What's best remembered about Greenberg's years as art critic for The Nation is his campaign on behalf of Pollock, who by then had married the critic's old friend Lee Krasner. It's one of those rare instances of a critic staking a daringly long position on a contemporary and turning out spectacularly right. Greenberg's quondam girlfriend, Jean Connolly, had already picked Pollock out of a group show as one to watch in a review she had published, but only Greenberg was ready to pronounce the work in Pollock's first solo exhibition as "among the strongest abstract paintings I have yet seen by an American." The inner workings of Greenberg's response to Pollock are sifted in great detail and with some surprising results in Eyesight Alone, a massive new study by Caroline Jones, an art historian at MIT who has already made a considerable impression in the field with her first major (and equally unwieldy) book, Machine in the Studio, an examination of the changing sense of what artistic work might be in the American art of the '60s. But what's probably most important is how, in hailing Pollock's work, Greenberg struggled to reconcile the antithetical tenets of his criticism: on the one hand, the need to experience the artwork as a self-contained aesthetic fact; on the other, the question of whether the work is historically progressive, i.e., the extent to which it shows awareness of "the direction in which the pictorial art of our times must go in order to be great." For Greenberg that direction ran toward purity of medium and elimination of subject matter; in painting this meant the dismantling of pictorial space. He came to depend greatly on the distinction between "major" and "minor" art as a way of finessing the tension between autonomy and history. A formidably agile rhetorician, he turned his contradictions to advantage. As critic Hal Foster once put it, "When Greenberg was challenged on matters of history he would defend his judgement as a matter of taste, and when contested on taste he would appeal to history."
By 1949, though, with "a bellyfull of reviewing in general," Greenberg gave up his beat. In the '50s this led to a series of important essays on individual Modernists from Cézanne through Soutine and Léger to Pollock and David Smith. Beginning with "'American-Type' Painting" in 1955, and continuing with "Modernist Painting" (1960), "After Abstract Expressionism" (1962) and others, he also began to rethink "the direction in which the pictorial art of our times must go in order to be great." These efforts became all the more concerted as it became clearer that the direction taken by much of the most notable art from the late '50s onward--the "Neo-Dada" of Johns and Rauschenberg followed by Pop, Minimalism, Conceptual Art and so on--could never lead, in Greenberg's eyes, to greatness. These artists had learned from Modernism to seek the borderline between art and non-art but did so not by rigorously purifying a medium but by arbitrarily mixing media in search of "the merely odd, the incongruous, and the socially shocking." Greenberg's preferred tendency--the "color field" painting of Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland and the welded steel sculpture of Anthony Caro--seemed secondary at best to the art world at large; to some, they were not avant-garde but kitsch. And yet despite his aversion to much of the new art of the time, the publication in 1961 of Art and Culture, a selection of his essays, gave Greenberg new authority in the eyes of an emerging generation of critics like Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss. This is the Greenberg who fascinates many art historians today--the one who engaged in ideological battle with the suddenly emergent Duchampian tradition and struggled to theorize an art he could not abide. By the end of the '80s, Greenberg declared that taste had not so much declined as "just gone away." No wonder that after the 1967 piece with the self-explanatory title "Complaints of an Art Critic," Greenberg's written work thins out drastically. From then until his death in 1994, his criticism consisted mainly of lectures delivered at museums and universities around the world (he was now freelancing for the State Department, having defected to conservatism like many ex-Trotskyists) and conversation in the studios of a chosen band of sympathetic artists. It's a particular loss that Alice Goldfarb Marquis, Greenberg's latest biographer, has little to say about Greenberg as a studio visitor. Apparently she did not interview Olitski, Noland, Caro or any of the other artists who were close to him from the late '50s on. There will never be a definitive biography of the critic without some account of what transpired in their studios.
This is not to say that Marquis (the author of biographies of Alfred Barr Jr. and Marcel Duchamp) adds much to our knowledge of Greenberg in any other way. She's hardly done more than repeat a story already told in the 1997 biography by Florence Rubenfeld, while embroidering it with material from Greenberg's correspondence between 1928 and 1943 with a college buddy, Harold Lazarus, published in 2000 as The Harold Letters. Rubenfeld's biography was not without problems of its own, but at least she'd had the benefit of lengthy interviews with her subject. Whenever Marquis uses a phrase like "he told an interviewer," a glance at the back matter will confirm that the "interviewer" was the biographer who got there first. Marquis may have lowered Rubenfeld's sensational tone down a notch or two, but that's not necessarily a virtue when contending with a figure whose private life was as messy--some would say vile--as Greenberg's.
Readers who want a better understanding of what Greenberg wrote and why, and above all of why what he wrote was so significant, would in any case be better off if they ignored both biographies and did the harder but more rewarding work of reading Jones's dense, indeed sometimes maddeningly verbose, "critical history." Like Marquis, Jones leans on biographical material culled from Rubenfeld and The Harold Letters along with Greenberg's own writings as well as the reactions to (and against) Greenberg by the art critics and historians who followed in his footsteps; but she brings to all this an analytical intensity, an almost ferocious determination to dig into the text, that makes the biographers' declarative flatness seem dull by comparison. The hundred pages she spends analyzing Greenberg's writings on Pollock--minutely sifting the critic's words through her own searching re-examination of the paintings he had in view--are alone worth the price of the ticket. As Jones's title suggests, her subject comes from the attachment to medium that Hofmann had revealed to Greenberg back in 1938 and that had been a constant of the critic's thought from "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" to the end of his life--the notion that painting could be a purely "optical" art. For Jones, his articulation of this idea was central to Greenberg's influence because it fed into and accelerated a larger historical process that she calls "the bureaucratization of the senses." It's a suggestive point, yet it remains strikingly undeveloped, particularly for a writer as attentive to detail as Jones. (She's the sort of writer who finds it necessary to gloss Greenberg's jibe at Alfred Stieglitz's circle of artists--"Too many of the swans in his park are only geese"--with a paragraph outlining the significance of the swan as a symbol in Western culture.) She never properly defines bureaucratization, nor does she engage with the large sociological literature, from Max Weber onward, that deals with the development of bureaucracy as an aspect of modernization. More oddly, given Greenberg's immersion in Trotskyist thought in the late 1930s and early '40s, she never discusses Trotsky's critiques of the Soviet Union as a degenerate bureaucracy. Even allowing Jones's point that "art forms were positioned as elements of a system whose function was to regulate feeling (rather than merely 'show' it)," there should be some explanation of why bureaucratization in particular should have been the great social force at work in this system, especially when artists themselves were unlikely to have much firsthand experience of it--unlike more traditional themes of the social history of art, such as class. Still, the strength of Jones's book is the sense of how complicated a thing it was for Greenberg to become Greenberg. While the kind of art viewer Greenberg seemed to be calling for was not, as Jones says, "a dallying subject, a daydreaming subject, a narrativizing subject, a distractedly scanning subject," a bureaucratized viewer would have been nothing like the ne'er-do-well who wrote "Avant-Garde and Kitsch."