Unless I am doing my sums wrong, today is the 100 year anniversary of Clement Greenberg‘s birth. This notorious figure, surely as transformative of the art world in own his way as Lessing, Ruskin or Baudelaire were in theirs, died in 1994. And indeed his criticism, like theirs, lives on.
If the ability to ruffle feathers, start fights, occasionally to open eyes as much as minds, even years after one’s own death, is in any way an index of greatness, Greenberg was a very great critic indeed. Yet his relationship with what may yet prove to have been the absolute stellar zenith of American painting, the age of Abstract Expressionism, is still not very well understood. To what extent did he ‘create’ this climactic Modernist moment? Could it have happened without him? And how different would it all have been without that extraordinary prose-style, clean and tough and distinctively American, through which — necessarily so, in those days before mass air travel, cheap colour reproductions and non-stop blockbuster exhibitions — the world beyond Manhattan first began to engage with Pollock, de Kooning, Still, Newman and the rest?
Probably, as is famously the case with the effects of revolution, it’s simply too soon to tell. Not that this should obscure the fact that Greenberg has been atrociously ill-served by his biographers. Florence Rubenfeld’s Clement Greenberg: A Life (1998) was intellectually underpowered yet overstuffed with gossip. This, though, was perhaps preferable to Alice Goldfarb Marquis’s Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg (2005), a hachet-job pure and simple. Yes, it’s terrible that Greenberg wasn’t as politically correct as the more bovine sort of present-day Ivy League undergraduate, that he was no more flawless as a father than he was as a husband, and that he often upset people. That, though, rather misses the point. Few people, I suspect, live utterly blameless lives. What was unusual about Greenberg was, in contrast, something to do with his clarity of expression, the astonishing range of literary and intellectual associations he brought to his writing, and the freshness, honesty and force of his responses. He really did look at art, not just think about it, and he had the ability to make other people look at it, too. And if anyone ever makes sense of all this, conjuring Greenberg up with a narrative that neither whitewashes nor demonises him, the acheivement will be considerable.
In the meantime, there is something to be gained from reading accounts of this paradoxical, complex, sometimes maddening yet clearly also extremely attractive man from those who actually knew him. Those by Helen Frankenthaler, Karen Wilkin, and Darby Bannard are, for example, all illuminating in their various ways. (In 2000 the New Criterion ran a very interesting piece about Greenberg by Tim Hilton, but I’ve been unable to find a proper link to it.)
More illuminating of all, though, is the experience of reading Greenberg’s own writing — not what others have said that he said, or scrappy fillets hacked out of coherent essays, either, but Greenberg’s actual texts, at full length, in their correct context. Happily, an impressive amount of his criticism is now available online, here, along with quite a lot of complementary information and resources. For while it’s entirely reasonable to disagree with Greenberg’s judgements, there’s something more than slightly shoddy about dismissing them, and him, on the basis of garbled third-hand misreadings, let alone the equally prolific batch of self-serving, tendentious straw-man characterisations. It’s remarkable to note how few preconceptions regarding the Demon King of Formalism and his evil ways actually survive once exposed to the atmosphere of what he actually wrote.
And while we’re on the subject of recommendations, the Harold Letters are also worth reading, not least for the impression they give of boundless curiosity, a strong sense of irony and an intensity of intellectual engagement unmistakable even amidst the sillier interludes of youthful showing off, acting up and all-purpose pose-striking. If Greenberg grew considerably less silly as he matured, those qualities of curiosity, irony and engagement survived much longer than they do in most intellectual careers. Perhaps there is a lesson, an inspiration almost, to be found in all this.
How, finally, to commemorate a century of Greenberg? Go look at some art — if possible, with fresh eyes, as if what you are seeing might actually amaze you either with its formal perfection or, more likely perhaps, with its abject lack of visual ambition. Or go back into the studio and make something that really works. Or read some of Greenberg’s prose, alert to how very vivid and strong those words still sound. Or perhaps just raise a glass to the memory of this distinctive, clear and uncompromising intellect — and then start an argument about art, as if standards in art actually mattered — even if, in doing so, you manage to upset someone along the way.
Clement Greenberg, most immediate and lively of dead critics, rest in peace.