major” art. The impersonal forces of history, he believed, had brought the world of modern art to this point as surely as they were bringing about the collapse of capitalism and the emergence of a new socialist order.


In part because of the high-handed tone in which he wrote about art (and everything else), Greenberg's theory of modernism has been widely misunderstood. “I said that abstract art was inevitable given the conditions of history,” he later explained. “I should have said that abstract art as a major way of painting was inevitable, but that this didn't exclude the representational.”

This was not mere self-justification after the fact. Greenberg would always believe in the sole validity of the immediate experience of art:

To hold that one kind of art must invariably be superior or inferior to another kind means to judge before experiencing; and the whole history of art is there to demonstrate the futility of rules of preference laid down beforehand: the impossibility, that is, of anticipating the outcome of aesthetic experience.

It was his commitment to experience—to the fruits of looking—that made Greenberg a great working critic. Though he would never modify his theories, he was (at first) capable of recognizing and acknowledging the quality of art that failed to accord with them. Writing weekly in the Nation, to which he began contributing regular reviews in 1943, he showed himself to be receptive not merely to abstraction but to many other styles: the witty, Matisse-influenced representation of Milton Avery, the hauntingly laconic urban realism of Edward Hopper, even the New Yorker cartoons of James Thurber.

Still, he did undeniably continue to believe that “the very best painting, the major painting, of our age is almost exclusively abstract.” He was thus prepared for the arrival of a group of American artists who understood its “necessity,” and when they came along he embraced them at once. Time and again he looked at their paintings and explained what he saw in them so lucidly that it was impossible not to respond to his controlled fervor. Here, for instance, is what he wrote in 1949 about Jackson Pollock's Number One:

I do not know of any other painting by an American that I could safely put next to this huge baroque scrawl in aluminum, black, white, madder, and blue. Beneath the apparent monotony of its surface composition it reveals a sumptuous variety of design and incident, and as a whole it is as well contained in its canvas as anything by a Quattrocento master.

Greenberg had begun writing about Pollock in 1943, and two years later had called him “the strongest painter of his generation and perhaps the greatest one to appear since Miró,” adding that “he is not afraid to look ugly—all profoundly original art looks ugly at first.” He was no less receptive to Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, and the other painters of the New York School, claiming in a 1947 survey of American art published in the English magazine Horizon that “the fate of American art is being decided . . . by young people, few of them over forty, who live in cold-water flats and exist from hand to mouth.”

The utter certainty with which Greenberg praised the Abstract Expressionists (as Robert Coates, the New Yorker's art critic, had dubbed them in 1946) resonated far beyond the modest readership of Horizon and the Nation. In 1948 Greenberg took part in a roundtable discussion about modern art that was published in Life, then the most popular magazine in America and a voice of the “middlebrow” culture against which he had set his cap in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” Praising Pollock and de Kooning in the strongest possible terms, he described the former's Cathedral as “one of the best paintings recently produced in this country.”

A year later, Life published a feature story, “Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the U.S.?” The anonymous author called Pollock “the shining new phenomenon of American art,” mentioning that “a formidably high-brow New York critic” had cited him as “a fine candidate to become the greatest American painter of the 20th century.” Though Greenberg was not named, everyone in the art world knew whom Life was talking about, and from that moment on he would be acknowledged as a significant force in American art.


For all his admiration of the Abstract Expressionists, Greenberg did not think them the last word in modernism—at least, not for long. He found their work uneven in the extreme, believing that de Kooning had ceased to be “major” by the end of the 40's and going so far as to attack Pollock's later work, curtly dismissing it as “forced, pumped, dressed up.”

His growing dissatisfaction with Abstract Expressionism was rooted in distaste for what he came to regard as its unbridled emotionalism. “The art of no country,” he wrote in 1947, “can live and perpetuate itself exclusively on spasmodic feeling, high spirits, and the infinite subdivision of sensibility.” Instead, he longed to be consoled for the “dull horror” of life under capitalism by what he envisioned as

a bland, large, balanced, Apollonian art in which passion does not fill in the gaps left by the faulty or omitted application of theory but takes off from where the most advanced theory stops, and in which an intense detachment informs all.

A decade after writing these words, Greenberg took up the cause of a group of younger artists whom he dubbed “post-painterly abstractionists.” (Most of them are now known as “color-field” painters.) Their style, he explained, was distinguished by an “optical clarity” and “physical openness of design” that contrasted with the congested canvases of the Abstract Expressionists. They were also strongly color-oriented, somewhat in the manner of such older New York School painters as Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. In the work of Helen Frankenthaler (with whom he was for a time involved romantically), Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski, Greenberg had found his new Apollonianism, and for the rest of his life he would praise it as the highest and most advanced form of modern art.

By 1960, when Greenberg first began to write about these artists, his stature as a critic was sufficient in itself to assure them a hearing, and others quickly took them up as well. Yet his own critical output had already started to diminish. He had abandoned regular reviewing in 1949, preferring to express himself in longer essays that largely dispensed with the discussion of specific works of art in order to engage with larger aesthetic questions. This did not play to Greenberg's strengths as a critic—he was always at his most doctrinaire when spinning theories—and though he remained influential for a few more years to come, the perception that he had lost touch with the contemporary scene became increasingly widespread.

That perception would be fed by Greenberg's bluntly expressed dislike of the postmodernists of the early 60's. If he rejected their work, however, it was not out of mere ignorance but as a result of his conviction that artists like Robert Rauschenberg and (later) Andy Warhol were playing it safe. Although he admitted to finding “the clear and straightforward academic handling of their pictures refreshing after the turgidities of Abstract Expressionism,” he pronounced the effect “only momentary, since novelty, as distinct from originality, has no staying power.”

In this case Greenberg was right: the playful nihilism of postmodern artists inspired by the anti-art of Marcel Duchamp did prove in time to have been an aesthetic dead end. But his disengagement from the day-to-day duties of a working critic served him less well when it came to those American painters of the 50's and 60's who, while influenced by Abstract Expressionism, broke with it to adopt a looser style of representation that also drew on the post-Impressionism of such French artists as Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. Though Greenberg recognized the quality of Richard Diebenkorn, among the most gifted of these painters, his belief that abstraction was the only possible route to the creation of major art led him to ignore similarly talented representational artists like Nell Blaine, Jane Freilicher, Alex Katz, Albert Kresch, and (above all) Fairfield Porter.

In any case, Greenberg was now devoting more and more of his energies to behind-the-scenes “practical” criticism. Not only did he visit the studios of the artists he liked and offer them advice, but he began to curate gallery shows and museum exhibitions; from 1958 to 1960, he also worked as a consultant to French & Co., a New York gallery that during his tenure showed the color-field artists. He also accumulated a large collection of paintings and works on paper, all of them gifts from the artists about whom he wrote.

From time to time, Greenberg would sell individual pieces from his collection in order to augment his earnings as a writer and lecturer. This practice, like his association with French & Co., would be branded as unethical by his enemies, though there is no evidence that his work as a critic was influenced in any way by his involvement in the art market.


Between 1969, when the last piece in his Collected Essays and Criticism was originally published, and the time of his death in 1994, Greenberg's influence diminished to the point of invisibility. He was attacked both from the Left (which dismissed him as an elitist and a political apostate) and from the Right (especially by Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word, a 1975 polemic about modern art and its critics).

Yet Greenberg continues to be read, and there are even signs of a revival of interest in his work. Now that modernism is no longer an ongoing movement but a long-concluded chapter in art history, it has become easier to overlook the defects of his writings and focus on their virtues, especially by comparison with the work of the critics who came after him. In Marquis's words:

Possibly a few more observers of the contemporary art scene had been repelled by the sea of kitsch threatening to overrun any aesthetic standard. Others may have been put off by the incomprehensible hash of deconstructionist cant masquerading, in many cases, as art writing. To many, it was probably a relief to delve into texts that offered a judgment, no matter how bold or misguided, after the lukewarm bath of influence and history that had become the art-critical norm.

Greenberg himself came to think that many of those who detested his writing had been influenced as much by the harshness of his rhetoric, which “provoked a lot of needless anger,” as by the substance of his opinions. Indeed, he went so far as to acknowledge that his heavy-handedness “covered up a lot of insecurities.” Yet he never altered his critical credo: “Art is a matter strictly of experience, not of principles, and what counts first and last is quality; all other things are secondary.” Those who disagree with this—who deny, implicitly or explicitly, the existence of greatness itself—will never be able to accept Greenberg as anything other than a reactionary whose lifelong insistence that some works of art are better than others was at best perverse, at worst evil.

Greenberg's own view of his work was as forthright as the work itself. Asked to define “the function of the art critic in the art world,” he responded: “He points, O.K.? He points.” As he himself was well aware, readers do not always consent to look where the critic points. Nor is any critic, be he right or wrong, omnipotent.
3 Although Greenberg himself played a central part in winning recognition for the Abstract Expressionists, it was the quality of their art that ensured they would become known sooner or later. What he did was to speed up the process by pointing to them—and, more important, by articulating their merits in a permanently memorable manner.

That is why Clement Greenberg is now as much a part of the history of the art of our time as are the artists about whom he wrote. When he died, the headline atop the New York Times obituary summed him up in four words: “Art Critic Championed Pollock.” In the long run, though, he will be remembered not merely for having been right about Jackson Pollock, or anyone else, but for having shed more light on modern art than any other American critic of his time.



1 MFA Publications, 336 pp., $35.00.

2 Seven years after Greenberg's death, his second wife Janice sold the residue of his collection to the Portland (Oregon) Museum of Art, which reportedly paid $2,000,000 for it.

3 Marquis cites the case of Arnold Friedman, an extraordinarily talented American modernist who died in 1946, and whom Greenberg championed ardently. Yet his enthusiasm had no effect on the art market, and Arnold Friedman: The Language of Paint, a superb retrospective at New York's Hollis Taggart Galleries this past spring, was the first large-scale show of Friedman's work since the Jewish Museum's memorial exhibition of 1950.


About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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