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 Clement Greenberg  (1909 - 1994)

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: abstract painting, art criticism

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Clement  Greenberg
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Early and seminal art critic of the New York School* of painting, particularly for the work of Jackson Pollock, Clement Greenberg was born to Joseph Greenberg (1884-1977) and Dora Brodwin (Greenberg) (1888-1925), Russian immigrants who successfully operated clothing stores, factories and real estate in the Bronx, NY.  He grew up in the Bronx except for the period 1914-1915 when the family lived in Norfolk, Virginia.  In later years, his parents would be the model for what Greenberg saw as philistine American attitudes toward art. 

After briefly studying art at the Art Students League* in New York City in 1925, he entered Syracuse University after his mother's early death, graduating with a B.A. in literature in 1930.  The Depression now in its height, Greenberg worked for clothing stores owned by this father in St. Louis.  He taught himself German, which led to a job translating German books.  He moved to California to manage stores and met a wealthy 26-year-old divorcee named Edwina "Toady" Ewing (b.1908), whom he married in 1934 in San Francisco.

Greenberg joined the U.S. Customs Service in New York, and divorced Ewing, both in 1936. He dabbled in writing cultural criticism around 1937, embracing a Marxist approach, and contributing essays to the Partisan Review, the mouthpiece for a group known as the New York Intellectuals.  At Lee Krasner's suggestion, he attended the lectures of Hans Hofmann, the German ex-patriot artist responsible for forming the thought of many of the future Abstract Expressionists*.

An early article on criticism in the magazine, Avant-Garde and Kitsch in 1939 demonstrated an interest in social conditions for creating the art.  The following year he became editor of the Partisan Review.  Greenberg contributed a regular column on art for The Nation beginning in 1942 (though 1949).  He was the foremost spokesperson for Modernism* during the war years. His art theory was drawn almost exclusively from Hans Hofmann's notion of the dissolution of subject.  As such, he attacked art movements containing subject matter, such as Surrealism* (Nation, 1942), as reversing the trend of Abstraction*.  Other artists receiving his animadversion during the 1940's included Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky.   In 1942, Krasner introduced Greenberg to Jackson Pollock, her future husband, and Greenberg thereafter championed the artist's career.

Greenberg joined the Army Air Force at the height of World War II in 1943, but was discharged for psychological reasons, and resumed editing and writing.  He entered a year-long affair with the writer Mary McCarthy (1912-1989).  He joined the journal Commentary as associate editor in 1945 (through 1957).  Greenberg published a book on Joan Miró in 1948.  Around this time, he changed his approach to art criticism, abandoning Trotskyite aesthetics for Kantian (formal) criteria for art. 

He championed the Abstract Expressionist artists, whom he helped publicize through exhibitions he mounted largely for the Kootz Gallery*, under the direction of Samuel Kootz, in New York.  The first of these was the show, co-curated with Columbia art historian Meyer Schapiro, "Talent" in 1950, featuring Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, Alfred Leslie, and Larry Rivers.

Greenberg taught at Black Mountain College*, the progressive North Carolina arts school in 1950, delivering lectures on "The Development of Modernist Painting and Sculpture from Their Origins to the Present Time."  His esthetics deeply affected, among other students, the artist Kenneth Noland.  The same year, 1950, he met the painter Helen Frankenthaler, and the two lived together for a number of years.

A 1952 show on Pollock at Bennington College was the first of a number of shows curated by Greenberg at that college venue.  Greenberg published a monograph on Matisse in 1953.  A show "Emerging Talent" at the Kootz Gallery, featuring Morris Louis, Noland, and Philip Pearlstein, was mounted in 1954.  He delivered the Ryerson Lecture at Yale University in 1954, "Abstract and Representational."  Greenberg published another seminal article, his "'American Type' Painting," in 1955.

Greenberg met Janice Elaine Van Horne, whom he married in 1956.  He formally advised the New York art gallery, French and Company, between 1958 and 1960.  In 1958, too, he delivered the Christian Gauss Seminar in Criticism at Princeton.  His next art history book, on Hans Hofmann, appeared in 1961, along with Art and Culture, his collected criticism.

Greenberg tapered off writing in the early 1960's.  He taught at Bennington College in 1962 (and again in 1971).  In 1964, he was asked to curate a show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in which he organized artists around his term "Post Painterly Abstraction." The show highlighted the Color-Field* Painters Jack Bush, Frankenthaler, Louis, Noland and Jules Olitski.

By the late 1960's, however, Greenberg's formalistic-approach to painting--not to mention his acerbic style and his disdain of most of Pop Art*--increasingly alienated him from the mainstream art world.  Art history was adopting a pluralism of art trends and an avoidance of the concept of "style", which Greenberg could not relinquish.  His writing was attacked as myopic and elitist.  In 1977 and 1980, he served as the executor for the estates of Bush and Smith, executing his duties again controversially.

Greenberg died in New York in 1994 from complications of emphysema.  A major conference on his writing was held in New York the following year.  He never completed a monograph on his primary interest, Jackson Pollock.  His papers are held at the Archives of American Art and the Getty Research Center.

Greenberg's formalism (so associated with his writing that it is sometimes referred to as "Greenbergian Formalism") was a blend of his reading of Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790), Hans Hofmann’s theories of painting, the writing of the 19th-century esthete Walter Pater, and the work of the British Bloomsbury formalist Roger Fry. 

Greenberg argued that esthetic judgments are intuitive ("involuntary") and irrational since they cannot be proven (Complaints of an Art Critic, 1967).  His fellow art critic Barbara Rose quipped that Greenberg had trouble finding artists exceptional enough to bear the mantle he bestowed.  He emphasized that Abstract Expressionism's flat, two-dimensional quality was the movement's importance to art history.  Modern painting, Greenberg asserted, was evolving toward ridding itself of Renaissance* pictorial illusion, adding that the public's initial revulsion toward Abstract Expressionist art of the 1940's was a "symptom of cultural and even moral decay." By likening this work to the Old Masters*, Greenberg argued it was equal to the best European modern art.

Anathema to his theory was art with narrative content, which came under his particular derision.  Pop art, and that of Roy Lichtenstein in particular, was disparaged by him. Greenberg was fond of employing vague terminology such as "viable essence" to describe the artists whom he appreciated.  In addition to promoting the art of William Baziotes, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, and Pollock, he created the term "Post Painterly Abstractionists"* to characterize and define the Color-field style of Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitiski.  His criticism was so powerful that some artists (Noland for example) actually admitted changing their directions to fit Greenberg's approval.  A newer generation of art historians, such as T. J. Clark, Michael Fried, and Rosalind Krauss incorporated elements of Greenberg's approach into their own methodology.  His writing was lampooned, though not very insightfully, by Tom Wolfe (b. 1930) in his book The Painted Word (1975).

Submitted by M.D. Silverbrooke, Art Historian and Collector, West Vancouver, Ontario, Canada

Lee Sorensen, ed; Dictionary of Art Historians,

References from the Dictionary of Art Historians:
Kramer, Hilton. "A Critic on the Side of History." Arts Magazine 37 no. 1 (1962): 60–63;
Ziv, Peter G. "Clement Greenberg: A Critic's Forty-Year Challenge to the Art World." Art and Antiques, September 1987;
Chastain, Catherine McNickle, and O’Brian, John. "Greenberg, Clement." American National Biography;
Carpenter, Kenneth. "Greenberg, Clement." Dictionary of Art;
Kuspit, Donald B. Clement Greenberg, Art Critic. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979;
Duve, Thierry de. Clement Greenberg Between the Lines. Paris: Dis Voir, 1996;
Rubenfeld, Florence. Clement Greenberg: A Life. New York: Scribner, 1997;
Jones, Caroline A. Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005;
Marquis, Alice Goldfarb. Art Czar: the Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg: A Biography. Boston: MFA Publications, 2006; [art collection:]
Wilken, Karen, and Guenther, Bruce. Clement Greenberg: a Critic’s Collection. Portland, OR: Portland Art Museum/Princeton University Press, 2001;
Harris, Jonathan. Writing Back to Modern Art: After Greenberg, Fried, and Clark. New York: Routledge, 2005; [obituary:]
Hernandez, Raymond. "Clement Greenberg Dies at 85, Art Critic Championed Pollock." New York Times May 8, 1994, p. 38 [contains factual errors].

Bibliography: [collected writings:] Art and Culture: Critical Essays. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961; Morgan, Robert C., ed. Clement Greenberg: Late Writings. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003; Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; [original publications:] Joan Miró. New York: Quadrangle Press, 1948 [actually, 1949]; Post Painterly Abstraction: An Exhibition Organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and sponsored by the Contemporary Art Council. Los Angeles: LACMA, 1964.

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary



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