Clement Greenberg: Wikis


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Clement Greenberg
Birth name Clement Greenberg
Born January 16, 1909(1909-01-16)
New York City, New York,
United States
Died May 7, 1994 (aged 85)
New York City, New York,
United States
Nationality American
Movement Abstract expressionism, Post-Painterly Abstraction, Color Field painting

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."

Abstract Expressionism and after

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."[1]

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.

Post-painterly abstraction

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.

Clement Greenberg Collection

In 2000, the Portland Art Museum (PAM) acquired the Clement Greenberg Collection of 159 paintings, prints, drawings, and sculpture by some of the most important American artists of the mid-20th century. PAM exhibits the works primarily in the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art - some sculpture resides outdoors. Among the collection: Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski, and Sir Anthony Caro.

Greenberg's widow, Janice van Horn, donated his annotated library of exhibition catalogues and publications on artists in Greenberg's collection to the Portland Art Museum.[2] Greenberg's annotated library is available at the Portland Art Museum's Crumpacker Family Library which is open to the public free of charge.

See also


Writing by and about Clement Greenberg

  • Greenberg, Clement. Art and Culture, Beacon Press, 1961
  • Greenberg, Clement. Late Writings, edited by Robert C. Morgan, St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
  • Clement Greenberg: A Critic's Collection by Bruce Guenther, Karen Wilkin (Editor), Portland: Portland Art Museum, 2001. (ISBN 0-691-09049-1)
  • Greenberg, Clement. Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste. Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Jones, Caroline A. Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg's Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses. University of Chicago Press, 2005.
  • Kuspit, Donald. Clement Greenberg: Art Critic. University of Wisconsin, 1979.
  • Marquis, Alice Goldfarb. Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg. Boston: MFA Publications, 2006.
  • Rubenfeld, Florence. Clement Greenberg: A Life. Scribner, 1997.
  • Tekiner, Deniz. "Formalist Art Criticism and the Politics of Meaning." Social Justice, Issue on Art, Power, and Social Change, 33:2 (2006).

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Clement Greenberg (1909-01-16 - 1994-05-07) was an American art critic best known as a champion of Abstract Expressionism.



  • Realistic, naturalistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art; Modernism used art to call attention to art.
    • "Modernist Painting", (Voice of America pamphlet and radio broadcast, 1960); later published in Art and Literature (Paris, spring 1965) and in the anthology The New Art (1966), ed. Gregory Battcock
  • It belongs to journalism — and to the millennial complex from which so many journalists and journalist intellectuals suffer in our day — that each new phase of Modernist art should be hailed as the start of a whole new epoch in art, marking a decisive break with all the customs and conventions of the past. Each time, a kind of art is expected so unlike all previous kinds of art, and so free from norms of practice or taste, that everybody, regardless of how informed or uninformed he happens to be, can have his say about it. And each time, this expectation has been disappointed, as the phase of Modernist art in question finally takes its place in the intelligible continuity of taste and tradition.

    Nothing could be further from the authentic art of our time than the idea of a rupture of continuity. Art is — among other things — continuity, and unthinkable without it. Lacking the past of art, and the need and compulsion to maintain its standards of excellence, Modernist art would lack both substance and justification.

    • "Modernist Painting" (Voice of America pamphlet and radio broadcast, 1960); later published in Art and Literature (Paris, spring 1965) and in the anthology The New Art (1966), ed. Gregory Battcock
  • One is also reminded of how in art the tortoise so often overtakes the hare. Not all, but too many of the best writers, composers, and artists of our time begin to be acclaimed only when they no longer have anything to say and take to performing instead of stating. This is how they first become accessible to broad taste, which is lazy taste, and by the same token to the processes of publicity and consecration. As long as they were trammeled up in the urgency of getting things said they were too difficult, too "controversial."
  • It has become apparent that art can have a startling impact without really being or saying anything startling — or new. The character itself of being startling, spectacular, or upsetting has become conventionalized, part of safe good taste.
    • "Avant Garde Attitudes", The John Power Lecture in Contemporary Art, University of Sydney, (1968-05-17); printed by The Power Institute of Fine Arts, University of Sydney (1969)
  • "Purity" of and in art — any art, including music and dance — is an illusory notion, of course. It may be remotely conceivable or imaginable, but it can't be realized because it can't be recognized any more than a "pure" human being or a "pure" (or, for that matter, gratuitous) act can be. All the same, for Western art in its Modernist phase "purity" has been a useful idea and ideal, with a kind of logic to it that has worked, and still works, to generate aesthetic value and maintain aesthetic standards as nothing else in our specializing culture has over the last hundred-odd years.

    But this logic has also worked to exclude the decorative — the decorative insofar as it functions solely as decoration. It's as though aesthetic value, quality, could be preserved only by concentrating on "absolute" or "autonomous" art: thus on visual art — including even architecture — that held and moved and stirred the beholder as sheer decoration could not. Decoration is asked to be "merely" pleasing, "merely" embellishing, and the "functional" logic of Modernism leaves no room, apparently, for such "mereness." This is part of the pity of Modernism, one of the sacrifices it enjoins....

Art and Culture: Critical Essays (1961)

[Beacon Press, ISBN 0-8070-6681-8]

  • The main trouble with avant-garde art and literature, from the point of view of fascists and Stalinists, is not that they are too critical, but that they are too "innocent," that it is too difficult to inject effective propaganda, that kitsch is more pliable to this end.
  • Perhaps the greatest change that industrialism (along with Protestantism and rationalism) has made in daily life is to separate work from leisure in a radical and almost absolute way. Once the efficacy of work began to be more clearly and fully appreciated, work had to become more efficacious in itself — that is, more efficient. To this end, it had to be more sharply separated from everything that was not work; it had to be made more concentratedly and purely itself — in attitude, in method and, above all, in time. Moreover, under the rule of efficiency, seriously purposeful activity in general tended to become assimilated to work. The effect of all this has been to reduce leisure to an occasion more exclusively of passivity, to a breathing spell and interlude; it has become something peripheral.
    • "The Plight of Culture" (1953), p. 31
  • Once efficiency is universally accepted as a rule, it becomes an inner compulsion and weighs like a sense of sin, simply because no one can ever be efficient enough, just as no one can ever be virtuous enough. And this new sense of sin only contributes further to the enervation of leisure, for the rich as well as the poor.

    The difficulty of carrying on a leisure-oriented tradition of culture in a work-oriented society is enough in itself to keep the present crisis in our culture unresolved.

    • "The Plight of Culture" (1953), pp. 31-32
  • Complete honesty has nothing to do with "purity" or naivety. The full truth is unattainable to naivety, and the completely honest artist is not pure in heart.
    • "Partisan Review 'Art Chronicle': 1952" (1952), p. 146
  • One cannot condemn tendencies in art; one can only condemn works of art. To be categorically against a current art tendency or style means, in effect, to pronounce on works of art not yet created and not yet seen. It means inquiring into the motives of artists instead of into results. Yet we all know — or are supposed to know — that results are all that count in art.
  • The paradox in the evolution of French painting from Courbet to Cézanne is how it was brought to the verge of abstraction in and by its very effort to transcribe visual appearance with ever greater fidelity.
    • "On the Role of Nature in Modernist Painting" (1949), p. 171
  • A large picture can give us images of things, but a relatively small one can best re-create the instantaneous unity of nature as a view — the unity of which the eyes take in at a single glance.
  • The so-called obscurity of modernist literature has, of course, a lot to do with the new stress on exegesis. When the overt meaning of a work can no longer be taken for granted, criticism is forced — or seems forced — to undertake the explication of the text of the work before doing anything else. But experience has shown us by now that the drift and shape of an "obscure" poem or novel can be grasped for the purposes of art without being "worked out." Part of the triumph of modernist poetry is, indeed, to have demonstrated the great extent to which verse can do without explicit meaning and yet not sacrifice anything essential to its effect as art. Here, as before, successful art can be depended upon to explain itself.

On Henri Matisse

Matisse's art speaks for itself through its "mechanics", it's "form" and through the feeling which that "form" makes manifest. It's not by far the first to do so and to transcend the illustrated subject by doing so. (All good painting and sculpture does that to some extent). But just as Matisse rejected verbal rhetoric so he kept every last trace of illustrational rhetoric out of his art. He may have been the first painter in our tradition to do that in a really radical way. This doesn't make his art better than a Giotto's or Caravaggio's or Goya's or David's, not necessarily. But it does make it a salutary example for all those people who find it hard, in any medium, to mean what they say. (1973)[1]

  • The superior artist is the one who knows how to be influenced. (1973)[2]
  • Influences of Matisse, exhibition catalog essay 1973, Aquavella Gallery NYC.

On Hans Hofmann

Hofmann is perhaps the most difficult artist alive-difficult to grasp and to appreciate. But by the same token he is an immensely interesting, original, and rewarding one, whose troubles in clarifying his art stem in large part precisely from the fact that he has so much to say. (1961)[3]

  • Hofmann,(1961) essay: Paris: Editions Georges Fall, 1961

On Modernism

the essence of modernism lies in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence. Modernism used art to call attention to art. The limitations that constitute the medium of painting - the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of the pigment. came to be regarded as positive factors, and were acknowledged openly. (1960)

    • "Modernist Painting", (Voice of America pamphlet and radio broadcast, 1960); later published in Art and Literature (Paris, spring 1965) and in the anthology The New Art (1966), ed. Gregory Battcock


  1. [1] On Matisse
  2. [2] On Matisse
  3. [3]on Hans Hofmann]

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