- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006


By Alice Goldfarb Marquis

MFA Publications, $35, 321 pages


Forty-five years ago this June, Americans were engrossed in reading such bestsellers as Irving Stone’s fictionalized biography of Michelangelo, “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” William Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” and John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage.” A little book of essays entitled “Art and Culture” was hardly noticed by the mass audience, yet it was to have a huge influence on the growing discipline of art history.

The long life of the author of that book, the art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994), extended over critical years in the history of American art. He was central to the movement of American painting from the periphery to the center of the Western art world. As the champion of abstract expressionism, he sold the world on the idea that the history and logic of modern art culminated in the work of Jackson Pollock.

In “Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg,” Alice Goldfarb Marquis, the author of previous books on Marcel Duchamp and Alfred H. Barr, Jr., has produced a balanced, reliable and engrossing account of this pivotal figure in American art criticism.

New York City in the 1930s was the center of radical politics, the only American city, one wit quipped, that believed it was actually in the Soviet Union. Two young men of the left, Philip Rahv and William Phillips, took over a little magazine called Partisan Review. That journal, along with Commentary (for which Greenberg was to work later as an editor) and a few others, were to have a disproportionate influence on American high culture in the ensuing decades.

As Partisan Review began its transformation from a Communist mouthpiece to an independent leftist voice in politics and the arts, Greenberg found himself involved with its endeavors, his ambition for a long time having been to write literary criticism. But he soon found himself outclassed in a field requiring a very special blend of insight and literary skill which the luminaries who ran the journal possessed in abundance.

Greenberg’s first important essay for the journal was “Avant Garde and Kitsch,” published 1939. It was a polemic on the clash between popular culture and artistic innovation that would engage thoughtful readers in his own time and provide grist for scholarly mills into the next century.

According to Ms. Marquis, Greenberg was largely channeling Leon Trotsky’s reflections on revolutionary art and culture. Nonetheless, his own immediate contribution was to popularize the concepts of avant garde and kitsch for American readers. Greenberg was the first American writer to develop a complex theory about how these phenomena develop in industrial societies.

This essay, the most discussed of any Partisan Review had published, signaled an about face for 1930’s radicals resonating with their profound disappointment that the masses had failed to respond to political radicalism. Sixty-five years later it remains essential reading for students and scholars in a broad range of fields: sociology, literature and the arts, history and even economics.

Greenberg was drafted into the United States Army in 1943. A nervous breakdown a few weeks before he was to be sent to fight in Europe led to a discharge from the service. Back in New York a few months later, he began furiously reviewing contemporary art for the Nation and Partisan Review, writing art criticism with a seriousness which was uncharacteristic in the reviewing of his time.

Greenberg was even more of an exception in his insistence on devoting his attention to contemporary American artists. This was a time when the powerful Museum of Modern Art and other promoters of modernism were ignoring the wellsprings of new American art being produced in the cold water flats of lower Manhattan. For many of his early readers Greenberg became a rabbi, a leader and an advisor delivering a weekly sermon on the art of the 20th century.

One of the artists who caught his eye in the war years was Jackson Pollock. Late in 1943 he wrote his first review of Pollock, linking the painter to the writers Melville, Hawthorne and Poe. By the next year the critic was writing that the “future of American painting depends on what … Pollock, and only a comparatively few others do from now on.”

While superficial observers may have difficulty seeing much affinity between the fastidiously highbrow critic and the churlish, aggressively lowbrow artist, Ms. Marquis makes a compelling case that two men were brothers under the skin: two men who shared some telling early life experiences, similar barely controlled violent impulses, depressions and excessive drinking.

Greenberg’s tireless and eloquent advocacy of American abstract art in general and Jackson Pollock in particular eventually persuaded the editors of mass market magazines like Life to have a look. In the summer of 1948, the magazine ran a full-length piece about the artist illustrated with three large color reproductions of paintings and two black-and-white photos showing the artist’s drip technique. The headline asked, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”

The brief text did not name Greenberg, but stated that “a formidably high brow New York critic” had identified the painter as a “fine candidate to become the greatest living American painter of the 20th century.” The rest, as they say, is history.

If Greenberg made Pollock’s reputation, his close connection to the painter would vault the critic from being an obscure downtown writer to an essential guide to the new American art scene. His timely focus on Pollock as the central figure among the abstract expressionists persuaded many art world insiders to heed his words on the next big thing.

Next time around, however, Greenberg and the zeitgeist were out of sync. While the critic was hailing the austere purity of such artists as Kenneth Nolan, Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler as the next development of modernism, it was the ironic, anything-goes artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol who captured the popular and critical imagination with their “postmodernism.”

In the 1970s, Greenberg was on the receiving end of much criticism from the rising generation of artists and critics who denounced his judgmental attitude, his archaic standards and his “elitist” values.

In both his early and late writings, Greenberg expressed his opinions on art with a kind of uncompromising certainty not calculated to please those offended by Simon Cowell’s comments on “American Idol.”

While he sometimes sounded as though he were handing down commandments engraved on stone tablets, his theory about how art evolves, his wide-ranging curiosity, and his polished prose presented a beacon of enlightenment to the growing art audience of the post war years.

His criticism continues to be relevant in the world of art because he offers a thoughtful alternative to the nihilistic attitude of the contemporary art world. While championing the new art of his time, he exercised discrimination, following the best of traditional art critics.

He was the last of the “amateur” art critics, succeeded by a mass of university trained art historians flaunting advanced degrees. The paradox, as Ms. Marquis notes at the conclusion of her fine and valuable book, was that the amateur boldly — even aggressively — issued his verdicts, while the more educated writers flinched from overt judgments.

Joseph Phelan teaches philosophy at the Catholic University of America and is also the editor of Artcyclopedia.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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