PRINT Summer 1987


IN THE FALL OF 1939, a 30-year-old appraiser for the U.S. Customs Service spent his slack office hours writing an article on Bertolt Brecht for Partisan Review, followed shortly by another, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” By the next year Clement Greenberg was an editor of Partisan Review and well on his way to becoming a major force in American intellectual life and criticism.

In the half century since then the curve of his influence has passed through some remarkable coordinates. During the ’40s and ’50s the line touches each of these points on the graph: the arrival and apotheosis of Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, David Smith, and most of the ’50s avant-garde; the victory of Abstract Expressionism and formalism over humanism and social realism; the establishment of a critical groundwork by which the “triumph” of American art could be quantified and enshrined. Yet Greenberg also poisoned the well he drew from; he is responsible, directly or indirectly, for a long list of roads not taken, options ruthlessly closed off, and proscriptions drawn up, to be obeyed by a generation of artists on pain of critical banishment to the grim gulags of the retrograde. A few of the other points on the graph: the “death” of painting in the late ’60s (perishing in the desert of planar antiillusionism); the ideological paralysis of art in the early ’70s; the revolt of the “post-Modernists.” (It’s fascinating to watch the habitual misuse of this term in the art world. Over several decades historical Modernism became conflated with Greenberg’s definition of it. The Modernist impulse has not yet exhausted itself; what is “post” is Greenbergian formalism.) At the end of the ’70s the curve bottomed out––a new generation couldn’t care less about flatness, frontality, and positivist reductionism––and in the ’80s painting has rebounded with a vengeance.

Yet artists, consciously or otherwise, are still positioning themselves around Greenberg’s ideas, which have provided the four corners of art discourse for as long as I (for instance) have been alive, and which for a time assumed the authority of a priori propositions outside which no thought seemed possible. The echoes of Greenbergian doctrine rebound from the painting-and-sculpture department at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, to the tenured faculty of many universities, and beyond. Even now, when color field is nothing but caricature and Jules Olitski can barely raise a puff of dust at auction, Ross Bleckner feels compelled to address the wallpaper issue in stripe paintings that deliberately subvert formalist ideation by pointing out its resemblance in extremis to kitsch. The doctrinal quaver of some ’80s art seems to trace at least part of its case of nerves to prohibitions that continue to exert a subliminal inhibiting force even after five decades. I doubt that David Salle or Eric Fischl consider themselves in a critical argument with Greenberg, yet they have chosen to “bring back” figuration by wreathing it in alienation. Salle’s work gets its kicks from the chill of confrontation with the hobgoblins of the forbidden; Fischl’s from the anxiousness of penetration into the same terrain. Neither artist could sustain the tension if those inhibitions were not still in force. You wonder how much of the malaise of the last decade can trace its roots to the same source.

There are other questions: what deep need did Greenberg fill? How does his analysis hold up after half a century? The recent publication of the first two volumes of Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, by the University of Chicago Press, comes at the right moment to confront him at the source of his ideas. The period these books cover begins in 1939, when Greenberg’s reputation was still confined to the Cedar Bar crowd and the local literati, and ends in 1949, when the first glimmers of general renown, and public hostility, were beginning to shine on the critic-champions of Abstract Expressionism. During the years of the first volume, Perceptions and Judgments, 1939–44, he was a Stalin-hating Trotskyist displaying his education as a literary critic. (He studied literature and languages in college.) By the time of Arrogant Purpose, 1945–49–its title taken from Greenberg’s praise of Henri Matisse, “who is cold, undistracted, and full of arrogant purpose”1 he had converted from political to philosophical and esthetic pragmatism. “Some day,” he wrote, “it will have to be told 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.”2

Greenberg’s broadest renown dates from the publication of Art and Culture by Beacon Press in 1961, at which point he virtually stopped writing. To cover the years between 1949 and 1961 the publisher of The Collected Essays promises sequel volumes, but their due date has not been announced. They will be useful––in tracing the drift toward color-field mannerism, for instance––but they may not be essential. Ideologically, Greenberg was fully formed by 1940, when he wrote “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” the essay that followed “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in Partisan Review. “Towards a Newer Laocoon” introduced the themes that would occupy him for decades: formalism (“The history of avant-garde painting is that of a progressive surrender to the resistance of its medium”3); the authority of the picture plane (“Most important of all, the picture plane itself grows shallower and shallower, flattening out and pressing together the fictive planes of depth until they meet as one upon the real and material plane which is the actual surface of the canvas”4); the revulsion against literary interpretation (“It was not realistic imitation in itself that did the damage [to 19th-century academic painting] so much as realistic illusion in the service of sentimental and declamatory literature”5); and contempt for such strayed sheep as the Surrealists (who “reacted against abstract purity and turned back to a confusion of literature with painting as extreme as any in the past.”6).

The historical impact of these propositions is only half the story of Greenberg’s rise; the other half is the personal irritability that he brought to his mission. “Clem uses truth like a blunt instrument,” one painter told an acquaintance of mine. Another asked that I not quote him “because Clem holds grudges for twenty years.” A blunt instrument is a tool for establishing social dominance. To Greenberg’s other attributes must be added the perverse magnetism of the authoritarian personality, the charm of contemptuousness. His contempt was one of his most powerful weapons. He handed it down as a principal legacy to those who followed him; they refined it to a bitter precision. In the ’60s, moral righteousness and intellectual arrogance were the signs by which the Chosen separated themselves from the Philistines. According to their dogma, painting was “dead” because the facticity of material substance alone could carry the proper ideological priority; sensuousness and pleasure were forbidden unless subsumed within “the real and material” substance of pigment and binder. (Conceptualism provided artists with an escape from this doctrinal straitjacket: being pure proposition, it could avoid the problem of materialism altogether.)

There are two pieces to be done on Greenberg: the social history and the critical one. The social history would consider his rise to power within the context of the authority-hungry McCarthy years and art’s economic boom in the ’60s. It would observe his gurulike role as certifier of value for the art market (once American art became a bankable commodity). It would look into his dealings with artists, particularly the stories about “birthday presents” from those whose reputations he made, his role as executor in the repainting of David Smith’s sculpture, and his habit of giving studio critiques that came only a millimeter away from how-to instruction. It would also track his legion of followers, asking how he came to have so much influence over so many.

But none of these questions, important as they are, confronts the ultimate significance of his ideas. A critical assessment would take a look at his methodology in structuring art criticism. It would do a close reading of the original texts. It would be less concerned with whether or not he picked all the winners–any working critic can stumble, or get caught up in the heat of misplaced emphasis. In some ways, Greenberg’s track record is astute––he thought Matisse was the “greatest painter of the day”7–– but he also called Alberto Giacometti “not quite a major artist,”8 and accused Wassily Kandinsky of sinking into provincialism by misunderstanding the School of Paris. Even such supposed “slips,” however, are consistent with his hierarchy of values, and it’s that which must be addressed, because it’s that which is the source of both his success and his failure.

Between 1939 and 1949 Greenberg was a journalist-critic, writing chiefly for Partisan Review and––beginning in 1941, after which point he quit the Customs Service––The Nation. Until Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, American criticism was almost entirely journalistic in the worst sense: reviewing a book on Paul Klee, Greenberg remarks that its biographical notes are “informative and, refreshingly enough, to the center of critical gravity, resorting to almost none of the subterfuges of impressionistic appreciation by which most writers on art try to evade the arduous responsibilities of analyzing it.”9 To him, “impressionistic subterfuge” included the habit of fantasizing about a picture’s literary meaning: “To confine the notion of subject matter exclusively to the anecdotal interest of a picture is by now a piece of backwardness that cannot escape being dishonest at the same time.”10 Journalism is to some degree a contingent act, a response to a moment. In the tradition of Baudelaire, Greenberg is a commentator on the flux, an architect of praxis: praising de Kooning’s first show, savaging the esthetes, remarking on the decline of Cubism, trying out his ideas in the field of action. To distinguish his brand of journalism from the literary slush, he was, like a good Marxist, alert to the ontology that structures praxis and is the bearer of its ultimate meaning. But it’s the messiness that enlivens The Collected Essays and Criticism. Greenberg’s career was a kind of great divide in American art discourse. In his early years, art theorists tended to come from the ranks of philosopher-esthetes, some of whom he rightly roasted. Now, theory has taken over the ideological territory that he staked out, and has made ontology an end in itself, severing ideas from the art object. The messy contingencies are still left to the journalist, as in his day.

The targets of Greenberg’s wrath in the ’40s were so effectively annihilated that by now they are nearly extinct. His attacks on “humanism,” which are scattered through The Collected Essays and Criticism, for instance, were aimed at the flabby thinking of the contemporary literary and esthetic intelligentsia, mired in their sentimental understanding of the purposes of Modern art. The general ignorance or active hostility of much of the regular press and the antagonism of much of the public toward art in the ’50s are matters of legend, but it’s worth recalling that, as André Emmerich says, “we totally forget the people who thought [Frank] Stella’s black paintings looked like menswear.” Writing in this climate, Greenberg posited a systematic rejection of literary, anecdotal, or impressionistic interpretation. One of the things ontology can do is establish a priority of values by which to understand and order esthetic response, which otherwise tends to be inchoate and disorderly––or, in Greenberg's term, “gush.” Greenberg realized that criticism can elevate itself out of gush by locating or fixing a set of reference points that would identify the priorities in critical discourse. There were convenient examples at hand ––Karl Marx’s ontology came straight out of Hegel and Kant––but Greenberg found his source in Hans Hofmann.

In the winter of 1938–39, while he was drawing from a live model in a WPA class, Greenberg attended three lectures by Hofmann at his school. By Greenberg's admission, his critical position from then on owed “more to the initial illumination received from Hofmann’s lectures than to any other source.”11 Hofmann demanded that the “surreal” or expressive characteristics of a picture be presented within the irreducible reality of the physical carrier: “A plastic idea must be expressed with plastic means.” To Hofmann’s simplistic art-school reductionism, Greenberg added (and elaborated on) a set of assumptions whose authority he seems to have regarded as self-evident. This tissue of belief now reveals itself to be painfully thin, betraying a pronounced bias toward a characteristic American literalism.

In Greenberg’s reading, the highest expression of 20th-century historical necessity was Cubism. The key passage comes from 1948: “Cubism, by its rejection of illusionist effects in painting or sculpture and its insistence on the physical nature of the two-dimensional picture plane . . . expressed the positivist or empirical state of mind with its refusal to refer to anything outside the concrete experience of the particular discipline, field, or medium in which one worked; and it also expressed the empiricist’s faith in the supreme reality of concrete experience.”12 That is an extraordinary sentence. On the one hand there is a willful misreading of Cubism, which was more “illusionist” than Bouguereau in its presentation of a kind of metaphoric space that could never be mistaken for anything other than pictorial invention. On the other hand there is a blissfully naive belief in the “supreme reality of concrete experience.” Last but not least, there is a hidden hierarchy of value that emerges from within Greenberg’s apparently neutral act of description.

These three projections onto Cubism are the essence of Greenberg’s praxis. First, he judges an artist’s work by its adherence (or lack of it) to a preconceived schema of his own. Second, the schema itself is falsely grounded. Third, within the schema is concealed a hierarchy of value that gives him, with perfect circularity, a judgment about the artist. Elaborating on Hofmann’s pragmatism, Greenberg finds his first principles in that phrase, “the positivist or empirical state of mind.” Here he expands Hofmann’s description of “the real” by linking it with philosophical positivism, which declares that truth is locatable only within “concrete experience” or scientific experiment: what cannot be proven has no validity. He allies himself, in other words, with the American positivist pragmatism of John Dewey and Charles Peirce. Though initially a Marxist, Greenberg seems to have ignored the vast body of European thought, beginning with Kant and Hegel and continuing on through phenomenology and existentialism, that has mounted a devastating assault on positivism. Without getting in too deep: positivism takes a naive view of the truthfulness of proof. When modem physics itself presents increasing evidence that the conceptual terms of the experiment “frame” the outcome, it becomes increasingly clear that the search for “the real” leads through consciousness.

Greenberg was not a philosopher. His pragmatism was more a tactical maneuver reflecting the pioneer mentality of American culture: it didn’t matter how many ideas you had if you couldn’t kill the bear. But even on practical terms, common sense is enough to wreak havoc on the notion that a Cubist painting offers a “concrete experience.” In positivism, the phrase means a measurable, quantifiable, scientific datum. But what is quantifiable in Picasso’s Three Musicians? Only that this is an object, an accumulation of paint on canvas, so many inches wide and high, so many pounds heavy. Everything else, including Picasso’s attempt to “syncopate” the figures of the musicians in accord with their invisible music, is a metaphoric or pictorial construct, an elaboration on a metaphor of modernistic space-time. Cubist space is a hypothetical construct designed, in fact, to pose another alternative to “real”––three-dimensional, quantifiable, positivist––space; it proposes that space is precisely not what it seems to the positivist. Cubist space may have “looked” flatter than Bouguereau’s, but it was every bit as fanciful. The Cubist rendition is simply more “modern”––and therefore more acceptable as metaphor––to our eyes.

Once he began to believe his own tactics, Greenberg, casting his reputation and his eye into the battle for Modernism (but Modernism subtly converted to his own ends), found himself propelled inevitably toward an ever greater materialism, the logical end of which was Morris Louis, an artist trapped within the rainbow purgatory of “facts.” Earlier in Greenberg’s career, before his position hardened, he seemed to use “positivism” as a convenient working tool to convey a number of intuitive positions, including Hofmann’s desire to grant moral weight to the drama of the picture plane. During this period, his analysis often offers a freshness and immediacy that seems based on direct observation: “[André] Masson is a surrealist,” he writes in 1942, “but he has absorbed enough cubism, in spite of himself, never to lose sight of the direction in which the pictorial art of our times must go in order to be great.”13 Yet note the end of that sentence. Even at this early date, Greenberg’s alert insights are accompanied by a breathtaking arrogance. “Van Gogh’s shortcomings as an artist are a translation into another language of those that belonged to him as a human being,”14 he writes witheringly. He is even more dismissive of Kandinsky, for whom he seems to have had a particular grudge, and who failed in his eyes because the artist rejected “a prior and perhaps even more essential achievement of avant-garde art than its deliverance of painting from representation: its recapture of the literal realization of the physical limitations and conditions of the medium and of the positive advantages to be gained from the exploitation of these very limitations.” The preposterousness of this dogma when applied to an artist as euphoric as Kandinsky is almost beyond comment, but suffice it to note that Greenberg attacks Kandinsky solely on the basis of what he did or didn’t do to respect the literalism of those “physical limitations.”

In an essay written as a response to a symposium sponsored by the Contemporary Jewish Record, Greenberg discusses his own Jewishness, noting that he does not consciously so identify himself except in subtle ways: “There is a Jewish bias toward the abstract, the tendency to conceptualize as much as possible, and then there is a certain Schwärmerei, a state of perpetual and exalted surprise––sometimes disgust––at the sensuous and sentimental data of existence.”16 This passage, which undoubtedly was not intended to be so rich with implications, is intriguing in the way it positions Greenberg within historical Jewish culture. It is also a left-handed description of the critic himself, who unexpectedly offers us his psychological picture of the motives for his tactical harshness. The “sensuous and sentimental data of existence” were to be obliterated from the horizon of the positivist. Greenberg’s unwillingness to allow into critical discourse anything with a touch of ambiguity had some justifiable origins: the ineffable, being hard to define and quantify, is easily subject to hyperbole and antirational excess. But there is an inescapable hint that something unbidden––some surprise, disgust, or both––impels the critic to take up arms against the mystery.

That’s too bad, because Greenberg’s view of existence was extraordinarily simple-minded. Real life––the type that proves so resistant to conceptualizing––is in fact richly “contaminated” by sentiment, sensuousness, fancy, humor, dreams, intuitions, personality, history, and mind. Even if one agrees with Greenberg’s campaign to eliminate literary gush from art criticism––and it’s certainly gush, looking back on it––one mourns the staggering loss of all the things that had to be tossed out the window with it. Thus Greenberg knifes Gorky for his biomorphism, Giacometti for his “expressionist archeology,” and, of course, Kandinsky, whose “chief mistake was to draw too close an analogy between painting and music.”17

Greenberg’s bias “toward the abstract” also seems to have inspired a profound revulsion against the problematic, emotionally sticky, nonutopian tendencies of ’50s humanism: “Today ‘humanism’ in art means . . . pessimism about man’s powers, a fear of facing any reality without precedent,” he wrote in the Giacometti piece.18 He considered such bleakness an insult to the progressive spirit. The antidote to humanism was Modernist optimism––the optimism of the positivist. Lodged within this seemingly benign framework of belief is a hidden desire for perfectibility, and a fear of succumbing to the imperfect, as well as a suggestion that historical necessity impels the most “advanced” artist onward toward an ever-more-encompassing abstract perfectionism. To Greenberg, Cubism, which expressed this awareness most forcibly amid the art of its time, had not yet completed the process of distillation, because its “literal realization of the physical limitations and conditions of the medium” was not quite literal enough. Though Greenberg had not yet settled on color-field painting as the final expression of this desire to strip art of “contamination” and lead it, purged and squeaky clean, toward the Elysian fields of historical necessity, his analysis of Cubism prefigures and foreordains his conclusions. The damage caused by this submerged shoal of disgust was incalculable. Whatever had been joyous and free in early Modernism––in Klee, Kandinsky, Joan Miró, or Matisse––was broken apart on the rocks.

To give him credit, Greenberg, early in his career, is shy about arguing from hindsight, and instinctively repulsed by other people’s dogma: “I may have seemed high-handed in my disposal two weeks back of Mondrian’s theories,” he wrote in 1945. “The irritation caused by any sort of dogmatic prescription in art was most likely responsible. . . . in art a historical tendency cannot be presented as an end in itself. . . . there are no hierarchies of styles except on the basis of past performances. And these are powerless to govern the future. What may have been the high style of one period becomes the kitsch of another.”19 And again: in a rebuttal to George L. K. Morris, who had insisted on the manifest destiny of nonobjective painting, Greenberg objects, “This is what happens when literal a priori dogmas about the historically necessary are consulted instead of the pleasure and exaltation to be experienced from painting.”20 But those of us who wonder what happened to chances for “pleasure and exaltation” in painting must weigh Greenberg’s protestations against his practice. Time and again, Cubism is the conceptual standard by which “advances” in art are judged. The itch to schematize seems a habit––in “Towards a Newer Laocoon” Greenberg even sets out to erect hierarchies of Chinese painting over Chinese poetry, 17th- and 18th-century music and literature over the plastic arts, and so on, brashly and amusingly. Again and again, it seems, an empirical observation becomes an ideological given, invested with ontological priority and a bristling argumentativeness. The critic appears uneasy about his role as a journalist, and eager to give the epistemologically difficult and combative process of delivering weekly value judgments some claim to enduring truth. His sensitivity and nerve, which are ultimately the only weapons a critic can call on, finally fail him.

In retrospect it’s hard to measure Greenberg’s influence, merely because it is so ubiquitous, but a brief word is necessary about his legacy. He had a sophisticated understanding of the derivation of his value judgments, declaring at one point that they could not be explained because they originated in the foreign language of sense experience. But in combining these judgments into a superstructure of absolute worth, he both undermined the artist’s spontaneity and independence (setting the critic over the artist as paterfamilias and judge) and he obligated any serious critic after him to address art with some first principles in mind. His patriarchal contemptuousness inspired an anxiety of analysis, which seemed to reach its apogee at the end of the ’60s, shrouding the most reductivist object in the most rarefied and obfuscatory prose. Less in art became more in criticism. For this he should not be held completely responsible: a powerful thinker sets preconditions for the discourse that follows. On the other hand, it is revealing that much of what Greenberg came to value in the late ’50s and ’60s is now serious kitsch. As his influence grew, Greenberg began to listen more and more to his own opinions rather than making them afresh; his theories were no longer informed by observation. His style of analysis, elaborated by his followers, came to express a studious American anxiety about the true nature of concrete experience––its essential, disturbing slipperiness. You can stub your toe on Picasso’s Three Musicians, but that encounter is far less likely to illuminate the value of the painting than one that calls on sensuality, intuition, empathy, history, personality, and mind. Greenberg used all those forms of understanding himself; it was specious at best to deny them to everyone else.

Kay Larson is the art critic for New York magazine.



1. Cement Greenberg, “Review of an Exhibition of Pierre Bonnard,” in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, 2 vols., ed. John O’Brian. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. 2: 247

2. Greenberg, “The Late Thirties in New York,” in Art and Culture, Boston: Beacon Press. 1961, p. 230.

3. Greenberg. “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” Collected Essays, 1: 34.

4. Ibid., p. 35.

5. Ibid., p. 27.

6. Ibid., p. 36.

7. Greenberg, “Letter to the Editor of The Nation,” Collected Essays, 2: 205.

8. Greenberg, “Review of Exhibitions of Alberto Giacometti and Kurt Schwitters;” Collected Essays, 2: 206.

9. Greenberg, “Review of Vlaminck by Klaus G. Perls. . .,” Collected Essays. 1: 95.

10. Greenberg. “Matisse, Seen Through Soviet Eyes. . .” Collected Essays, 2: 204.

11. Greenberg, “Review of an Exhibition of Hans Hofmann and a Reconsideration of Mondrian’s Theories;” Collected Essays, 2: 18.

12. Greenberg, “The Decline of Cubism,” _Collected EssaysP, 2: 214.

13. Greenberg, “Review of an Exhibition of André Masson.” Collected Essays, 1: 99.

14. Greenberg, “Review of Exhibitions of Van Gogh and the Remarque Collection,” Collected Essays, 1: 162.

15. Greenberg, “Obituary and Review of an Exhibition of Kandinsky” Collected Essays. 2: 5.

16. Greenberg, “Under Forty. . .,” Collected Essays, 1: 177.

17. Greenberg, “Review of Exhibitions of Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Pollock. . .,” Collected Essays. 2: 16.

18. Greenberg, “Review of Exhibitions of Alberto Giacometti and Kurt Schwitters,” p. 207.

19. Greenberg, “Review of an Exhibition of Hans Hofmann and a Reconsideration of Mondrian’s Theories,” p. 19.

20. Greenberg, “A Reply to George L. K. Morris,” Collected Essays, 2: 243.