PRINT March 1998


Clement Greenberg

SHORTLY BEFORE READING Florence Rubenfeld’s life of Clement Greenberg, I speculated about it with an art writer who had broken away from Greenberg’s circle. “I still say that Greenberg was the greatest critic of the century,” he stated. “But he was an absolute #@!!” The “greatest x of the century” is an entirely Greenbergian magnification: part of what it meant to be a critic, in his practice, consisted in bestowing gold stars and participating in arguments more often than not ending in fisticuffs, concerning who—Jackson or Bill—was the top living painter. For several decades Greenberg held tenaciously that Jules Olitski was the best painter we have, staking his claim to Best Critic on the prediction that in the fullness of time Olitski’s bestness would be acknowledged. The expletive, on the other hand, was the vulgar underside of the superlative in Greenbergian patois, which was, in the period of his ascendancy, the lingua franca of art-world disputation.

It is one mark of the difference between that art world and ours—in which Greenberg’s surviving critical practices are matters of sour debate—that the tireless ranking, the anxiety over where one stood if an artist, has decreasing application in a field gone pluralistic in ways the critic was unable to accept. Though he did have a generous side, one learns from Rubenfeld’s exceedingly balanced account to what degree his standing as an #@!! is grounded in fact. If he did not in fact relish cruelty, it would only be because of some psychological deficit that made him insensitive to the feelings of others: to announce that x is the greatest or the best, you are going to shatter the self-esteem of insecure y and vulnerable z. And when you act as if such gradations are as objective as measurements of temperature—that one’s eye is an instrument as reliable as a thermometer—you absolve yourself of any moral responsibility, like the doctor who blankly gives you the bad news in the name of honest truth. On the other hand, the despair would mainly be felt by those who accepted the practice as canonical and who took Greenberg as authoritatively as he regarded himself.

It is no criticism of Rubenfeld’s book that it demonstrates, in page upon page, Greenberg’s unlovely #@!!-hood. Old anecdotes are confirmed, new ones uncovered, and the portrait, like those Chuck Close pictures made all of thumb— and fingerprints, is pretty much the sum of actions of which one is grateful not to have been the target. Even with Pollock, it can be asked whether Greenberg did him greater harm in saying that he had lost his stuff than whatever good may have come from calling him America’s strongest living artist. Pollock had an exceedingly fragile personality, for all his taciturn physicality; it is unclear whether he suffered more from a dismissal he could not endure than from an anointment he could not handle. Of course, it is the downside of having one’s life written that one is in danger of being remembered for the human all—too—human truths it is a biographer’s duty to track down—to remember Ruskin for his incapacity to consummate his marriage rather than for the profundities of his prose. I learned a lot about Greenberg from this book, and a lot about the intellectual, journalistic, political, and aesthetic milieus of a vanished New York in which he was so powerful a force. Because I hold him in high esteem as a thinker, I could bracket many of the things that, like his interventions in the artwork of David Smith or of Morris Louis after their respective deaths, or his various conflicts of interest, might be seen in a light different from that under which in his time they were judged almost immoral. We will never adequately appreciate him if we see him as his injured or suspicious contemporaries did.

I only got to know Greenberg near the end of his life, and we were too distant intellectually for either of us to believe a further relationship possible. I did, nevertheless, whatever my reservations as to his character or, in candor, his criticism, regard him as among the century’s great philosophers of art (to slip for a moment into Greenbergese). He was unique in seeing Modernism as a problem. Harold Rosenberg invented the expression “action painting” to connect Abstract Expressionism to the then fashionable Existentialist philosophy, but he had no total theory of Modernism to offer. Thomas Hess, editor of Art News—the vanguard art publication of the era—had no theories to speak of, and saw continuities between Modernism and the tradition—between, say, Rothko and Piero. But Greenberg saw Modernism as a totality, sufficiently discontinuous with what came before to require a special account, and he was systematic enough to realize that “almost the whole of what is truly alive in our culture” had to be explained with reference to the same factors. This he credited to an ascent to a level of critical self—consciousness: “I identify modernism with the intensification, almost the exacerbation, of this self critical tendency that began with the philosopher Kant.” Modernist artists, in his view, saw painting itself as a problem, so the history of Modernism was an investigation into the nature of the medium, ending, as he recklessly declared, with the view that the essence of painting is flatness. No one—not Ernst Gombrich, not Meyer Schapiro, certainly not Rosenberg or Hess—saw artistic change so globally. In a few stunning essays, Greenberg constructed a narrative of Modernism worthy of standing alongside Vasari’s narrative of the conquest of visual appearances in the Renaissance.

Greenberg’s philosophy of art history entailed a philosophy of critical practice. The narrative ends in the revelation of a material aesthetic, which means that one must respond to paintings physically—to their shapes and colors, their surfaces and sizes, the thickness and thinness of pigment. These were attributes that could immediately be seen, and the critic ideally responded to them through eye and gut. Figural representation was neither here nor there, and thus was no part of painting’s essence. It was Greenberg’s close reading of painting as painting—as against the obscure tra-la-las in front of paintings by hommes de lettres—that Yve—Alain Bois admired and, through the journal Macula, the French and the Germans, who celebrated Greenberg in colloquia when in America he was denounced for his formalism and his dogmatism, and remembered through anecdote as some sort of #@!!.

By the time formalism emerged as a critical and political defect, art had undergone a new transformation, as radically discontinuous with Modernism as the latter was with tradition. Greenberg believed that the stained canvases of Helen Frankenthaler and the Color Field abstraction of Louis and Kenneth Noland were Modernism’s next unfolding. What he could not see was that Pop and Minimalism and the New Sculpture inaugurated by Eva Hesse had begun an entirely new period of art, somewhat lamely designated Post-Modernism. Greenberg regarded this as “novelty art.” He re-enacted the initial responses to Modernist painting itself—that the flattened forms and bright hues and crude drawing were hoaxes or symptoms, of no aesthetic relevance whatever. He marveled that this “novelty art” had lasted thirty years when I heard him speak in the early ’90s.

There is an irony in the fact that the end of Modernism took place in the ’60s—“the only decade Greenberg thoroughly enjoyed,” according to Rubenfeld in a late chapter appropriately titled “Imperial Clem.” His criticism became increasingly dogmatic, and resisting it increasingly risky. For Clem demanded a kind of aesthetic kowtow from those upon whom he would confer positive judgments—which meant those whose work conformed to his theory of Modernism. “He told me once,” the painter Pat Adams recalls, “that if he pulled support from somebody what the consequences would be on their career.” He had the ear of powerful dealers and major collectors and heads of great museums. Just when his #@!!-hood was raised to its highest power, history took a course that rendered his critical eye irrelevant. In the new era, “Clem’s suggestions were examined in the light of arguments common today in sexual harassment cases,” Rubenfeld writes. It was as though Greenberg sought to protect his narrative by meanness and will when the appeal to historical inevitability seemed less and less valid. Institutions of art change more slowly than art does, so Greenberg was able to control artistic choices until institutional history caught up with art. By the end of the ’60s, the era of Greenberg was over.

Rubenfeld has portrayed the art-critic-as-#@!! without the smirks of disclosure contemporary biography so often finds it impossible to suppress. Her book has the relentless uninflectedness of a deposition. The facts, we feel, must largely be what she says they were, and she has no obvious ax of her own to grind. But beyond that, she has given a compelling shape to Greenberg’s life. In her last two chapters, for example, Greenberg is portrayed as an emperor without an empire, a figure of almost Lear—like tragic stature. He had a tiny circle of the faithful, but a vast circle of despisers. As many have noted, “quality” replaces “advanced” in Greenberg’s vocabulary as the attribute of choice. It was as though he had given up his philosophy of history for something timeless and transcendent, precisely at the moment when quality itself became polemicized as invidious and unacceptable.

From the perspective of quality, none of the critics who came after him, with their borrowed philosophies and poststructuralist prose, were in his class as thinkers. They exemplified without in any particular way clarifying the moment to which they belonged. Moreover, for all the lapses in judgment, for all the moral insensitivity and pugnacity, Greenberg wrote the abiding philosophy of art for the period in which he flourished, and he did so in language that embodied the virtues of the aesthetic it enjoined. And in the end he merits the kind of life Florence Rubenfeld has given him. It has a certain Shakespearean dignity, making salient the deep flaws indispensable to a hero of tragic dimension.

Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus at Columbia University and art critic for The Nation.


Florence Rubenfeld, Clement Greenberg: A Life (New York: Scribner, 1998), 336 pages.