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.