CLEMENT GREENBERG

Dates: 1909-1994

Nationality: American

Clement Greenberg (January 16, 1909 – May 7, 1994) was an influential American art critic closely associated with Modern art in the United States. In particular, he promoted the abstract expressionist movement and was among the first critics to praise the work of painter Jackson Pollock.

Greenberg was a graduate of Syracuse University who first made his name as an art critic with his essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” first published in the journal Partisan Review in 1939. In this article Greenberg claimed that avant-garde and Modernist art was a means to resist the leveling of culture produced by capitalist propaganda. Greenberg appropriated the German word ‘kitsch’ to describe this consumerism, though its connotations have since changed to a more affirmative notion of left-over materials of capitalist culture. Modern art, like philosophy, explored the conditions under which we experience and understand the world. It does not simply provide information about it in the manner of an illustratively accurate depiction of the world. “Avant Garde and Kitsch” was also a politically motivated essay in part a response to the destruction and repression of Modernist Art in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and its replacement with state ordained styles of “Aryan” art and “Socialist realism.”

In December 1950, he joined the CIA-fronted American Committee for Cultural Freedom. Greenberg believed Modernism provided a critical commentary on experience. It was constantly changing to adapt to kitsch pseudo-culture, which was itself always developing. In the years after World War II, Greenberg pushed the position that the best avant-garde artists were emerging in America rather than Europe. Particularly, he championed Jackson Pollock as the greatest painter of his generation, commemorating the artist’s “all-over” gestural canvases. In the 1955 essay “American-Type Painting” Greenberg promoted the work of Abstract Expressionists, among them Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still, as the next stage in Modernist art, arguing that these painters were moving towards greater emphasis on the ‘flatness’ of the picture plane.

Greenberg helped to articulate a concept of medium specificity. It posited that there were inherent qualities that “mediums” could be driven to. Sometimes this is understood to mean that paintings should be “flat,” in keeping with their physical two-dimensionality. This is of course in contrast with the illusion of depth commonly found in pre-twentieth century painting.

In Greenberg’s conception abstract painting was high art. Greenberg’s view that, after the war, the United States had become the guardian of ‘advanced art’ was taken up in some quarters as a reason for using Abstract Expressionism as the basis for Cultural Propaganda exercises. He praised similar movements abroad and, after the success of the Painters Eleven exhibition in 1956 with the American Abstract Artists at New York’s Riverside Gallery, he travelled to Toronto to see the group’s work in 1957. He was particularly impressed by the potential of painters William Ronald and Jack Bush, and later developed a close friendship with Bush. Greenberg saw Bush’s post-Painters Eleven work as a clear manifestation of the shift from abstract expressionism to Color Field painting and Lyrical Abstraction, a shift he had called for in most of his critical writings of the period.

Greenberg expressed mixed feelings about pop art. On the one hand he expressed that pop art partook of a trend toward “openness and clarity as against the turgidities of second generation Abstract Expressionism.” But on the other hand Greenberg expressed that pop art did not “really challenge taste on more than a superficial level.”

Through the 1960s Greenberg remained an influential figure on a younger generation of critics including Michael Fried and Rosalind E. Krauss. Greenberg’s antagonism to ‘Postmodernist’ theories and socially engaged movements in art caused him to lose influence amongst both artists and art critics. Such was Greenberg’s influence as an art critic that Tom Wolfe in his 1975 book The Painted Word identified Greenberg as one of the “kings of cultureburg”, alongside Harold Rosenberg and Leo Steinberg. Wolfe contended that these critics influence was too great on the world of art.

Eventually, Greenberg was concerned that some Abstract Expressionism had been “reduced to a set of mannerisms” and increasingly looked to a new set of artists who abandoned such elements as subject matter, connection with the artist, and definite brush strokes. Greenberg suggested this process attained a level of ‘purity’ (a word he only used in quotes) that would reveal the truthfulness of the canvas, and the two-dimensional aspects of the space (flatness). Greenberg coined the term “Post-Painterly Abstraction” to distinguish it from Abstract Expressionism, or Painterly Abstraction, as Greenberg preferred to call it. Post-Painterly Abstraction was a term given to a myriad of abstract art that reacted against gestural abstraction of second-generation Abstract Expressionists. Among the dominant trends in the Post-Painterly Abstraction are Hard-Edged Painters such as Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella who explored relationships between tightly ruled shapes and edges, in Stella’s case, between the shapes depicted on the surface and the literal shape of the support and Color-Field Painters such as Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, who stained first Magna then water-based acrylic paints into unprimed canvas, exploring tactile and optical aspects of large, vivid fields of pure, open color. The line between these movements is tenuous, however as artists such as Kenneth Noland utilized aspects of both movements in his art. Post-Painterly Abstraction is generally seen as continuing the Modernist dialectic of self-criticism.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Clement Greenberg’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 October 2010, 22:57 UTC, <en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Clement_Greenberg&oldid=389191348>

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