PRINT October 2004


Pop Art

James Meyer

We do not often associate Clement Greenberg with Pop. The great champion of Abstract Expressionism never published an essay on the subject, and occasional remarks in interviews and texts in John O’Brian’s indispensable anthology of the critic’s writings suggest a definite disdain for the phenomenon (the early work of Jasper Johns being a decided exception). Yet the reasons for this distaste are not entirely clear. We know that the author of “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” was no fan of mass culture, nor of the “middlebrow” poetry and fiction published in journals like the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post. Kitsch, in Greenberg’s sense of the word, denoted a watering down of modernist innovations, a pilfering of the high by the low. But Pop reversed this flow, suggesting a redemption of the low by the high. In this respect, the absence of a sustained account of Pop by Greenberg is a bit more curious. And so it came as a welcome surprise to me when examining Greenberg’s papers at the Getty Research Institute to discover that the critic did address the tendency directly, in two unpublished lectures. One of these talks, “After Pop Art,” was delivered at the Guggenheim Museum during the fall of 1963. The more substantive lecture, “Pop Art,” would appear also to date from the early 1960s, although its venue is unknown. It is published here for the first time.

We will never know why Greenberg opted not to rework and publish the lectures. It may be that the arguments they advance did not quite convince the exacting critic. Or perhaps an essay on Pop simply did not hold a high priority. The early ’60s were heady days after all: Greenberg, then at the apogee of his influence, was deeply engaged in refining his theory of modernism in such texts as “Modernist Painting” and “After Abstract Expressionism.” Whatever the case, the Pop lectures, though unfinished, are compelling both for what they tell us about Greenberg and for what they tell us about Pop. It is by now an old saw that Greenberg’s call for a painting that explored the conditions of the medium and an allusive, abstract sculpture excluded much of that era’s vitality—the Happening, the Combine, the Minimal Object, the Pop canvas. Yet if the portal of Greenberg’s modernism became increasingly narrow, admitting but a few into its precincts (Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Anne Truitt, and Anthony Caro), the image of a critic out of touch is far from accurate. The Greenberg of the ’60s was no less active a viewer than the Greenberg of the ’50s, visiting galleries often and sometimes returning to an exhibition more than once. We have heard much of Greenberg’s famous “eye,” his ruthless ability to assess a work at a glance. But “Pop Art” and other writings of these years suggest that we might as easily speak of Greenberg’s feet—the feet that for decades would trudge up and down Manhattan’s unforgiving streets and stairwells to see yet another artwork or exhibition.

“After Pop Art” attributes the movement’s ascension in 1962 to a strictly market logic. Greenberg observes that a drop in the stock exchange coupled with a slackening interest in second-generation Abstract Expressionism instantiated a taste for Pop: The collector who could no longer afford Pollock, but was weary of Norman Bluhm, could take a chance on Warhol. In other words, Pop was a fashion, and as a fashion, it would soon run out of steam. (The movement was “already finished,” Greenberg writes.) Of course, in retrospect, the fall of 1963 turned out to be not Pop’s curtain call but its opening act. As the conceit of this issue makes abundantly clear, Pop would only be succeeded by more and more Pop After Pop.

“Pop Art,” published here, focuses less on the movement’s market ascent than on its modernist past. Greenberg recounts the history of modernism as a dialectic of form and motif, of the visual and literary, of an art “of sensations” (Cézanne, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism) versus one of “ideas” (Symbolism, Dada, Surrealism, Pop). This narrative sequence de-emphasizes the literariness of the formal tendency and the formalism of the literary tendency, downplaying, for example, Abstract Expressionism’s subject matter and the formal contributions of Dada and Surrealism. Ultimately, Greenberg would seem to favor one side over the other: The “impure” exists to challenge and strengthen the “pure.” Symbolism made it possible for the Fauvists and Cubists to realize that “ambitious painting” had to be “antiliterary.” Dada and Surrealism inspired the Abstract Expressionists to develop a new kind of abstraction. Pop, reacting against Abstract Expressionism, might inspire another purist episode but was not itself “an art of searching originality.”

Pop art, Greenberg writes, “has not yet produced anything that has given me, for one, pause; moved me deeply; that has challenged my taste or capacities and forced me to expand them.” Here we should remember that the initial response to Pop was strongly divided. Although Pop’s demotic subject matter and withdrawal of feeling won over many, Greenberg and numerous contemporaries were unmoved by the new art. And yet it is the subjective dimension of Pop—its ambivalence toward mass culture, its distance toward affect and the representation of affect—that may be its most trenchant legacy, as the varied practices of artists such as Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Karen Kilimnik, and Alex Bag suggest.

Yet Greenberg was as weary of emotive displays as any Pop artist. For him the second-generation action painting prominent in the late ’50s rang false. In fact, he praises Pop as a response to so much bathos. “There is no question, for me, but that Pop Art was, is, and always will be better than degenerated Abstract Expressionism.” “I’m grateful to Pop Art . . . ,” he continues in the Guggenheim talk, “for all it did to drive out stale painterly abstraction, and to unsettle the art scene in general.” But there was a catch. An art devoid of feeling, as Pop was said to be, would never move a viewer and thus could never qualify as “major.” Pop remained a “literary” art, an idea. Echoing Benedetto Croce’s study Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic, Greenberg argued in such essays as “Recentness of Sculpture” and “Avant-Garde Attitudes: New Art in the Sixties” that the grand manner must be discovered intuitively. Major art was an individual “discovery,” not an “idea.” Only a style “felt” by an artist could qualify as genuinely new. The later writings of Greenberg suggest that such intuition is the province of the abstract artist, the artist who turns his or her back on mass culture, the technologized realm of Capital that exists outside the self. Of course, for others Pop’s genius is precisely its insistence that mass culture is the very ground of subjectivity. It is this loss of an autonomous, expressive self to mass culture’s clutches that Greenberg was unwilling to concede.

James Meyer is associate professor of art history at Emory University and the author of Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (Yale University Press, 2001).

Clement Greenberg

The notion of such a thing as pure painting, pure art, appeared for the first time with the ultimate naturalism of the Impressionists. More often than not, the explicit assertion of something calls forth the explicit assertion of something diametrically opposed. The first serious opposition to the notion of pure painting came from within Impressionism itself. It was, you could say, inadvertent in the case of Seurat’s circus and dance-hall pictures; in Gauguin’s case, it was conscious. Pissarro accused him of sentimentalism or even of mysticism—he did not use the word “literary,” but that did come to be an abusive word in the mouths of the Impressionists. Thus the opposition, at first, was in terms of straight, more or less naturalistic, deadpan art as against the literary or anecdotal: an art of sensations, a “robust art based on sensation,” to use Pissarro’s phrase, as against one based on ideas.

However, the opposition between pure, on the one hand, and literary or impure painting, on the other, remained somewhat tangled for a while. The Symbolists and the Nabis were for an art of ideas that was at the same time more abstract: that is, flatter and more decorative. Cézanne, an exponent and champion of pure painting if there ever was one, but likewise identifying it with deadpan, “objective” realism, rejected Gauguin’s and van Gogh’s art because it was too flat; he told Emile Bernard that Gauguin and van Gogh painted “Chinese pictures.” As it turned out, it was flat, antirealistic painting that captured the notion of “purity.” But the notion of pure painting, no matter how otherwise construed, remained identified with the antiliterary, and this idea reigned supreme in avant-garde art during the first twenty years of this century: Both the Fauves and the Cubists and their offshoots simply took it for granted that serious and ambitious painting had to be antiliterary.

Finally, there came a second movement of resistance to pure painting, with de Chirico, Duchamp, Picabia, and Dada; Surrealism, the heir of Dada, can be accounted as part of this second movement, and so, I think, can Neo-Romanticism. This time Duchamp characterized the opposition between pure and literary art as one between the “physical” and “mental.” Like the Symbolists and Nabis, however, the Dadaists and Surrealists, if not the Neo-Romantics, remained entangled with pure painting and contributed to it and actually aggrandized it. The terms of the opposition between pure and impure painting were now conceived of as abstract versus representational. And no sooner had this new polarity definitely established itself than pure painting, as abstract painting, enlisting all the contributions of Dada and Surrealism, just as Fauvism had enlisted those of Symbolism, triumphed with a completeness such as it had not known even in the years between 1905 and 1914. From the later 1940s to the early 1960s there was hardly any question in the minds of most interested people but that avant-garde painting par excellence, advanced, ambitious, momentously original painting and sculpture, were abstract—abstract almost by definition. Three or four years ago a new wave of resistance to pure painting, the third such wave, began to mount in the form of Pop art. Pop art has made representational art, and with it literary art, once again respectable in avant-garde circles. And the suction of this wave—or rather the suction of its worldly success—has been so strong that many, many formerly abstract artists have, without exactly becoming Pop, gone over to representation in whole or in part.

Both the first and second waves of resistance to pure painting were entangled with pure painting itself, as I’ve said, and in the end only contributed to it. Both the Symbolist resistance in the 1890s and the Dada and Surrealist resistance in the 1920s and 1930s had a reinvigorating, fructifying effect on the object of their resistance, and pure painting emerged all the stronger—all the stronger in its dominance—from their opposition.

So far it has not been quite the same with this third wave of resistance to pure painting. Pop art has drawn, to good effect, on the acquisitions of pure and abstract painting but it has not, so far, contributed anything to it in return. What’s more: Just as Gauguin represented a slight lowering of artistic standards as against the Impressionism of the 1870s, and Duchamp and Ernst and Dalí a more considerable lowering of standards as against Matisse, Picasso, and Léger, so Pop art represents an even greater lowering of standards as against Pollock, Hofmann, Dubuffet, Newman, Still, Motherwell, Mathieu, Gottlieb, Rothko, Kline, de Kooning, and Gorky at their respective best. But whereas this particular effect of the return to literary art in the cases of Gauguin and of Dada and Surrealism was only momentary, the lowering of artistic standards seems, up to now, to be more serious in the case of Pop art.

Here, as everywhere else in art, I have only my own reactions, my own experience to go by. There is no question but that Pop art came as a refreshing and lively relief after the turgid stalenesses of the de Kooning–Kline–and–Guston school of Abstract Expressionism that had held the foreground of United States painting during most of the 1950s. There is no question, for me, but that Pop art was, is, and always will be better than degenerated Abstract Expressionism. But Pop art has not yet produced anything that has given me, for one, pause; moved me deeply; that has challenged my taste or capacities and forced me to expand them. I have come across nothing in Pop art yet that transcends the plane of the agreeable or titillating or breaks with any of the canons of accepted taste as these stood in 1955. In sum: Pop art, in my experience, falls far short of being major art or anything like it—by which I mean that Pop art has not proved to be an art of searching originality, not even quite in the case of Jasper Johns. Johns may not be a Pop artist strictly speaking, but he is the only artist anywhere near Pop art, the only artist related to it in any meaningful respect, whom I find myself taking seriously. Yet even Johns—or rather my experience of Johns—contains nothing that justifies the term major. (And let me remind you that if anything has been at issue in American art since the early 1940s it is the issue of major: It’s that which makes the profoundest, most crucial difference between Pollock and his generation and everything that came before in American art.)

Pop in my opinion constitutes a failure of avant-garde art, just as much of Surrealism did, and almost all of Neo-Romanticism did. If the avant-garde has any justification—anything that warrants cherishing the Impressionists above Puvis de Chavannes, Fantin-Latour, or Carrière; Matisse above, say, the John Sloan of 1900–1910; Pollock above Christian Berard; or Newman above Diebenkorn—then that justification consists in the fact that it has proved the only means of maintaining the continuity of major art—not just good art—over the last hundred years. Pop art represents, in a sense, a threat to that continuity. And so, let me say, does most of what is offered to us now as Optical art.

Lest anybody misunderstand me and think that I myself hold a brief for pure or “formalistic” painting as such, let me say that I wish it were otherwise. The actual record of its achievement is what alone makes the case and brief for pure painting or what’s called that. My own wishful preferences count for nothing here, or anywhere else in art. If it were up to me, the major painting of our time would go back to the Corot of the late 1830s and early 1840s—that is, to a species of photographic naturalism. If it were up to me, the greatest art since Corot would have continued to be naturalistic. But art, and especially major art, keeps on evolving and changing; it makes itself known precisely by its never coming to terms with you, but instead, by always compelling you to come to terms with it.

© by Janice van Horne for the estate of Clement Greenberg