Clement Greenberg (b. 1909–d. 1994) was the most influential and controversial art critic of his time. His writings in defense of contemporary abstract art, first of abstract expressionism and then of post painterly abstraction or color-field painting, were accompanied by a theory of modernism developed in the late 1930s in response to the spread of mass culture and the rise of fascism in Europe. The main lines of Greenberg’s theory owe as much to Trotskyism and ideas about how a ruling class creates its own culture as to Kantian formulations on aesthetic judgment. His first article, on Bertolt Brecht, was published in 1939 in Partisan Review and was quickly followed by “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” and “Towards a Newer Laocoon” in the same journal. These mordant theoretical essays predicted the direction of his subsequent critical practice. The task of the avant-garde was to maintain cultural standards in the face of commodity relations and the vicariousness of everyday life under capitalism. In order to succeed, each artistic medium should exemplify what was most essential to itself, which is to say, most particular to its own material conditions. In his criticism of the 1940s, Greenberg attempted to measure his response to contemporary art, including the paintings of Jackson Pollock, whom he championed, against the political and aesthetic assumptions of the essays. A note of uncertainty is evident in the writings of the period, not unlike the “insecurity” Greenberg detected in T. S. Eliot, as he struggled to establish relative values for the art confronting him. The doubt that runs through this consequential body of criticism is not often remarked on by his detractors. Their versions of “Greenbergian modernism” or “Greenbergian formalism” more often refer to the uncompromising articles of the late 1950s and after, including “Modernist Painting,” that suppress the underlying Marxism of the earlier criticism and focus instead on intuitive experience and aesthetic judgment. The watchwords here are autonomy and purity. The emergence of postmodernism ironically generated renewed interest in Greenberg as a theorist and critic. Writers found it necessary to analyze Greenberg’s ideas about modernism in order to present alternative theories of cultural practice.
With the exception of the flawed study by Donald Kuspit (Kuspit 1979), there are no general overviews. The critical overviews listed in this section are meant for specialists rather than an educated public. By reinterpreting Greenberg’s criticism on Jackson Pollock, Marcel Duchamp, and other artists, De Duve 1996 reveals some of the uneasy complexities at the heart of the critic’s theories and practice. The approach in Jones 2005 comes from a different historical vantage point and conceives of what the author calls the “Greenberg effect,” a dispersed phenomenon larger than the critic himself and the cultural authority he commanded. The effect depended on a hygienic reordering of the senses within American culture and modernism.
Criqui, Jean-Pierre, and Daniel Soutif, eds. Special Issue: Clement Greenberg. Les Cahiers du Musée National d’Art Moderne 45–46 (1993).
Essays in French by an international group of Greenberg scholars. The focus is on Greenberg’s aesthetics and criticism as well as on his overall legacy, especially as they relate to France and the United States.
de Duve, Thierry. Clement Greenberg between the Lines: Including a Previously Unpublished Debate with Clement Greenberg. Translated by Brian Holmes. Paris: Editions Dis Voir, 1996.
A bold study that reads Greenberg against the grain of the critic’s critics, and sometimes against the grain of the critic himself.
Jones, Caroline A. Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
A wide-ranging and ambitious study describing how Greenberg’s subjectivity was related to broader patterns within American modernization and modernity, particularly to regimes of bureaucratization and the visual. The book aims to produce an archaeology of American modernism with Greenberg at its center.
Kuspit, Donald B. Clement Greenberg: Art Critic. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.
The first extended study of Greenberg’s modernist ideas and of his significance as an art critic. Written at a time when Greenberg’s theories of modern art were under fire from a variety of quarters, the book presents an account of Greenbergian modernism that fails to distinguish between the early and late writings.
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