The Greenbergian Stake

This week I have a few thoughts about Clement Greenberg, not that we need another nail in his coffin or stake through his heart. All the dirty work was done upon the occasion of Florence Rubenfeld’s 1998 Clement Greenberg: A Life. Aside from the claim that he alone discovered and nurtured Jackson Pollock, there is little to praise or dispute. Oh, yes, his writing style was clear although his logic was warped. And he did make value judgments.

Besides, he was cremated in 1994, so nails and stakes are irrelevant. Alice Goldfarb Marquis’s newly released Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg, a definitely more measured biography, provides the excuse for my no doubt long-awaited take on Devil Clem. I was never a fan, preferring his arch-rival Harold Rosenberg, but, let’s face it, both lost it when Pop displaced their painterly pals and neither understood Dada or Duchamp.

If Rosenberg ever really looked at a painting it never showed in his writings. Greenberg looked and it showed. But I sensed more poetry in Rosenberg, more complexity, more culture and even more philosophy. Greenberg, I did however meet. Late in his career and early in mine, we were jurors together for a Syracuse University drawing show. Syracuse University was his alma mater. After the first session, during which he voted too enthusiastically for any drawing that showed a woman’s breasts, the third juror hatched a plan to hide his ever-present bottle of vodka. He was, nevertheless, quite jolly, quite avuncular, and one could see why many male artists loved his studio visits. Where was the bully? Where was the moralistic thug?

Almost simultaneously, as curator of the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, it was my duty to make studio visits to see the works of the locals. A group of Greenberg’s guys was stranded in that once lively Erie Canal hub. He visited once a year and gave them advice, some would say orders. Through that experience I learned the drill. His visits were long and intense and there had to be a bottle of booze. The artists, to a man, expected me to pick and choose and even edit. There was also what one of them called “the around the clock thing.” Clem would sit there besotted and, as the lucky painter rotated one abstract gel-painting after another, he would announce which end was up; and that end stayed up. That artist expected me to also tell him which end was up, but since no end was better than any other – Day-Glo gel is Day-Glo gel, no matter how you smear it around — I was out the door.

Greenberg may have mellowed in his dotage, but even Marquis’ well-balanced biography makes it clear that in his prime Clem was a first class rat. There was a reason Clement was eventually disowned by his successful businessman father. Moody and lazy, young Clement obviously despised his father for being too Jewish and, more importantly, because he did not see his oldest son’s artistic talent, a gift that was certainly not manifested in any actual drawings, paintings or watercolors. Clem’s artistic talent took another form, as we shall see later. It must be said, however, that the few artworks of his I have seen are not quite as bad as his attempts at poetry quoted by Marquis, such as, from1935: “If you ruin your life at 26, can you ever pick it up again/ Will you ever find someone to love you?/ Time isn’t big enough. It takes years to find a loving heart/ For yourself. Love’s Pilgrim. Oh weary road.”

This was about the time he abandoned his first wife and newborn son in California. But let’s not go into his many personal disasters. Suffice it to say, that when he chose a shrink it was a certain Ralph Klein, who created a kind of cult around the idea that close personal relationships were the cause of emotional problems and should be ended. Let’s not go into the odd fact that Greenberg’s best friend and constant correspondent for twenty years (Harold Lazarus) was a gay man he met at college. Some have accused Greenberg of homophobia, but two gallerists whose ears he had were gay: John Bernard Meyers and Betty Parsons. And, of course, he was a womanizer who seemed to dislike women as artists and as intellectuals. And that…

We can blame the times. We can blame the Depression and Greenberg’s battle with depression (not helped by alcohol and sleeping pills).

The writings, some of which I have dutifully assigned students over the years, are, when closely examined, supremely muddled. They read as if they are logical, but they are not. Assertion is not argument. No matter what the cause, he was a bully even in his writings and that served him well. He knew the truth about art, or so he claimed. He had taste, which was all that was needed to judge art. There is indeed something attractive about merciless conviction; there is something seductive about a world where it is only high abstraction vs. kitsch. Who wants to be told that what he or she likes is kitsch? Greenberg virtually invented the use of the word in English but seemed never to realize that some of the paintings he had begun to promote was abstract kitsch or pastry for the eye.

We do not mourn Greenberg’s simplistic view of modernism. That he was once right — about Jackson Pollock — gave him immense clout, because, then as now, the art world was made up of conformists. Once right, it turns out is not right enough; once right might have been luck. Also, at that time American art needed a hero. De Kooning, in many ways a more likely candidate, was foreign-born, and although incredibly handsome spoke with an accent. He looked like an ad for Dutch Boy paint, whereas Pollock looked like James Dean.

Which do you think is more interesting as a photo-op: de Kooning patiently scraping oil paint off a canvas on an easel or Pollock flinging house paint on a canvas rolled out on a floor? Which is more dramatic? It was a battle between the arm and the body, and the body won. Images of Pollock painting said freedom writ large. It was that “freedom” that the State Department used to sell America around the world, sending Greenberg here and there, to lecture about Abstract Expressionism as artistic freedom, implying it was a stand-in for political freedom.

Jackson, Clement, Helen, and Lee at the beach.

Changing Canada, But Not the World

But then Greenberg failed. In terms of his Post-Painterly Abstraction ploy to repeat his Pollock win, he was right — for the wrong reasons — about Barnett Newman but, I fear, misguided about all of the others in his Post-Painterly stable. Without Papa Clem to provide guidance, the painters he directed floundered, weakened, lost it. And his main man Jules Olitski could have used much more editing. Pretty is not beauty; pretty is not sublime. But, as far as I can see, Greenberg was not much interested in the sublime.

What can we possibly think about Kenneth Noland now? Surely he is in the long run better than Frank Stella whom Greenberg had no interest in at all. But is that saying much? Isn’t there really more in a Jasper Johns target (even though it is “representational”) than in a Noland target (even though it is “abstract”)? The best we can say about Noland is that, unlike Johns, he has never been sarcastic.

As we have seen, Greenberg made extremely aggressive studio visits, choosing and editing paintings, basically telling artists what to do. By the time the Sixties rolled around we had entered the realm of the MFA artist, accustomed to being coached and cajoled. Connections, then as now, were everything. Greenberg could get you a gallery. He had good relationships with a network of art galleries and curators at museums. Because of the latter, America’s museums are still stuffed and stacked with worthless Post-Painterly Abstract paintings, most mercifully in storage. It’s doubtful there will be a shift in taste; that tide-wrack is slowly rotting (or fading away in the case of all that Day-Glo gel). One can almost chart Greenberg’s lecture engagements by the Post-Painterly residue. Canada itself has become lopsided because of the weight of bad abstractions inspired by Greenberg repeated studio visits.

Why the Art World Turned Against Clem

Nevertheless, Greenberg — and I have been saying this in classes and lectures for years — was one of the better post-Pollock artists. Not a Johns or a Rauschenberg, but certainly in the disguise of or in his de facto collaborations with Noland, Olitski, Larry Zox, Morris Louis, Larry Poons, and even Gene Davis (who should have known better) he was a better artist than Larry Rivers, Marisol, and most of the Second Generation Abstract Expressionists.

Greenberg is one of the most undervalued, under-acknowledged artists of the ’60s. The key to understanding Greenberg as an artist (whose criticism thereby becomes totally self-serving) is to grasp that art is collective. You don’t have to actually make it yourself to be the author. Everyone drinks out of the same stream; no one goes it alone. And once you move from the myth of self-expression to the myth of pure form, it is possible to see collaborations, even unacknowledged ones between artists and their critics, as radical — in a way that even the minimalists and their successors, the conceptualists, barely touched or fully plumbed. The heroic artist is left behind.

The artist as prophet, chained to self-expression or transformed by same is toppled. There might, of course, be a group subjectivity. Indeed some art posits and might even demonstrate such a transpersonal consciousness. I am thinking of the Surrealist Unconscious and the Spiritual Superconsciousness. But so-called objective aesthetics is the point here, in a discussion of Greenberg’s role in artmaking, his “philosophy” of taste.

Greenberg’s struggle was against the subjectivity (and inter-subjectivity) of the dreaded Surrealist Decadence, with its alchemy, fraternity and liberty – and its playing around with various Exquisite Corpses. It was a bourgeois struggle against yet another False Messiah. But this time the False Messiah was first Andre Breton and then Marcel Duchamp. For all of Greenberg’s undigested Hegelism, he behaved like a logical positivist of the worst sort. That late in his career he can be caught reading Wittgenstein is telling. It is now generally conceded that the apodictic is a mysticism of the lowest kind, as pernicious in its own way as the notion that history itself has a will, is a kind of inescapable all-controlling entity — or should we say demiurge? Now we know better or should. Nothing is self-evident; nothing is predetermined. That is our terror, and our freedom.

That Greenberg fell victim to a psychoanalytical cult indicates his childish need for absolutes. At least when he was a Trotskyite in the late ’30s he was in good company; many of the best and brightest had made that error. Trotsky, the deposed head of the Red Army, let on that culture-workers had a part to play in the coming world revolution. Stalin offered no such hope; and proved it by his systematic repression and the Moscow Trials.

Greenberg, it turns out, is not all that important as an art critic. Although it was obviously difficult for him to deal with the fact that everyone but he himself was making money from his pronouncements, his subsequent bad behavior is simply a question of ethics. Talk about value judgments! More important is his role as artistic collaborator, because this destabilizes art and, yes, individualism. Art gifts? The French did it way before him. Critic as art dealer? Who cares. The shocker is his role as a fixer. Not as in horse race, but as in fixer-upper. He had a hand in the art! Suddenly all roles were blurred. And that was easily repressed by focusing on his love life, his double-dealing, and other shenanigans.

If the truth be told, the moment we recognize something as art we are in collaboration with whomever has presented the art proposition. But even before this mystical communion, other collaborations have taken place. Do not art professors, either through inspiration or force, co-create the works of their students and, in a not-so-subtle way, long after graduation? Does not the critic or curator who comes into a studio and says “this one, but not that one” co-create the results?

Greenberg did more than point. We have seen photographs of his masking tape edits on unstretched canvases of painters he was promoting as the next great thing. And critic Rosalind Krauss, once a Greenbergian herself, startled the art world with before-and-after photographs of Greenberg’s alterations of David Smith sculptures. He ordered paint stripped from at least ten sculptures, having always disliked Smith’s attempts at polychrome. This is what did him in. The artist is sacred; art is sacred and death is a sacred seal. The artist, even after death, must have the final say. But what if the person involved, like Greenberg, has been a collaborator, a co-creator all along? If Gilbert altered what he and Sullivan had created would that have been a mortal sin? If Abbot went on to change an Abbot and Costello joke would that have resulted in hellfire?

Here’s the rub: Greenberg was right. If you look at where he taped the Louis paintings, there is no better cut. Smith’s painted sculptures were really bad.


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