Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]
The Greenberg I Knew
Mr. Berenson’s aptitude, so far as I can see, is more for intuitive induction than for conscious reasoning; it is precisely because he has always been more of an “eye” and a sensibility than an intellect that he has been able to make himself that “instrument of precision in the appreciation of works of art” which he indubitably is. Philosophical appreciation is a different matter… To approach art philosophically means…to abstract from one’s experience of it. Kant had bad taste and relatively meagre experience of art, yet his capacity for abstraction enabled him…to establish in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment what is the most satisfactory basis for aesthetics we yet have.
— Clement Greenberg 
Without question Clement Greenberg was, himself, “an ‘eye’ and a sensibility.” Like Bernard Berenson, his great predecessor, he propounded general theories based upon his own intuitive inductions. His accounts of modernism are one example, his “homemade esthetics” another.
I am not a philosopher; nor am I an academic. My experience has been primarily that of a critic, in various capacities, and a practicing artist. For that reason I propose to dwell primarily on Greenberg’s critical performance. I hesitate to use the phrase “critical practice” because it has become such a platitude in recent artistic discourse. Insofar as it refers to the application of theories in the analysis of works of art, it has nothing to do with what Greenberg espoused and did.
I met Clem Greenberg for the first time in September of 1965. At the time, I was a new employee at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, a curator by inclination and practice if not by title. Greenberg had been invited by the Saskatchewan Arts Board to select an exhibition of contemporary Saskatchewan art. In the absence of the Gallery’s director, Ronald Bloore, I was designated to pick him up at the airport and accompany him to artists’ studios in Regina. I confess at the outset that I had been primed to resist him by Bloore himself (who abominated Clem), and by another Regina artist who informed me that Greenberg had ceased to be factor in the art world, that he was “past it.” How he’d come by that information, he didn’t say. Having been forewarned, I was apprehensive, but prepared to resist. What I was unprepared for was Clem’s courtesy when I met him at the airport and his invitation to join him immediately for drinks and supper at the Hotel Saskatchewan. I was 25 years of age at the time; he was my senior by 30 years.
Over supper we talked about many things. To my surprise and gratification I discovered that literature was a common interest. I recall snippets: a black and white snapshot of a recent sculpture by Anthony Caro (a new name to me); enthusiastic accounts of his young daughter, Sarah (the age of my own son); plans for an article on photography that was never to materialize, probably because I, myself, had just discovered Walker Evans; the fact that W. H. Auden’s critical essays seldom developed beyond their initial paragraphs; how objectionable he’d found the recent movie The Train (“no work of art,” he maintained, “is worth a single human life,” a conviction of his that remained fundamental). On the subject of major and minor artists: when pressed about major poets, I remember him responding about Herrick, “a minor poet, but it mattered less then.” I recall his being struck by the observation of a sociology professor of mine that people who’ve had a “golden age” in their youth seldom live up to its promise. I learned later that he was always tickled when tortoises passed hares in the arts and professed to “distrust any artist who broke through before the age of 35.” There was no specific talk about aesthetics, although, by way of recommendation, he did point enthusiastically to a volume of Croce’s Aesthetics in my director’s office the next day. He didn’t mention Kant.
It wasn’t until the following day that I observed him in the studio. His approach there was a model for what such visits should be: intuitive, generous, and acute. I was surprised, as well, by his admiration for representational art as well as his familiarity with Canadian art. On view at the MacKenzie Gallery was an exhibition of contemporary Montreal painting. Clem recognized a landscape by Goodridge Roberts from across the room and enthusiastically preferred it to the more “up-to-date” abstract paintings by Guido Molinari and Serge Tousignant. Of the Tousignant, he remarked (but without sarcasm): “it’s as good as he gets.”
These opinions were clarified the following day in a press conference when he explained that “the best art and the worst art being produced today is abstract, and after the best abstract art comes good representational art.” The following day, while looking at some landscape paintings by semi-amateur artists, he remarked that their pictures were better than some of the abstract art submitted, and added, “Richard Diebenkorn and I found that when we juried an exhibition on the West Coast a few years back.” The better I got to know Clem, the more I realized that this was by no means a pose, that his appreciation of art was built up from the ground of immediate experience and not down from theory—neither from Kantian aesthetics nor from his own accounts of modernism. Greenberg’s observations and generalizations—some of the most acute of our time—came after, always after, his experience of art. He insisted on that. His detractors discounted it.
When I accompanied him in Regina, I noticed that he consistently used the word “pictures” when referring to what I’d been accustomed to call “paintings.” I was struck by his usage, but it took me some time to realize how significant it was. It had to do with his lack of expectation when it came to looking at pictorial art, or rather how much wider than usual was the field of expectation that he embraced. For Greenberg, “pictures” were the genera of pictorial art, whether “painted” or not. While “paintings” were commonly presumed to be inherently “finer” than photographs or illustrations, he entertained no such presumption. As I mentioned earlier, his taste embraced the art of photography, although it puzzled some painters and infuriated many photographers. (I’m told that when he lectured on the subject at the Metropolitan Museum in the early 1980s, several photographers walked out in protest.) He also professed to admire the Saturday Evening Post cover art of Norman Rockwell long before that artist was extolled by Robert Rosenblum, but unlike Rosenblum, he recognized just how limited Rockwell’s achievement had been. An observation he made one evening in New York when we were having dinner in a restaurant is illustrative. A cocktail pianist was playing Chopin, and I asked Clem if he liked his music. “Of course, he replied. “If you don’t like Chopin, you don’t like music.” Then he added: “if you don’t like schmaltz you don’t like music.” His appetite for art was like that: built from the bottom up, picture by picture, artist by artist.
Clem had the most independent, the most truly catholic taste that I’ve ever encountered. I mention this because one of the problems aestheticians sometimes face is that many lack a wide enough experience of art to test their hypotheses. Clem’s independence derived first and foremost from his love of art—at every level. He was the supreme art lover. I suspect that he sought out more art in more places than any critic in history. He toured the galleries and signed their guestbooks whenever possible when at home in New York. He found art in museums, galleries, private collections, and studios on every continent. Cecilia Torres told me how, after judging an exhibition in Buenos Aires, he traveled at his own expense to Montivideo in Uruguay to meet her father-in-law, the pictographic cubist Joachim Torres-Garcia. Later, when she and her husband, Horacio Torres, moved to New York, Clem made a point of meeting and encouraging Horacio in his own representational painting (wonderful nudes, seemingly against the grain of recent art.) In the 1950s he encouraged artists in Washington, DC, introducing two of them to the art of his then girlfriend, Helen Frankenthaler. Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland went on to become major painters in their own right. In England, he encouraged Anthony Caro to “change his habits.” In Canada he encouraged Jack Bush, the “least likely” of Toronto’s “Painters Eleven.” He loved visiting Australia and Western Canada—and who else bothered? After visiting Emma Lake in 1962, he returned to the west many times over the next two decades, visiting studios in Edmonton and Saskatoon, especially. (Saskatoon, he professed, was his favorite small city.) Curiously, art in both cities flourished. Although he was the first great champion of what became known as the “New York School” he remained skeptical about New York complacency and welcomed good art wherever he found it. In a sense, Clem’s catholic taste cut the wrong way. Instead of embracing the New York “art stars,” it included good art—major and minor alike—found in the provinces as well as the center. “New York,” he said, “is where new art gets seen – not necessarily where it gets made. You have to travel to New York,” he went on, “to see what you don’t have to do.”
Clem never predicted, though his judgments—so detached from the current consensus—tended to be taken for such. That said, he constantly tested his own judgments against those of others: other artists, other critics, other art lovers—often women, for all his self-professed troubles with that ‘half of mankind.’ He was enormously open-minded and welcomed being proved wrong. During an extended stay in New York in 1969, I was struck by his response when he queried me about my take on a famous deKooning painting then on display at the Metropolitan Museum. I think it was Easter Monday. When I said that I’d found it incoherent, he exclaimed, “you’re right, that’s it exactly!” It was as if I’d opened a door for him, or turned on a light. He was scrupulous about crediting others when credit was due. And as Ken Carpenter has observed, he never lied.
Above all, he saw art as art and not something else –not as something better or fundamentally different from art of the past, especially not in the 1970s & ’80s when painting was routinely pronounced dead. Nor did he believe that recent art of any kind did some mysterious thing that art of the past couldn’t aspire to. He believed that much of this support for what he called “novelty art” was an apology for mediocrity. In his eyes the discourse about it recalled 18th century ruminations about the sublime. He felt that the sublime and the “grand manner” tended to devolve, after it was digested, into the picturesque.
I was shocked myself a decade ago when a “with-it” curator that I knew informed me that modernist art presumed to improve upon the art of the past. Where on earth did he get that idea? Clem never ever said or implied it. He took pains to explain that modernist art tried to measure up to the art of the past in the only way it knew how. Conversely, he didn’t accept the quality of any art from the past on the basis of reputation alone. He believed that the fundamental purpose of all art discourse was to persuade you to look and judge for yourself. I was present at a tumultuous argument on this very subject between Clem and William Rubin (at the time chief curator of MoMA) in a New York restaurant. As dessert rolled around, Rubin remarked that in the case of some art judgment wasn’t necessary, that one knew without looking that certain art would be good. Clem was taken aback and demanded examples. “Late Rembrandt,” Rubin proposed. “Especially not late Rembrandt!” Clem rejoined. “Late Mondrian,” Rubin proposed. “Especially not late Mondrian!” Clem was outraged; Rubin was offended. Things deteriorated—and I think a friendship, on increasingly shaky grounds, was brought to a close. “Trust your eyes” was Clem’s mantra.
Clem seldom wrote criticism in the 1970s and ’80s. I suspect that there were several reason for this, one of them being his “retirement” from the activity of reviewing, a retirement enforced in part by the mounting hostility to his judgments. The so-called “David Smith” affair, initiated by Rosalind Krauss, was as much symptom as cause. Thereafter, Clem was vilified endlessly in the art magazines and university art departments for the remainder of his life. The vilification was so persistent, that it coined a descriptive term: “Clembashing.” One couldn’t pick up an art magazine without encountering an example, often including the shibboleth, “What Greenberg fails to understand…” The very night he died, Griselda Pollock suggested in an (interminable) lecture at the Mendel Art Gallery that Clem told artists what to paint. (She went on to say that an artist that she espoused would have benefited had she taken one of her own feminist art history courses at Leeds.) It seemed, at times, as if the whole post-modern art movement had been engineered to discredit Greenberg.
Ironically, Clem didn’t write about contemporary art in those decades. As a result, much of the invective directed at him was based on presumptions about what he liked or didn’t like in contemporary art—why “novelty art” was more serious that he realized, for starters. All too often the Greenberg under attack was a straw man of the attacker’s own creation.
His last review of contemporary art was “Poetry of Vision,” published in Art Forum in 1968. It concerned an exhibition of international contemporary art in Dublin. “After that was published,” he was fond of observing, “Frank Stella stopped offering me cigars.” Of course, Clem didn’t cease reviewing to maintain access to Cubans, but his bemusement over the situation had a pertinent side. Upon being asked in a media interview in the early 1970s, whether receiving gifts from artists constituted a conflict of interest he responded that in his opinion it didn’t. “The real conflict of interest,” he said, “is friendship with artists. What do you say about a friend when you see that his art is going down?” I suspect that his withdrawal from reviewing was related in some sense to that—an attempt to preserve friendships. Another reason was his mounting sense that criticism could do little more than point to good art. Not only did judgment necessarily precede analysis, but when the art was good explication was powerless to account for it. At best it could describe some features, could wipe away some cobwebs, but apart from that explanations and interpretations explained mediocre pictures as well as good ones.
The fact that he no longer wrote reviews didn’t mean that he’d retired from criticism. In addition to tinkering with “Homemade Esthetics,” he continued to look at art actively, much of it in artists’ studios, until ill health confined him in the last year or two of his life. These studio visits added fuel to Clembashing. It was given out that he told artists what to paint, when in fact he did anything but. In the studio he was a magnificent editor, a practice perhaps carried over from his textual editing at Commentary: he found key pictures, he clarified, he encouraged, he helped countless numbers of artists to follow up what they did best. Never once did I hear him tell an artist to follow his path, to be “up to date,” let alone to paint abstract pictures. If anything the opposite was the case. As he put it:
I don't have a formula or a program when I visit an artist's studio. I give myself a rule based on my first studio visit back in '44-45 with the Pollocks, Lee and Jackson. We visited a painter… in Greenwich Village... He took his pictures out one by one and showed them to us, and... I waited for the Pollocks. They greeted each picture with dead silence and that was that; I didn't speak up. When we left… my imagination began to run and I said God, he must feel awful. I resolved, later, that when you go to an artist's studio you can't greet the art with silence…. You can always find something that you like more than anything else in the studio. You point to that and say you like it best and then you talk. What you have to watch out for, especially with younger artists, is their tendency to think, "if you don't like what I'm showing you, you're more or less concluding that I'm no good; you're summing up my capacity as an artist." You must not leave that impression. I want to more-or-less convey that if I haven't liked what I've seen, that that doesn't necessarily define the artist's potentiality. Who knows what's going to happen next? You've got to leave the artist thinking it's open. Say I haven't liked anything here -- that doesn't mean I have an idea of what you amount to as an artist or are going to amount to.
As I’ve mentioned, his last years were taken up with his “Homemade Esthetics:” lectures, articles, conversations. One thing persisted throughout: the primacy of morality, that “aesthetic value is an ultimate value, but not a supreme value.” I remember Clem asserting that in Edmonton in his later years. In the aesthetic realm ends justify means, whereas in the moral realm they don’t, they can’t, they mustn’t. Shakespeare ignored the “unities”; Jules Olitski “cropped” pictures from large expanses of painted canvas: in both cases they were accused of breaking rules, as though those rules were quasi-moral precepts. On the other side of the coin, artists sometimes suggested that art is above morality. Clem deplored that.
Clem spent some time in his late years offering his own “proof” of the objectivity of taste—something that Kant himself had insisted upon. Clem’s proof was inductive, based on the evidence that taste tended to converge over the years and across cultures. I always thought it was of the order of Dr. Johnson’s kicking a log to refute idealism: an “I refute it thus” sort of proof. I suspect that neither Johnson’s nor Greenberg’s could hold up to logical scrutiny, but experience suggests to me that both propositions are correct. Objectivity and universality are sticking points with post modernists, who tend to maintain that all art is culturally determined and subjective, that it satisfies culturally-determined inclinations. To Clem, art was at once universal and a celebration of subjective consciousness. This is something that’s hard to get across logically. I know Kant tried, but can’t myself say how well he succeeded. None of this is provable, of course, as Clem said many times. You can’t “prove” the quality of a work of art, you can only report upon your experience of it.
In Clem’s mind modernism was an account of how major art had developed since the mid 19th century. Greenberg’s powers of discrimination were prodigious. His essay “Collage” remains the seminal account of the “structures” of Cubism. But his gifts weren’t just confined to the monochrome arrangements of Analytical Cubism, nor to the successive “flattenings” of modernist painting. He was uniquely attuned to color in art beyond anyone of his time—I suspect beyond any critic, past or present. He saw color as the most eloquent of pictorial means, yet the most misunderstood and taken-for-granted. He realized as well that it was the aspect of painting least subject to explication, at once the most immediate and most mysterious of its elements. Because color struck immediately to the senses, it was much mistrusted: it was, after all, why the puritans wore black. It could be garish or subtle. It could shout and expound; it could soothe in whispers and insinuations; above all it could organize expression on its own terms. Its power was apart from words. It was to pictorial art what sound was to music.
His was a historical account. That modernism appeared to have continued during his lifetime didn’t mean that it would continue thereafter. His account certainly didn’t predict the future, nor did he admire only that art which satisfied his modernist paradigm. The theory was inductive, based on his experience of art from the past two centuries. But it was complicated by the fact that aesthetic judgments are inherently unprovable. To those who couldn’t see how the paintings of Jules Olitski or Kenneth Noland differed from minimal art, they must have seemed arbitrary.
It can’t be denied that Clem’s version of modernism was narrow, “elitist,” and rigorously “highbrow”: in the 20th century Picasso and the cubists, Matisse and Miro, a handful of Americans after 1940 (in his late years he was inclined to admit more of the fauves and postimpressionists). In sculpture Maillol and Marcks, early Lipchitz, and the Picasso-Gonzales, tradition, especially David Smith and Anthony Caro. Left out—though by no means overlooked—were Duchamp and the Dadaists, most of surrealism, conceptual art, minimal art, pop art, installations and virtually all art that was classified (in reaction, it sometimes seemed, to Clem’s taste) as post modern. The real point about his “exclusions” was that they stung. Clem was a profound irritant; his exclusions got under the skin and festered. If Noland, why not Warhol? If Caro, why not Beuys? If Olitski, why not Kiefer?
But do his judgments still stand? It appears that the art museums and magazines don’t want us to find out. During his lifetime, much was made of Clem’s “eye.” In fact, a large part of the censure he endured was aggravated by the contemporary art he professed—or was presumed—to admire. In his last two decades, this was exemplified by his admiration for the paintings of Jules Olitski. There was no presumption about this; Clem made it abundantly clear. In his opinion, Jules was the best painter at work in the 1970s and ’80s. The admiration for Olitski wasn’t his alone; it was shared by a goodly number of young painters. In the 1970s, Olitski showed a way out of the linear “post-painterly abstraction” (his own phrase) that had prevailed in the 1960s. This time the larger art world resisted Clem’s judgment. By the late 1960s minimal and conceptual art were pushing in the direction of art that was theory-based. Jules’s paintings were anything but. Pop art and “novelty art” had begun to subvert high modernism; what Clem called “middlebrow taste” had taken over. The high abstraction that he championed was sidelined increasingly in the museums and magazines, and was shunned by funding agencies. It resisted explication, refusing steadfastly to deal with “issues”; it was unrepentantly elitist.
Jules Olitski died this past February. A friend of mine who attended his memorial service at the Metropolitan Museum in March observed that not a single Olitski painting was on view in a public museum in New York at the time. Ironically, since his death in 1994, Clem’s essays from his late years have found a new and largely respectful audience, but ironically the recent art that he so admired remains in the shadows, too seldom seen.
 This is from Greenberg’s review of “‘Piero della
Francesca’ and of ‘The Arch of Constantine,’” both by Bernard Berenson, Perspectives
USA, Nov. 1955, reprinted in Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and
Criticism, vol. 3. ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1986), pp. 248-9.
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