I spent a good-sized chunk of last week writing a lengthy essay for Commentary about Alice Goldfarb Marquis’ Art Czar, the new biography of the art critic Clement Greenberg. Eight years ago I reviewed an earlier book about Greenberg, Florence Rubenfeld’s Clement Greenberg: A Life, and it occurred to me that it might be useful for me to revisit my earlier piece. For the most part I stand by what I wrote about Greenberg (and Rubenfeld) in 1998, but there was one passage that jumped out at me:
Greenberg became closely identified with a group of painters known as the “color-field abstractionists,” whose work he believed to be the culmination of modernism. He praised the work of Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski in disconcertingly lavish terms, curtly dismissing all competing artists as minor….
Greenberg’s critics were right about one thing–his history-driven theory of modernism was too neat by half–just as he himself was mistaken about a great many things, not least the long-term importance of the color-field painters, whose work he loved.
Eight years later, with Olitski’s Forward Edge and Noland’s Circle I (II-3) hanging on the walls of my living room, I find myself in a what-was-I-thinking mood. Such drastic changes of mind do happen to me on occasion, most recently in the case of the playwright August Wilson, of whom I thought poorly until I was lucky enough to see a very good production of what I’m told is his best play. Whenever that kind of thing happens to me, I try to come clean about it, in public if at all possible.
As I explained in The Wall Street Journal four years ago in a column called “The Contrite Critic”:
I’ve changed my mind about art more than once, and in so doing I’ve learned that I not infrequently start by disliking something and end up liking it. Not always–sometimes I decide on closer acquaintance that a novel or painting isn’t as good as I’d thought. More often, though, I realize that it was necessary for me to grow into a fuller understanding of a work of art to which my powers of comprehension were not at first equal.
The music critic Hans Keller said something shrewd about this phenomenon: “As soon as I detest something, I ask myself why I like it.” I try to keep that in mind whenever I cover a premiere. I don’t mean to say that critics should be wishy-washy, but we should also remember that strong emotions sometimes masquerade as their opposite.
Brooks Atkinson, for example, panned the original production of Rodgers and Hart’s “Pal Joey” in the New York Times, calling it “drab and mirthless.” When he saw the 1952 revival, he knew he’d been wrong, and said so in print: “In 1940