Greenberg, Clement

views updated May 21 2018

Greenberg, Clement

(b. 16 January 1909 in the Bronx, New York; d. 7 May 1994 in New York City), art critic whose influential but often controversial essays on contemporary culture introduced the work of the painter Jackson Pollock and established abstract expressionism as the dominant movement in mid-twentieth-century American art.

The oldest of three sons of well-to-do Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, Joseph Greenberg, a merchant, and Dora Brodwin, Greenberg moved at the age of five to Norfolk, Virginia, where his father had established a business. At the age of eleven, Greenberg and his family moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he attended public schools. From early childhood he liked to draw; when he was sixteen he took a life-drawing class from 1924 to 1925 at the Art Students League in New York City. Languages and literature, however, were his major subjects at Syracuse University, where he received his A.B. degree with honors in 1930 and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. For the next two years, before going to work for his father, he devoted himself to perfecting his languages (later he did several German translations), reading extensively, and visiting art museums.

In 1934 he married Edwina Ewing. They had one son and were divorced in 1936. After a series of clerical jobs with the Civil Service Commission, Greenberg worked from 1937 to 1942 for the U.S. Customs Service, but found time to write stories and poetry (largely unpublished) and to attend lectures at Hans Hofmann’s School of Fine Arts in New York, an experience that stimulated his interest in modern painting. A letter Greenberg wrote to Dwight Mac-Donald, editor of Partisan Review, led to an invitation to write an article for the journal. The article, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” ran in the fall 1939 issue. An authoritative discussion of elitist “high art” compared to mass culture (kitsch), it made Greenberg’s reputation in New York intellectual circles. The article was reprinted six months later in the British periodical Horizon. Greenberg published his first review in the winter of 1939, a comment on Berthold Brecht’s “Penny for the Poor.”

From 1940 to 1942 Greenberg was one of the editors of Partisan Review, for which he continued to write essays on literature, art, and sociopolitical matters (often informed by his then-Trotskyist viewpoint). When the Bollingen/Library of Congress Prize for poetry was awarded in 1948 to Ezra Pound for The Pisan Cantos —Pound’s pro-Fascist, anti-Semitic stance notwithstanding—Greenberg made a famous protest (Partisan Review, May 1949) against excusing an artist’s moral failings on the grounds of aesthetic autonomy. His last article for Partisan Review, “‘American-Type’ Painting,” was written in 1955. Considered the definitive statement on abstract expressionism and extensively anthologized, it roused much controversy over Greenberg’s omission of the second-generation abstract artists in favor of the new color-field painters. During this period—from 1942 until he resigned around 1950, protesting what he claimed was the magazine’s pro-Soviet sympathies—he served also as the first regular art critic at the Nation.

Writing and editorship, however, were suspended for eight months in 1943 when Greenberg served in the U.S. Army Air Force before receiving a medical discharge. Shortly thereafter his championship of Jackson Pollock began, with a review in the Nation (27 November 1943) of that artist’s first solo exhibition. Four years later in “The Present Prospects of American Painting and Sculpture” (Horizon, October 1947), Greenberg proclaimed Pollock to be the “most powerful” painter of the day, thus contributing to his phenomenal popularity and alienating supporters of Pollock’s rival, Willem de Kooning. Chief among these was Greenberg’s one-time friend, the New Yorker critic Harold Rosenberg. As for relations with de Kooning, Greenberg—as pugnacious in person as he was in his writing—got into a fistfight with the artist in a Greenwich Village bar in 1961; the altercation is now part of the Greenberg legend.

In August 1944 he became managing editor of the Contemporary Jewish Record. When the bimonthly Record was replaced by Commentary, Greenberg was named associate editor, but he was fired in 1957 after a confrontation with a fellow editor, Norman Podhoretz. From then on the focus of Greenberg’s activities changed. He participated more directly in art-world affairs: consulting with museum curators and art dealers throughout the United States and Canada; writing exhibition catalogs; visiting artists’ studios (where he often gave advice on work in progress); and teaching. Greenberg was chosen to conduct the prestigious Christian Gauss Seminar in Criticism at Princeton University in 1958 and 1959, and in 1962 he gave his first seminars at Bennington College, where from the early 1950s he had maintained close ties with the art department, organizing exhibitions and critiquing student work. In 1964 Greenberg was guest curator of the landmark show Post Painterly Abstraction at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He was then appointed by the U.S. Department of State to accompany the exhibition Two Decades of American Art and give lectures during its tour of Japan and India in 1966 and 1967.

For a short while between 1958 and 1960, Greenberg had served as a consultant to French & Co., a New York gallery, choosing pictures and arranging exhibitions. Although he earned no commissions and did not deal directly with clients, it was rumored that he was improperly involved in the art market, and there was speculation about his behind-the-scenes influence on artistic reputations. Following these rumors and speculations, Greenberg’s own reputation declined. His book. Art and Culture: Critical Essays (1961), a collection of revised versions of thirty-seven of his critical essays, generated little interest at the time. Many artists and fellow critics, responding to his article “After Abstract Expressionism” in Art International (25 October 1962), labeled him a dictatorial elitist for his rejection of postmodern movements such as pop art and minimalism. An article by Rosalind Krauss damaged him further. In “Changing the Work of David Smith,” published in Art in America (September 1974), Krauss claimed that after Smith’s death, Greenberg, who was one of the sculptor’s executors and a frequent visitor to his studio, removed the polychrome finish from several of Smith’s huge steel sculptures. Greenberg never defended himself from the charge of tampering with the integrity of works of art. But in an interview with his biographer Florence Rubenfeld in 1991, he did admit that “maybe I should have just laid off instead of making his sculpture better.”

Greenberg’s second marriage, to Janice Elaine Van Home in 1956, ended in divorce in 1977; they had one daughter. Until 1988, when he returned to his New York City apartment, Greenberg lived in his home in Norwich, New York, lecturing at colleges, making his customary studio visits, and writing a book based on the Bennington seminars he gave in 1971, eventually published as Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste (1999). He died of emphysema in Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan after a four-year illness.

Much reviled by some for his dogmatic opinions, Clement Greenberg was regarded by others as unquestionably the greatest critic of twentieth-century Western art. He was respected for his real passion for art and for his accessible writing style: a concise, fluid prose that was the result of constant rethinking and reworking. Owning to the influence of the philosopher Immanuel Kant and the poet T. S. Eliot (both concerned with the relationship of thought and feeling), Greenberg himself was concerned with discovering how the formal, visible elements of a painting or sculpture “work” to produce an effect, rather than with what a work of art “means.” For this reason he is often credited with having introduced the aesthetic approach known as formalism to the study of art.

Clement Greenberg’s papers are housed in the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. Some of his papers are located at the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian. In addition to his periodical articles, the critic wrote three short monographs: Joan Miró (1948); Henri Matisse (in the Pocket Library of Great Art series, 1953), an example of his analyses of how paintings “work”; and Hans Hofmann (1961). His last book, Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste (1999), has a foreword by Janice Van Home Greenberg explaining the composition of the work, which presents both Greenberg’s text and excerpts from the Bennington seminars on which it was based. Florence Rubenfeld, Clement Greenberg: A Life (1998), is a detailed, candid, balanced account of his place in the art world, but there is no bibliography or chronological summary of his lengthy, complex career. John O’Brian, ed., Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, 4 vols. (vols. 1 and 2, 1986; vols. 3 and 4, 1993), provides the texts of Greenberg’s articles from 1939 to 1969, bibliographies of works with reference to the critic, and chronologies. Analyses of Greenberg’s opinions are found in Donald Kuspit, Clement Greenberg, Art Critic (1979), and J. D. Herbert, The Political Origins of Abstract-Expressionist Art Criticism: The Early Theoretical and Critical Writings of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg (1985). Janice Van Home, ed., The Harold Letters, 1928–1943: The Maying of an American Intellectual (2000), is a collection of letters that Greenberg wrote to Harold Lazarus, a classmate at Syracuse. The article on Greenberg in World Authors: 1900–1950 (1966), revised and updated as of 1992, reprints the critic’s autobiographical sketch provided for the 1955 edition of Twentieth Century Authors. Adam Gopnik, “The Power Critic,” New Yorker (16 Mar. 1998), gives a present-day critic’s rather dismissive assessment of Greenberg’s mid-century contributions and his diminished standing at the end of the century. Obituaries are in the New Yor/(Times (8 May and 9 May 1994; several inaccuracies were corrected in the 9 May edition), the Washington Post (10 May 1994), Los Angeles Times (11 May 1994), and Chicago Tribune (15 May 1994).

Eleanor F. Wedge

Clement Greenberg

views updated May 18 2018

Clement Greenberg

Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) was an influential art critic whose writings helped define" Modernism."

Clement Greenberg was born on January 16, 1909, in the Bronx in New York City. He was the oldest of three sons born to Joseph and Dora (Brodwin) Greenberg. In 1914 the family moved to Norfolk, Virginia, where his father was a storekeeper. Six years later the Greenbergs moved again, this time to Brooklyn, New York, where Joseph Greenberg became a manufacturer.

Clement Greenberg was educated in public high schools and graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor's degree in literature in 1930. When he graduated Greenberg was unable to find a job, but during this time he studied German, Italian, French, and Latin. In 1933 he and his father began a wholesale dry goods business from which Clement resigned in 1935. A turning point for Greenberg came the following year, when he went to work for the federal government, first in the office of the Civil Service Commission and in 1937 in the Appraiser's Division of the Customs Service in the Port of New York. This latter position gave him time to begin his career as an essayist. In winter 1939 Greenberg published his first review—a commentary on Bertolt Brecht's A Penny for the Poor. This began a period of critical writing about art and culture that would span five decades.

The 1940s marked Greenberg's greatest activity as a critic. From 1940 to 1942 he was an editor of Partisan Review, and from 1942 to 1949 he published regularly as the art critic for the Nation. In August 1944 he accepted the position of managing editor of the Contemporary Jewish Record. When this bimonthly magazine was replaced by Commentary, Greenberg was named associate editor, a position he held until 1957.

Until 1941 Greenberg's criticism was largely confined to literary subjects. In May of that year, however, he published an appreciation of the artist Paul Klee in the Nation. This initiated the art criticism for which he became most widely known. The intellectual justification for his approach had been articulated a few years earlier in two essays published in Partisan Review. "The Avant Garde and Kitsch" (1939) was a manifesto in which Greenberg made a sharp distinction between "true culture" and "popular art." He asserted that quality in a work of art had nothing to do with contemporary social and political values. "Retiring from the public altogether," he wrote, "the avant-garde poet or artist sought to maintain the high level of his art by both narrowing it and raising it to the expression of an absolute…." This was necessary, he argued, because of the ways in which modern society had debased high art into kitsch. In "Towards a Newer Laocoon" (published in Partisan Reviewin 1940) Greenberg explained the necessity for avant-garde artists to break away from the traditional dominance of subject matter and place a new emphasis on form.

Greenberg's early thinking was influenced by the theories of Karl Marx and Hans Hofmann. Greenberg's study of Marxist theory made the avant garde of interest to him, and it suggested that abstract art was a revolutionary move away from the popular appeal of narrative painting in America. More important, however, was the influence of Hans Hofmann, the German artist and educator. In 1938 and 1939 Greenberg attended Hofmann's classes in which he stressed the importance of the formal qualities of painting— color, line, plane, and the "push" and "pull" of shapes on the flat canvas. In his criticism of the 1940s and the 1950s Greenberg developed these ideas into a unique critical tool.

In the mid-1940s Greenberg was the first to champion the work of the New York School of abstract artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and David Smith. When, in the 1950s, the New York School of painters gained recognition, the quality of Greenberg's criticism brought him a great deal of attention. He was asked to organize exhibitions and was invited to teach and lecture at Black Mountain College, Yale University, Bennington College, and Princeton University, among others. Greenberg continued to refine his ideas about art and to write art criticism. In concise prose, Greenberg mixed references to the history of modern art and his analysis of the formal properties of painting in such a way as to make the abstract work of these artists accessible to critics and students of art. His criticism was characterized by a personal and passionate articulation of his artistic enthusiasms. In 1961 Greenberg published a collection of his essays in Art and Culture, a book that would influence the next generation of critics.

In the early 1960s Greenberg also published one of his most influential essays. "Modernist Painting" outlined a formalist history in which the preoccupation of painters with the formal elements of painting, particularly the flatness of the picture plane, was the common thread of his reading of the history of modern art. From Edouard Manet to the contemporary paintings of the New York School of the 1940s and the 1950s, Greenberg traced a continuous stripping away of subject matter, illusion, and pictorial space. Caught within the internal logic of their medium, painters rejected narrative in favor of painting's unique, formal qualities.

With the emergence of Pop Art in the 1960s Greenberg's formalist approach was no longer relevant. Pop Art, with its reliance on conceptual wit and its sources in "low," popular art, was the antithesis of Greenberg's formalist theories. As an answer to the success of Pop Art, in 1964 Greenberg organized the exhibition "Post Painterly Abstraction." In the accompanying exhibition catalogue he extended his critical principles to argue that paintings exhibiting openness, linear clarity of design, and high-keyed, even-valued color were the natural progression of the formal history of art that he had outlined earlier in "Modernist Painting." Despite his arguments, Greenberg's emphasis on a formalist interpretation came under increasing criticism during the 1970s and the 1980s.

Even to his challengers, however, Greenberg remains one of the most important critics of his time. All recognize that he articulated clearly and concisely an approach to art that has remained prevalent for almost half a century. Greenberg's influence is so significant that for contemporary critics his articulation of art criticism has come to define the Modernist movement.

Further Reading

The most important publications of Clement Greenberg's criticism are Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, John O'Brian, editor (1986 and 1993). This four-volume work provides a short introduction and gives the reader the first published version of Greenberg's essays. The question of the edition of the essays is important because when Greenberg himself published a collection of his essays, Art and Culture: Critical Essays (1961), he re-edited his writing to more closely reflect his thinking at that time. Monographs of important artists of the 20th century written by Greenberg include Joan Miró (1948), Matisse (1953), and Hans Hofmann (1961). A complex and thorough consideration of Greenberg's criticism can be found in Donald Kuspit's Clement Greenberg: Art and Critic (1979). □

Greenberg, Clement

views updated May 08 2018


GREENBERG, CLEMENT (1909–1994), U.S. art critic. After studying at the Art Students League (1924–25) and receiving a B.A. from Syracuse University (1930), Greenberg began contributing articles on art, literature, and politics to the left-wing journal Partisan Review, where he served as editor in 1940–42. Among other venues, his articles appeared in The Nation, a magazine for which he was the regular art critic (1942–49); Contemporary Jewish Record, where he served as managing editor from June 1944 until the final issue in June 1945; and Commentary, where he was associate editor (1945–57).

Greenberg was one of the most influential art critics of the 1950s and 1960s. Along with critic Harold *Rosenberg, Greenberg championed Abstract Expressionism. In particular, Greenberg was pivotal in the ascent of Jackson Pollock. After early consideration of social factors in his pivotal PartisanReview article "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" (1939), Greenberg's formalist and often polemical mode of art analysis mostly ignored contextual considerations, a position largely rejected by subsequent art critics.

In addition to writing on Jewish themes and subjects, Greenberg also wrote about or discussed his own Jewish identity. In a 1944 contribution to a symposium on Jewish American literature Greenberg commented that he "has no more of a conscious position towards his Jewish heritage than the average American Jew – which is to say, hardly any." Unconsciously, however, Greenberg believed that "a quality of Jewishness is present in every word I write."

Along with his book Art and Culture: Critical Essays (1961), which includes "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," Greenberg wrote the monographs Joan Miró (1948), Matisse (1953), and Hans Hoffman (1961). His collected essays were published in four volumes (1986–93).


D.B. Kuspit, Clement Greenberg: Art Critic (1979); J. O'Brien (ed.), Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, 4 vols. (1986–93); F. Rubenfeld, Clement Greenberg: A Life (1997).

[Samantha Baskind (2nd ed.)]