Modern Love

Modern Love

Two new biographies of Clement Greenberg take the measure of an ambitious art critic who had a knack for predicting success.


Everything Clement Greenberg wrote as an art critic was exactly what Baudelaire said criticism should be: partial, passionate, political–embodying “an exclusive point of view, provided always the one adopted opens up the widest horizons.” It couldn’t have been fun for artists to find themselves athwart Greenberg’s exclusivity, though not many had to face judgments he’d been storing up for years, as Georgia O’Keeffe did when he reviewed her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946: “The lapidarian patience she has expended in trimming, breathing upon, and polishing these bits of opaque cellophane betrays a concern that has less to do with art than with private worship and the embellishment of private fetishes with secret and arbitrary meanings.” And that was one of his more sympathetic comments on O’Keeffe. She sounds like Laura Wingfield polishing her glass menagerie. How things have changed in sixty years: The very qualities Greenberg invoked to bury O’Keeffe would now more likely be used to praise an artist’s work.

Yet his criticism remains alive, because of a rare ability to do two things at once: to deliver a clear, coherent and seemingly authoritative synthetic overview of art’s development through time and even (or so he imagined) into the near future–a view so forcefully argued that it served either as a guide or as a lightning rod for dispute–and to articulate intimate aesthetic experiences with acute vividness. His attack on O’Keeffe, for instance, is imbued with a pungent sensuality, suggesting that his revulsion is rooted in an intense sensitivity to what the art really is; even those who adore O’Keeffe’s work might learn something about why they love it, as well as about why someone else would hate it. Indeed, Greenberg could anticipate what some would hate in the contemporary painting he loved best, Jackson Pollock’s: “I already hear: ‘wallpaper patterns,’ ‘the picture does not finish inside the canvas,’ ‘raw, uncultivated emotion,’ and so on, and so on,” he wrote in a 1948 review for The Nation. Yet he was sure he knew better, and startlingly enough, he was also sure that he would know better still before long: “I am certain that ‘Phosphorescence,’ whose overpowering surface is stalagmited with metallic paint, will in the future blossom and swell into superior magnificence; for the present it is almost too dazzling to be looked at indoors.” Greenberg was a past master at taking with one hand in order to give with the other, thereby assuming an air of prophetic wisdom even when acknowledging his own limitations.

The son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who had arrived in New York not very long before his birth in 1909, Greenberg was a slacker full of sexual frustration and inchoate ambition well into his 20s. Irregular employment meant all the more opportunity to read intensely–poetry, fiction, German philosophy–and to frequent New York’s few modern galleries. Yet there was nothing to suggest that he had any calling for art criticism or indeed any calling at all. For all his drawing and versifying, his only notable accomplishment was his supreme confidence in his own judgments, especially negative ones: Letters of the early ’30s declare the Whitney Museum “rotten” and O’Keeffe, already, “lousy, by the way.”

But a knack for such judgments can hardly have looked like a way to make a living. After working here and there around the country for his father’s chain of stores and falling into a short-lived marriage in California, Greenberg ended up with a civil service job back in New York, where he mingled with writers and artists in Greenwich Village. He immersed himself in the ideas of Leon Trotsky and became friendly with Lionel Abel, a literary critic for Partisan Review, and Harold Rosenberg, who would also later emerge as a famous art critic–and as Greenberg’s despised rival. Through Rosenberg he met a young painter named Lee Krasner, who invited him to lectures by her teacher, the German émigré painter Hans Hofmann. Although Greenberg’s fantasies of becoming an artist himself never led anywhere, Hofmann’s ideas remained a constant reference.

As war loomed in Europe, then, Greenberg was nothing more than one of the multitude of Village dilettantes and hangers-on. It was a letter to Partisan Review (where he had already published a brief book review) that launched his career. Just why he felt the need to take exception to the boilerplate statement, in an essay on the Soviet cinema by Dwight Macdonald, that “Western art has for centuries lived without associations with the masses,” may never be known, but in doing so he must have been expressing ideas that had been stewing in him for a long time: “It must be pointed out that in the West, if not everywhere else as well, the ruling class has always to some extent imposed a crude version of its own cultural bias upon those it ruled,” he wrote. “Chromeotypes, popular music and magazine fiction reflect and take their sustenance from the academicized simulacra of the genuine art of the past. There is a constant seepage from top to bottom, and Kitsch (a wonderful German word that covers all this crap) is the common sewer.”

Kitsch made Greenberg’s reputation. Invited by the magazine’s editors (and encouraged by Macdonald) to work his ruminations into publishable form, he produced “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” which appeared in PR‘s fall 1939 issue. Immensely ambitious, the essay opened up a vast perspective: Greenberg put the dialectic between formal and popular cultures at the center of cultural history: Mass art, kitsch, made itself out of the remains of moribund cultivated forms, but the motor of high art’s development was in its recoil from the condition of kitsch, the potential fate of its own efforts. Greenberg’s references ranged brashly across centuries of history and shuttled with no less confidence from poetry to painting to music. The prose was pithy, forceful, punctuated with memorable formulations: “If the avant-garde imitates the processes of art, kitsch, we now see, imitates its effects”; to the ruling class, avant-garde art “has always remained attached by an umbilical cord of gold.” Most important of all was Greenberg’s political perspective, a fusion of Marxism and Modernism. Part of the essay’s appeal must have been its tone of disillusioned realism even as it guardedly evoked the possibility that socialist revolution could preserve high culture. But in retrospect the essay’s realism doesn’t seem to go much deeper than its tone; in particular, it turns on the fantastic notion of an imaginary Russian peasant asked to choose between Picasso and the Russian academic painter Ilya Repin–a rhetorical ploy that mainly serves to show that Greenberg had never met a peasant. But while painting the masses as incapable of producing any real culture of their own, he reserved his strongest scorn for a ruling class that was abandoning its putative role as patron of high culture.

Greenberg’s next big essay, “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” developed at length one of the subsidiary themes of “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”–a theme whose formulation he specifically credited to Hofmann, that of the Modernist artist’s resort to his own medium as his work’s subject and inspiration. Here, painting came more to the fore, yet Greenberg’s broad argument continued to take in poetry and music on equal terms. Over the next couple of years he wrote brief reviews of exhibitions by Miró, Léger and Kandinsky, as well as an essay on Klee, but otherwise one would have assumed literary criticism to be Greenberg’s main concern. It was only in 1942, when he began reviewing exhibitions regularly for The Nation, that he became an art critic in the narrow sense of a reviewer on the beat, and for the next few years his art reviews were still interspersed with essays on writers as diverse as Stefan George, Anthony Trollope and Sholom Aleichem.

This last name in particular reminds us that Greenberg always wrestled with the condition of “what the West now knows as the Jew.” It was never easy. Alice Goldfarb Marquis, in her new biography of Greenberg, can quote any number of anti-Semitic barbs littered through his early correspondence. “Squalling Jew bastards from the very best homes in Long Island” is how he described the kids he had to look after as a teenage camp counselor; Hollywood was “a lot of sporty looking little Jews and fairy scenario writers and high school girls.” Much later, Greenberg would reminisce about taking the subway alone from the Bronx to Manhattan–getting out and seeing “the crowds of gentiles–and it was liberating.” One might wonder whether Jewish self-hatred could be a key theme in the critic’s life, were it not that he could be equally disdainful of the goyim, discerning in his ex-wife and mother-in-law, for instance, “a mean Gentile quality…so cold, so just, so sensible.” Besides, for an anti-Semite to have earned his living from 1944 to 1957 as an editor for the Contemporary Jewish Record and its successor, Commentary, would have taken an iron constitution, something the hypersensitive Greenberg never had. Considering the topic in a 1950 essay, Greenberg quoted the idea that “‘group pride’ and ‘self-hatred’ seem inextricably mixed.” A critic for whom Sholom Aleichem “goes deeper than Dickens” is not one given to underestimating his people’s accomplishments. His own verdict was that “a quality of Jewishness is present in every word I write,” and in his published writings, Greenberg could be a sensitive and subtle examiner of the dilemmas of Jewishness, always with an autobiographical undertone. When he speaks of Kafka’s “apprehension” of “the outside world–the world of officials and of strangers on the street, of janitors and peasants and coachmen,” one feels that he might be thinking of himself at 12 emerging from the subway into the gentile world of Manhattan. The sense of the unknown is the same, whether experienced as threatening or liberating. And when he attributes Kafka’s difficulties with the world to his complex relations with his father, the impression of identification is even stronger: The Jewish world that Greenberg didn’t want to be a part of was that of the “barbarian” shmatte merchant who had thrown his son’s drawings away and spent “sleepless nights over the fear that I may turn out to be a weakling in life.”

Greenberg’s propensity to articulate his deepest desires for art in terms of classical Greece thus takes on a very particular coloring–from the declaration in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” that “it’s Athene whom we want: formal culture with its infinity of aspects, its luxuriance, its large comprehension” to the later demand, in “The Present Prospects of American Painting and Sculpture” (1947), for “a bland, large, balanced, Apollonian art.” Greenberg was a sort of latter-day Hellenistic Jew, attempting to reconcile Hebraic particularity with cosmopolitan (not to say Arnoldian) sweetness and light. In contrast with this enviable cosmopolitan breadth, he felt, Jews in Europe and Asia, having “lived self-absorbed in the midst of alien peoples,” had grown “fundamentally uninterested in the social and cultural life that surrounded [them] on every geographical and political side.” Such was the cramped and blinkered outlook his parents had brought with them from the land of the czars, and from which he sought to liberate himself. Get clear of it he certainly did. But if Greenberg viewed one side of the wider surrounding gentile culture through the prism of Apollo and Athena, he never lost sight of the culture’s shadow side, represented by the idea of the peasant, who, though powerless like the Jew, had a stronger “relation to the sources of power in a feudal society” and thus impunity in his brutality toward Jews.

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.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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