Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 14, 2009
Terry Smith "Clement Greenberg at 100: Looking Back to Modern Art"
Sackler Museum, Harvard University
April 3–4, 2009
College Art Association
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“It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in twenty-five years of curating shows, I can’t recall a single artist mentioning Greenberg, let alone taking his ideas seriously.” This remark––made by the chief curator of a major U.S. museum of contemporary art during a coffee break at the “Clement Greenberg at 100: Looking Back to Modern Art” symposium––helped me gain some perspective on the event. So did the introduction by the organizers, Miguel de Baca and Prudence Peiffer, graduate students in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, both working on the art of the 1960s. How, then, might they take an accurate measure of Greenberg’s presence, when between them and this quite legitimate art-historical goal float increasingly dense layers of subsequent art-critical, historical, curatorial, and theoretical practice, to say nothing of art making, less and less of which would have been imaginable––and very little of it tolerable––to him? They came up with a clever, three-part solution. Invite a brace of scholar-critics who cut their teeth on Greenberg, or bear his marks, to look back in what turned out to be more anxiety than anger. Ask some students of these ex-Greenbergians to reflect on the master from their second-generation perspective. Then present the in-progress research on the 1960s being undertaken by some brilliant young scholars, who are of course students of both generations. Leavening the mix were American Studies and philosophical perspectives. Despite obvious absences (Michael Fried, T. J. Clark, Charles Harrison, Griselda Pollock, anyone from beyond Euroamerica or outside academe), it came together well enough to sustain interest over two days.

Another clever idea was to begin with a roundtable discussion among scholar-critics for whom Greenberg had been liberating, but whose limitations they came to see. Angst about slaying the bad father was laid on the table and dealt with, sort of, in the messy manner of such things. The panel was moderated by Benjamin Buchloh, who declared himself “not a Greenbergian but definitely a Kraussite,” it being her writing that drew him from Germany to the United States. This kind of experience was, it seems, typical for the panelists. The trenchant directness of Greenberg’s actual criticism and the schematic clarity of his narrative of modernist art’s historical development stood in marked contrast to the belle-lettrist mediocrity of art writing that prevailed, not just in the United States (for Rosalind Krauss in the early 1960s) but also in France (for Yve-Alain Bois and Serge Guilbaut) and Belgium (for Thierry de Duve), where Greenberg was translated (by them) in the mid-1970s. Similar experiences occurred elsewhere: during the late 1960s in Australia, for example, as I can attest. Canadian John O’Brian came across Greenberg in the late 1970s as a student of the social history of art; his great contribution as editor of the four-volume Clement Greenberg: Collected Essays and Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986–1993) was inspired by the need to make widely scattered material available. Against the prevailing conception, O’Brian insisted at the conference that there was, in Greenberg, a muted politics, one that shifted from “Eliotic Trotskyism” to a “Kantian anti-Stalinism.”

For all the speakers’ acknowledgement of the force of Greenberg’s criticism from the 1940s to the 1960s, there was less enthusiasm for the person. His insistence on subjecting young artists and critics to a “taste test,” alongside his own shifts as to which artists he would support; his sudden turning on close associates; his corruption (“Conflict of interest multiplied by a factor of 3” was Bois’s characterization of Greenberg’s late career roles as critic, curator, art advisor, gallery director, and rightwing cultural politician); his stripping of paint from David Smith’s late sculptures . . . the warts came out, in passing comments by those who knew him well. More serious were the exposés of the limitations of his thinking: his middlebrow misunderstanding of Kant on aesthetic judgment; the crudeness of his late attempts at aesthetics; his reduction of modernism to a formalist mainstream, which narrowed during the 1970s until it weighed on the slender shoulders of some weak, conformist artists; his denial of the achievements of all those who transformed art in major ways during the 1960s and subsequently. As Peter Schjeldahl (another absentee) put it in 1981: “Judging Greenberg the way Greenberg judges artists––summarily, in career phases, and taking no prisoners––one can say that after the late fifties his sense, already calcified, of the culture in relation to art parted ways with lived reality, and his taste sheered off to mandarin eccentricity” (Peter Schjeldahl, “An Inclement Critic,” Village Voice [February 4, 1981]: 77; in MaLin Wilson, ed., The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl, 1978–1990, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991, 67).

More distant but still informative perspectives were taken in panel presentations. American Studies scholar Louis Menard offered a convincing account of how a paradigm as restrictive as Greenberg’s came to exercise, during the Cold War, such cultural power: it offered a depoliticized, mass culture version of sector-specific professionalization. To Caroline Jones, Greenberg’s insistence on self-making through “eyesight alone” represents the art-world instance of the “bureaucratization of the senses” that U.S. society underwent after the trauma of World War II. Darby English explored the odd occasion of Greenberg’s strong support for a 1971 exhibition of post-painterly abstraction in a converted movie house in a black section of Houston. David Haxall traced surprising echoes of pastoral allegories in Greenberg’s writings, but did not draw attention to the critic’s own unremarked (and unremarkable) landscape paintings. Michael Lobel offered an unexpected but convincing (because it was more Friedian than Greenbergian) interpretation of some paintings by American Scene painter John Sloan.

Ann Reynolds queried Greenberg’s lack of explicit reference to the most pervasive visual art of the age—the movies—yet showed him using cinematic metaphors in some of his remarks. Robin Kelsey and Harry Cooper highlighted his difficulties with photography (its indexicality took it too close to literature, its popularity too close to kitsch). Jeff Nguyen explored Greenberg’s distaste for Surrealism (too literary) and for gay culture, contrasting his criticism to that of poet Frank O’Hara. Gaku Kondo examined Greenberg’s dismissal of the decorative, and his recuperation of it during the 1960s when he championed the Color Field artists. Many speakers mentioned his shock before Frank Stella’s late 1950s “black” paintings; modernism’s end-point had been reached, yet the impossible was happening: a rich and resonant art was issuing from it. Alex Bacon argued that the materiality of work by painters such as Brice Marden moved beyond Greenberg’s and Fried’s stress on opticality to an “embodied illusionism,” while Mark Godfrey showed that Fred Sandback took sculpture in the direction of “drawings that were inhabitable.” Christine Mehring demonstrated that German artists such as Blinky Palermo and Imi Knoebel turned the dead end of radical reductionism into an open-ended kind of installation art.

These considerations take us a long way from the art-historical task of seeing Greenberg in his times, as a product of them, a shaper of them. He becomes, at most, a faint echo, left behind as contemporary art continues down its endlessly multiplying pathways. To me, the most interesting, still pertinent issue arose by implication and indirection: the necessary matching yet volatile mismatching that arises when critical and historical approaches to art are twinned, as they must be if modern and contemporary art is to be understood on its own terms. Again and again panelists returned to instances when Greenberg saw an artist’s practice—as manifest in a particular work or group of works in an exhibition—as at the same time a manifestation of modern art’s historical progress. To him, modernism in art was nothing less than the succession of these unpredictable yet instantly evident moments. His criticism was at its most acute, convincing, and memorable when he was able to demonstrate this matching—as, after three attempts, he managed to do, famously, in the case of Jackson Pollock. These demonstrations occurred much less often than might be thought. Is this because such moments happen rarely, or (from another, more distant optic) routinely, or because Greenberg became less and less able to see them?

Eric Rosenberg’s paper subtly explored a striking, complex case: those passages in “After Abstract Expressionism” (1962) in which Greenberg said of Richard Diebenkorn that his development is what Abstract Expressionism’s should have been, and that his turning back, via Matisse, to representational art resulted in paintings as good as his earlier purely abstract works. Here, Greenberg is recognizing that actual artworks have reversed his anticipated art-historical narrative. Unlike the threat posed by Stella, he can encompass this disruption precisely because, he believes, Diebenkorn has found a convincing artistic locus for Willem de Kooning’s “homeless representation.” Rosenberg reads this move as asking: how, in a moment of art-historical discontinuity, is the quality of a painting determined? And as answering: discontinuity, in this case, is itself constitutive. While this sounds like a retrospectively deconstructive reading, it unlocks something important about the reality of Greenberg’s task as an active, engaged critic.

Here, I believe, we glimpse the reason why Greenberg has not gone away, at least not entirely. Stephen Melville pinpointed it by noting that we think of the great critics of modern art, from Charles Baudelaire to Greenberg, as individuals with sensibilities, not as proponents of systematic thought. Yet the Greenbergians who keep his legacy alive, however negatively, do so from their positions as academics. They naturally tend to see his practice––which actually was a striving to articulate experience as it happened––as a sustained body of thought. This is a weight it struggles to bear, despite its constant claims to a “self-consciousness” that would match the “self-criticism” taken to be definitive of modernism. This distinction is a Pandora’s box that remains suggestively open.

Melville also noted that historians of modern and contemporary art––those who study art that demands more than Panofskian iconography, or even iconology, can deliver––need “switching points” between the art world and the academy. Greenberg, rather than the over-maligned Harold Rosenberg (who taught for years at the University of Chicago yet remained, more than Greenberg, committed to the weekly grind of the practicing critic), was the preferred, if counter-, example. Others have emerged since then, but they tend to act through educational institutions, museums, or journals such as October, a prime site of post-Greenbergian readings of late modern and contemporary art. Whenever an artist’s work is read as an instantly perceivable art-historical event occurring within a medium, and as nothing else but that, the shade of uncle Clem withers the proceedings.

With the focus on Greenberg at his centenary, perhaps due acknowledgment of the achievement of other, equally if not more significant interpreters of post-War art was not to be expected. In the United States, this would include not only Rosenberg and Leo Steinberg from among Greenberg’s peers, but also those involved in the roundtable, as well as Michael Fried and Hal Foster among others. In Britain, those mentioned in my opening paragraph; in France, Pierre Restany; in Brazil, Mario Pedrosa . . . a long list that stretches around the world. Quantitatively and qualitatively, it amounts to a lot more than that which Greenbergian formalism was able to achieve. And it is more relevant to present concerns. Some of it, however, owes debts––of varying kinds––to him, and it was good to have experienced an occasion on which they were, at least in part, able to be repaid.

[Terry Smith is a member of the Editorial Board at CAA’s Art Journal. CAA editorial boards operate independently of one another, and he was not involved in the editorial process for this review.]

Terry Smith
Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.