“Clem Greenberg” by Jeff Grunthaner

“Clem Greenberg” A review of Art and Culture, by Clement Greenberg

 

As far as the essays collected in Art and Culture, Clement Greenberg represents the end of Modernism. He maps out a certain modality of artistic practice that went South around the time of Warhol. Yet this does nothing to challenge his importance as a writer, social critic, and art-historian. Some of his judgments may seem myopic or even flatly erroneous in the light of contemporary aesthetics—but this is only apparent for us, living as we do some 70 years or so after the bulk of these essays were written. Art and Culture gives us an image of Clement Greenberg as the avatar of kind of stalwart autonomy; his writing approaches the systematic thinking typical of 19th century philosophy. And while he is sometimes labeled  an “elitist” (in the pejorative sense) the essays in Art and Culture are nothing if not well-argued, and therefore eminently open and accessible.

For Greenberg, the avant-garde takes its departure from Cubism—specifically, the experimentation of Picasso and Braque. The innovations of painters such as Pollock, de Kooning, and sculptors such as David Smith (note the time when these artists were working) all take their departure from Cubism, having to reckon with the fact that Cubism lay bare the intrinsic workings of pictorial and physical space. The importance of Cubism for Greenberg's criticism can be glimpsed in the following quotations.

 

Concerning collage: “Collage was a major turning point in the evolution of Cubism, and therefore a major turning point in the whole evolution of modernist art in this century” (Greenberg 70).

 

In reference to sculpture (excerpted from an essay originally published in 1948): “The new construction-sculpture points back, almost insistently, to its origins in Cubist painting: by its linearism and linear intricacies, by its openness and transparency and weightlessness, and by its preoccupation with surface as skin alone, which it expresses in blade or sheet-like forms” (Greenberg 142).

 

Greenberg's almost matter-of-fact insistence on the significance of Cubism does much to convince his readers of its revolutionary importance. The fact that there is no one essay in Art and Culture that deals with Cubism specifically does little to undermine this discovery. Limited only by the subject-matter dealt with in each individual essay, Cubism always looms in the background, the precursive key to to the Modernist aesthetic, a regent that holds sway even as Greenberg discusses the decline of Picasso in his later years.

Writing at a time when the Classics and the corresponding criteria of canonicity were less dubious than they are today, Greenberg takes insight (not necessarily inspiration) from the reigning literary critics of his time, mingling these with a phenomenological approach readily apparent in his descriptions of individual works of art. With this, there is a dry humor that animates his writing, a cultural savvy that can easily be overlooked at first glance. Consider the following quotation, excerpted from Greenberg's trenchant article “T.S. Eliot: A Book Review,” which is essential reading for anyone  enervated by Eliot's politics or art:

 

“Without forgetting Aristotle, Johnson, Coleridge, Lessing, Goethe, certain Frenchmen of the nineteenth century, Ezra Pound, or the early Kenneth Burke, I dare to suggest that T.S. Eliot may be the best of all literary critics” (Greenberg 239).

 

Not only does Greenberg trace out his own literary heritage here (with the exception of Husserl, whom he mentions elsewhere), but the wry humor of this statement is absolutely first-rate. Here as elsewhere, when Greenberg is at his most delightful, the personalia of his own life saturates his critical judgments—not in a biased or temperamental way, but honestly, which is really the only way to write about either art or culture.

Greenberg's essays are written from the perspective of a homme de lettres as well as a New Yorker. His “Jewishness” (to call it this) is one of the items of personalia one can tease out from his essays, but which is in no way stated explicitly. Still, there seems to be a kind of pathos evident when Greenberg writes about Chaïm Soutine—a painter whom I feel Greenberg largely underestimates:

 

“Like Chagall and Lipchitz, two other artists from Jewish European Europe, Soutine never recovered from the impact of the museum, with which he became really acquainted only after arriving in Paris in 1913, at the age of nineteen. Chagall and Lipchitz had reached there in time to be affected by the first excitement of Cubism. Soutine turned his back on Cubism, and refused, at least in words, to like anything but the Old Masters” (Greenberg 116).

 

The foreground of this passage touches on what I think is a severe misjudgment: namely, that the only hope for avant-gardism (in Greenberg's time or any other) lies in an immersive reaction to Cubism. In the background, however, is the idea of the “Jew lost in the European museum”—and one wonders to what extent such a notion actually had explicatory value in Greenberg's mind when he wrote of Soutine's wayward aesthetics.

At his worst, Greenberg seems to pass over artists that don't conform to his “system”—that is,  who don't fall in line with an idea of art history where Cubism takes center stage. The figurative painter Fairfield Porter, who also “turned his back on Cubism,” is not mentioned at all—although he certainly could have been. Greenberg is especially given to champion the artists known today as “Abstract Expressionists” (especially Pollock, whom Greenberg states was the finest painter of his generation), and his essays are highly instructive not because of his personal acquaintance with these then-unknown artists, but because he writes about them lucidly at a time when no one else was doing so. Cubism, as Greenberg relates it, is decidedly one of the most important moments in 20th century art—and yet this reviewer doesn't think it has the ubiquitous, almost imperial significance that Greenberg ascribes to it. The realism of painters like Soutine, Bacon, Freud—Greenberg would no doubt have said that they were behind the times. And yet they most certainly weren't; they just worked outside of the Cubist purview, which to them probably felt mannered and conventional. Nonetheless, Greenberg's essays have more to teach than popular consciousness commonly ascribes to them. Whether one feels comfortable with his narrative explications, his extolling of the Cubist aesthetic, Art and Culture is essential reading for anyone who takes art seriously.

 

-Jeffrey Grunthaner

 

 

 

 

 

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