Obituary: Clement Greenberg
Wednesday 11 May 1994
'DEATH is just an overrated literary convention,' Clement Greenberg once said. It was a typical Greenberg remark, especially since 'literary' was a dirty word in the Greenberg vocabulary, always pronounced as though spitting out some impurity, while 'overrated' could be applied to many artists - including Leonardo da Vinci.
Greenberg's talk was strewn with brilliant exaggerations. It was his form of wit. Once I tried to get him out of a bar to look at an exhibition. 'I wouldn't go to see an interesting young artist even if I lived in 15th- century Florence]' Of a political opponent: 'He occupied a sub-cellar of the human consciousness that Neanderthal man would shudder to enter.' Or, said with a seriousness hard to gauge: 'I never met an alcoholic I didn't like.'
'Your taste can't transcend your personality.' Taste was Greenberg's favourite subject and confrontation often the way of beginning a talk. 'I'm a highbrow. What are you?' To spend a few hours with him was an exhilarating and testing experience. Greenberg forced you to drink deep and smoke his foot-long cigars. If you tried to say something serious about art he would snap: 'You're pious.' One minute he would insult you, the next he would give you a marvellous disquisition on flower painting and be as sweet as a sonnet. Secretly, he loved poetry. The last time I saw him, in the large and strange apartment on Central Park West, New York, he recited line after line from Browning, intermittently cursing, for no good reason, the quality of modern vodka, lamenting the past and his unwritten books. All around were paintings and sculptures by some of his best friends, Jackson Pollock, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Anthony Caro.
The Pollock (a birthday present from the artist) had its place of honour in the bathroom. Lots of other works he hadn't bothered to unpack, or they were stuck in corners for someone else to hang at any future time. Greenberg was nonchalant about these paintings, often precious masterpieces, not only because he had often helped in their creation but because he loved immediate aesthetic experience and seldom lingered over his pleasure. Visiting any artist's studio he would go straight for the superior work. 'That's the best one.' It was as though art gave itself up to Greenberg in a flash. This might make him sound abrupt, but in the thrilling rapidity of his responses there was also great tenderness.
Clement Greenberg, the most famous American art critic since Bernard Berenson, was born in 1909 to a Yiddish-speaking socialist family and was brought up in Brooklyn and the Bronx. His parents were originally from the Lithuanian Jewish enclave. Greenberg's father hoped that his son would become a thinker, but precocious ability (he could draw 'photographically' as a child) allowed him to think of art as vocation.
In his teens Greenberg attended the Art Students' League and then went on to Syracuse University. At that period most other American institutions of higher education were closed to Jews. Greenberg graduated as the American Depression deepened, spent three years with his parents and studied. He was employed by the Customs service while he applied himself to German, Italian, French and Latin, together with any amount of literature, art history and Marxist thought.
Greenberg began to publish in 1939, when he was 30, and gained himself a place in the enormously influential Partisan Review. He was in his element among the circle of belligerent PR writers and by 1940 became an editor of the magazine. He wrote on Brecht, then contributed the subsequently famous long essay 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch', in which he made distinctions between high culture and middle- brow consumerism in contemporary America. By this time Greenberg had defined his politics as Trotskyite. Just as potent an influence on his writing was TS Eliot. This was not an uncommon conjunction in Greenwich Village, but Greenberg differed from the PR comrades in his commitment to new art. He listened carefully to the expatriate German painter Hans Hofmann (on whom he was later to write a book) and made many of his friends among the artists who attended Hofmann's intense and experimental school.
In these circumstances Greenberg was poised to become the intellectual critic (there were plenty of unintellectual ones) of the developing movement of Abstract Expressionism. At first in Partisan Review, later in the Nation and Commentary, he wrote on art exhibitions with such intelligence and conviction that he established himself as the spokesman for the new American art. It was noted how often he preferred American to Parisian painting. But he was a discriminating critic, however partisan and vehement. He had little time for the Surrealist strain in Abstract Expressionism, none at all for Marcel Duchamp. His appreciation of Arshile Gorky was tepid, Robert Motherwell's philosophisings were 'hot air' and he could not give full assent to Mark Rothko, who was a personal friend, nor to Willem de Kooning. Occasionally there were fist fights at this time of his life. Among the classic Abstract Expressionists he felt most warmly toward were the sculptor David Smith, together with Hofmann, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman and, of course, Jackson Pollock.
If Greenberg was not the first to recognise Pollock's genius he alone recognised its nature and direction. They met in 1942 through Pollock's future wife Lee Krasner. Their intimacy grew as Pollock approached his supreme paintings of 1947-50 and declined as the artist's character dissolved in drink and violence before his death in 1956. Greenberg wrote little about Pollock, just as he was similarly sparing, at least in print, about other artists whom he knew and loved. I think it probable that in their talks Greenberg urged Pollock away from his personal and 'Gothic' predilections toward the kind of painting - and culture - that the critic dreamt of for America. 'It's Athene whom we want: formal culture with its infinity of aspects, its luxuriance, its large comprehension.'
Greenberg was often obscure when speaking of Pollock. Thirty years later he was still personally hurt by Pollock's ruin. Sometimes one felt that, to Greenberg, Pollock's tragedy was a paradigm of all post-war American art. He never said such a thing publicly, but Greenberg retreated a little from the art world after Pollock's death. He had already been busy elsewhere, especially in his work as managing editor of the Contemporary Jewish Record, incorporated after 1945 into Commentary, where he was an associate editor until 1947. Greenberg had stopped calling himself a socialist since around 1947 and from 1952 was associated in various ways with the American Committee for Cultural Freedom. This connection would be much noted by Greenberg's enemies in the later years of his life.
He was a product of the radical and Jewish press and the 'little magazines' era. His publishing record - as far as books are concerned - was disastrous. Greenberg himself rejected his monograph on Miro (1948), simply saying that it was 'unsatisfactory'. In fact it is superb. He attempted a book on Pollock in the later Fifties but abandoned it. From about 1970 he was writing a book about his experience of art referred to, vaguely, as 'my home-made aesthetics'. Someone might rescue this from his papers. Today, the monument to his criticism is in Art and Culture, published in 1961, not available now in any of its three editions. He despaired of its reappearance. For years I tried to interest publishers in this classic book. All replied to say that it was dated or ridiculous. When I reported failure, Greenberg said, 'You're too young to understand that I don't give a shit.' I think that he was horribly dejected.
Art and Culture is a rewriting of the previous two decades of periodical essays. Its ambition is comparable to that of the American artists of the period. Not too covertly, Greenberg wished to be to art what Eliot had been to literature. No other art critic has been so immediately vivid and inspirational as he. From about 1960 he began to gather around him the people often known as the 'Greenberg family'. They included Helen Frankenthaler, Noland, David Smith, Olitski and a younger artist, the British sculptor Anthony Caro.
These artists had a shared abstract style and an idealism, plus their conversational manner, that was clearly derived from Greenberg. Their mutual friendships probably gave him the happiest days of his life. But by the late 1960s the rest of the world had turned against him. He did not disguise his hostility toward what he called 'novelty art', Pop Art, Minimalism and all that followed. In return he was pilloried for being a modernist, a sexist and a reactionary. Once, one of the few copies of Art and Culture was ritually destroyed by a tutor, assisted by uncomprehending students, at a London art school. Remains of the book were then sold to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The vendetta against Greenberg has been a discredit to the art world and a negation of his own ideals. He pretended not to suffer from it, but he did.
His sensibility - his response to art, his taste - lasted to the end, and also his early conviction that 'if you have to choose between life and happiness or art, remember always to choose life and happiness'. But he was speaking here to other people. He himself had chosen art.
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