Greenberg, the most influential art critic in the 20th century, supported Abstract Expressionism and the formal properties of color, line, form, and space. Laocoon an essay on the limits of painting and poetry profoundly original art looks ugly at first. You like it, that’s all, whether it’s a landscape or abstract. You don’t have to read it.
The work of art-sculpture or painting-forces your eye. Where the Old Masters created an illusion of space into which one could imagine walking, the illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can look, can travel through, only with the eye. I don’t get into ‘becauses. When you come into a studio you see a number of works. My habit is to go to the one I like most.
If you start to say ‘because’ you get into art jargon. An artist’s successes are never compromised by his failures. I feel that works of art which genuinely puzzle us are almost always of ultimate consequence. Art criticism, I would say, is about the most ungrateful form of ‘elevated’ writing I know of. It may also be one of the most challenging. I’m not sure the challenge is worth it. Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miro, Kandinsky, Brancusi, even Klee, Matisse and Cézanne derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in.
The excitement of their art seems to lie most of all in its pure preoccupation with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, colors, etc. Clement Greenberg was probably the single most influential art critic in the twentieth century. His attention to the formal properties of art – color, line, space and so forth – his rigorous approach to criticism, and his understanding of the development of modern art – although they have all been challenged – have influenced generations of critics and historians. Clement Greenberg introduced a wealth of ideas into discussion of twentieth century art, elaborating and refining notions such as “kitsch,” the “easel picture,” and pictorial “flatness,” and inventing concepts such as that of the “allover” paint surface and “optical space.
Strongly associated with his support for Abstract Expressionism, Greenberg fervently believed in the necessity of abstract art as a means to resist the intrusion of politics and commerce into art. This early painting by Piet Mondrian is a wonderful precursor to abstraction. It’s also a strong example of what Greenberg considers the avant-garde, or the opposite of kitsch. Here, Mondrian is playing with space, color and shapes in a new way, and therefore avoids painting something that is predictable.
Greenberg was born in the Bronx, the eldest of four children. His parents were first-generation Jewish Lithuanian immigrants who lived briefly in Norfolk, Virginia, but kept New York City their permanent home. Both before and after Clement’s college years, his father repeatedly pressured him to enter the world of business, which for a time proved successful, but not for long. Greenberg graduated from Syracuse University in 1930 with a degree in English Literature. After graduation, he wandered aimlessly through a series of jobs with newspapers and credit agencies.
While on a business trip to California in 1934, he met and quickly married a local librarian. They moved in with her mother in Carmel, and two years later they had a son, Danny, but a few years later Greenberg was divorced and moved back to New York City, where he lived for the rest of his life. Astor Place in Greenwich Village. In particular he published “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” an essay which undertook an ambitious analysis of the relationship of modern high art to popular culture.
After the war, Greenberg moved to Greenwich Village. New York was beginning the phase that would see it outstrip Paris as a center for modern art. World War II and the atrocities of Nazi Germany had forced many artists, writers, and intellectuals to immigrate to New York, and many gravitated to Greenwich Village. Greenberg deeply loved the new modern art that was coming out of New York at this time. Greenberg’s view, creating art that was far superior to that being created in Europe. Greenberg’s political views shifted greatly after the war.
In 1950, Greenberg became a part of the CIA-sponsored American Committee for Cultural Freedom, of which Pollock was also a member. During the Cold War, this committee was designed to sponsor public intellectuals and create a forum for them, a forum which would be implicitly critical of Soviet Communism. Beginning in the early 1950s, Greenberg started a love affair with the artist Helen Frankenthaler, which ended in 1955. He had a reputation for womanizing and is said to have seduced several female students while teaching at Bennington College.
His work in the 1950s took on broader topics like French art and collage, and in his essay “‘American-Type’ Painting” he also put forth one of the most influential readings of Abstract Expressionism. After Louis’ death from lung cancer in 1962, Greenberg altered much of the artist’s work, editing lines, stripes and even the size of some canvases. 1965 and had them refinished in a uniform brown. Greenberg justified the alterations by insisting that Smith was not an important colorist, thus his changes were not hurting Smith’s works.
Greenberg’s work as a critic slowed after 1960. Instead he focused his time on revising old essays to accommodate changes in the art world, as well as his own feelings about art. He also secured many speaking and lecturing engagements, and became an adviser to several galleries and museums. American artists whose work fell outside the realm of 1960s-era Pop art, of which Greenberg was critical. It formed the foundation for much of his later thought.