Clement Greenberg as the American art world remembers him
by Jason Edward Kaufman
John Russell, former chief critic of The New York Times
JEK: In is essay “Towards a Newer Laocoön” Greenberg declares that each art was inherently and formally distinct from each other, and that artists, to remain pure, should keep them that way. What do you think of that idea?
JR: I think all that was some sort of Germanic nonsense that he fostered and thought up for himself.
Were his politics important to his theories?
Perhaps when he was younger. But I think his theory was totally based upon his eye and his friendships with the artists. He and his artists felt deeply about each other on a completely uncareerist level. He just loved them, and they loved him.
Yet he is regarded as a career maker.
He stopped validating reputations about forty years ago, and though he certainly did extremely well by them, I think he really gave up. He started to sulk when he was past the period of his great enthusiasms, and he got moody and offensive whenever taxed with his total failure to respond.
How did he influence you personally?
His friendship, while I had it, was extemely important. I first met him when he came to London in the early 1960s, and I saw him in NY from time to time. We were on a jury together in Liverpool in 1965. For three days we went through hundreds of works of art which were submitted, and I did experience and admire the truly extraordinary quality of his gaze when examining these pictures. All the moving was done by unemployed boys from the neighborhood who were totally ignorant about art. On the first morning they arrived late, but after about ten minutes, they were so fascinated by Greenberg and his way of looking that they hung around, and on the other mornings they arrived early so to miss nothing. It showed his extraordinary gift of communication — with anybody, really. He had a simply amazing quality of response to the works of art he liked, which was very moving to witness.
Back then he had great authority in one to one conversation with other critics. He communicated to me the feeling that the things he liked were the most important things going on at that time in the world of art. I shared his opinions then, but I later diverged. I felt that he had shut down — had locked himself into an extremely small room and would never come out. As far as I’m concerned, he never came out. We have lived through an extraordinarily active and compelling period in art, and he left out 98% of it.
Hilton Kramer, critic and editor of The New Criterion
How will history remember Greenberg?
In my opinion, Clem was the greatest art critic of his time. And for art crtitics writing in the English language in this century, I would say he was the greatest critic since Roger Fry. He resembled Fry in many respects by placing aesthetic values above sociological interpretations of art.
He was a leftist who nonetheless espoused an elitist art theory. Is that not a paradox?
One has to understand that in the thirties he was a Marxist, but he repudiated Marxism in the early forties when he went into the army. I would describe his politics during the fifties as anti-Communist Liberalism. His cultural views and art theory really were not the outgrowth of his political views. They arose from his passionate interest in art, not the other way around. He had a very low opinion of popular culture because he felt it was very empty and most of it worthless, and that popular culture was a corruption of what he regarded as real culture, which was high culture.
He is often regarded as a tastemaker, a fashioner of reputations. Was that really the case?
The influence attributed to him in the art market, particularly in recent years, has been vastly exaggerated. Virtually everything that he disapproved of in the sixties, such as Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptual Art — all of that flourished, and artists and dealers grew very rich on it. But he had nothing but negative things to say about it.
Did his immersion in the artists’ milieu diminish the objectivity of his criticism?
His relation to certain artists, like Pollock, David Smith, the later Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland, was certainly no closer than say, Félix Fénéon was to Seurat, or Apollinaire was to Picasso. So I don’t know why that should be a problem. The important thing for an art critic is to know as much as possible about art, and not discussing it with artists seems to me just a guarantee of ignorance.
What image to you have of him personally?
Clem was certainly the critic, of my own time, from whom I felt I learned the most, even when I disagreed with his judgment. He wrote the clearest, most easily comprehended prose around, and rejected what he called “fancy writing” about art. In the fifties when he was an editor of Commentary, he invited me to write for that magazine on art. And while he was sometimes a very difficult friend, who was not at all shy about registering his disagreements, we had a long friendship and a good deal of mutual respect. The thing about Clem was you didn’t have to agree with him to find him the most interesting writer around.
William Rubin, curator emeritus of The Museum of Modern Art
Did you know Greenberg personally?
We were friendly in the early sixties for a period of about six or seven years, until I came to the museum. He felt be really in the throes of modernism one had to separate oneself from what he called “established institutions,” those parts of society which were figée, fixed. Museums were in this category and he was rather disappointed in me for accepting the job. But as an historian, I didn’t find it impossible to belong to the museum. In any case, like [Columbia University art historian] Meyer Shapiro and [MoMA’s founding director] Alfred Barr, he brought something rather special into my own life: his feel for painting, the dialogue one could have with him about German Romantic poetry, about Kant, about a great many other things — Clem Greenberg was not just an art critic.
Would you say that he influenced your thinking?
I think that Barr, Shapiro, and Clem Greenberg were the three major figures for modern art in the fifties, when I was formed. They all said one of the most important ways that modern art differs from older art is that it is not in the service of the government, history, or mythology — all the large collective institutional structures of the society — but, that modern art arises, to some extent, as a critique of these institutions. The whole sense of modern art is as a critique of bourgeois society.
Yet, Greenberg is regarded as his epoch’s great career maker. Was he?
For a brief period of time that may have seemed to have been so. Because he had fingered so many people like Pollock, Smith, dekooning, Still, when it came to the next generation it was inevitable that he would be looked to for signs. But then the painters he validated had nothing like the success of painters he didn’t support, such as Jasper Johns or Frank Stella. Finally, Pop Art, which he found anathema, had a much bigger success than the people who Clem was saying were good. For example, I’ve never known Jules Olitsky to have outstanding success, yet, at one time [Greenberg] thought that Jules was the best painter in the world.
Were such opinions borne out his actual response to art, or did he judge works on how well they fit into his theoretical frame?
I think his first reactions were always purely to the aesthetic character of the art. He went on his instincts first and only asked the question why afterward. Out of the answers he provided himself he spun his views. He began early with this idea that popular culture was an enemy of high culture. And I think there’s some truth in that, but not at all the absolute truth that he thought it had. His theories’ greatest value was not in their generalizations, but in the smaller truths that were woven into the discussions. What impressed me was the honesty with which he reacted to things. Even with artists who seemed able to do no wrong, he judged every picture as a completely separate experience.
What will be his place in art history?
Art history will remember him as one of the major critics…which doesn’t make a hell of lot of difference, because art history is made out of artists and not critics. He will be meat for a couple of Ph.D. students, but the issues will be basically historical at that point; they don’t stay alive the way the pictures do.
Robert Rosenblum, professor of fine arts, New York University
How will history remember Greenberg?
He represents the purest, most absolute statement of a formalist viewpoint. And since the visual is finally the core of art, what he declared had the sense of essential truth, and that was in part responsible for his papal position, part of his grandeur. He had an extreme and coherent position and you had to deal with it, either by becoming a disciple or rejecting it. One of the astonishing things about him was the psychological power he had as the dictatorial father to a whole generation of critics who either followed him slavishly or rebelled against him, and who very often tried to be, themselves, Clement Greenberg. All of his relationships with his disciples were Oedipal and resulted in either mindless obedience or patricide.
What impact did his criticism have on you?
In the fifties, he influenced me more than any other writer about contemporary art. Decades later, I realised my doctoral thesis on aspects of linearism in Neoclassical style echoed many of Greenberg’s theories about early twentieth-century painting. But I have to add that I spent the rest of my professional life freeing myself from the tyranny and narrowness of his thought. If you believed in his writing you had to exclude as irrelevant everything that didn’t have to do with pure, internal, visual matters. If you liked artists that were outside of his canon, you were working on a byway, rather than the superhighway he traced. It was very straight and narrow, and became instantly a catechism.
The big divide came in the late fifties and early sixties when he couldn’t deal with the younger generation of artists — my generation. If I began to respond, as I did, to artists like Johns and Stella, Lichtenstein and Warhol, I was obviously on the wrong track according to Greenberg. I was excommunicated from his church. The issues were everything from society, to subject matter, to popular imagery — you name it. I tended to be expansive and I liked to adulterate thinking about art with a million things, and he liked to be restrictive and pure. I couldn’t tolerate that. It was just too rigid.
Linda Nochlin, professor of art history, New York University
Did Greenberg’s writings influence your thinking or work?
Certainly it did in the fifties. In a sense it was impossible to think about modern art without him. He thought of modernism as having a telos, some kind of preordained goal. He was very sure of himself, and for many he represented the surest guide. I think one went into “Greenberg automatic pilot” when one was young.
What were the coordinates in which one traveled on “Greenberg automatic pilot”?
You believed that there was an avant-garde and there was kitsch, and you knew high from low very clearly; that the arts were pure and that the goal of modernist art was to refer with more and more reduction to the means of art itself, to the nature of the art process; that there was going to be more and more reduction, less and less narrative, and that modernist art, by definition, had to move away from reality into the world of abstraction and reveal itself more and more.
Do you still espouse this credo?
Even to this day, I think one ought to preserve a distinction between high and low in the discourse, though I am interested in so-called “low art.” But the construction of a direction in art is far more complex than Greenberg made out. There is no telos, or inevitable direction, as we can see by looking at the history of art over the past twenty-five years. He sure made a good case for his position for a long time. But, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy in a sense: if the major figure leading the band says the music is going to sound a certain way, well, it probably will sound that way, until a new paradigm or counter-paradigm arises. That’s precisely what happened. Then in the sixties, when I began to see other possibilities, I came out as the spokesperson for New Realism, something directly contradictory of his position. My catalogue Realism Now in 1968 was a really anti-Greenbergian statement.
Were his opinions borne out of his actual response to art, or did he judge works on how well they fit into his theoretical frame?
I think it worked both ways. He formulated his opinion in response to the art, and he certainly appreciated art that conformed to his theories. But I think he was very sensitive to the visuality of art in a very pure state. Much as he scorned it, there is also a certain nationalist element to his position. After all, in Europe there were abstract formalist movements that he didn’t pay much attention to. Even within the abstract realm, Greenberg was making very exclusive claims to one specific school of artists.
How and why will art historians remember Greenberg?
He will be seen as the spokesman for a very rigorous form of modernist reductionism. His prose was totally comprehensible and, like Roger Fry, he wrote for a very wide audience. They are the formulators of the classic modernist position, and any other positions that come after are always taking account of them. This is what the so-called rebel groups rebel against, so, in a way, you need them.
Interviews by Jason Edward Kaufman
Jason Edward Kaufman ©
This article appeared in The Art Newspaper, June 1994, p. 4.