Balls and Strikes

Charles Reeve

  • Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg by Alice Goldfarb Marquis
    Lund Humphries, 321 pp, £25.00, April 2006, ISBN 0 85331 940 5

Enrico Donati’s small painting White to White features an aggressively encrusted pale rectangle with a second rectangle – black, white and brown – in its top left corner. Dated 1953, fairly early for such deliberately coarse abstraction, the painting landed in the collection of the famously plain-spoken art critic Clement Greenberg. Greenberg never published on the relatively obscure Donati, so one might wonder if he liked White to White. This isn’t a trivial issue in the bid to assess Greenberg’s legacy: true to the way he lived, the art that he owned might be his most evocative biography.

Nonetheless, Greenberg’s lasting influence prompts a curiosity about his day-to-day life, which Alice Goldfarb Marquis attempts to satisfy. And while Art Czar does better than Florence Rubenfeld’s Clement Greenberg: A Life (1997) at conjuring the flavour of Greenberg’s comings and goings, it still leaves us without the intellectual biography that would best address our desire to understand him. Neither book gets over the problem that, notoriety notwithstanding, Greenberg’s everyday life was unremarkable. He drank. He womanised a bit. His arrogance sometimes turned belligerent. Beyond that, it’s just gossip. Did Greenberg love Helen Frankenthaler because he admired her painting, or vice versa? Does it matter? Only in reminding us that life inflects both art and criticism more than Greenberg would have liked. He announced several times that biography, while interesting, didn’t affect either. His significance lies in his unwavering support for this view and the artists, mostly painters, who he felt represented it: artists who were careful to separate their art from everyday life and from the other arts. As for the relationship between his own life and work, no doubt he would have said that only his writing ought to be of interest to anyone.

Discussing the idea that painting should be pure, he flagged its improbability by putting pure in scare quotes. Many readers suspected that the scare quotes were a rhetorical escape hatch through which Greenberg could slip when pursued by Marxists claiming that art should be understood as a socio-historical product. So he faced derision for believing in art’s autonomy just as, despite his disavowals, he was criticised for believing in its supreme value and in abstract art’s historical inevitability. Why do so many readers misunderstand him when detractors and defenders agree about the exceptional clarity of his writing?

Greenberg’s first piece of criticism, a discussion of Brecht’s novel A Penny for the Poor, was published in the Partisan Review for winter 1939. The previous number had contained an interview he did with Ignazio Silone, and he’d also published a few translations and pseudonymous stories. He had just turned 30, and saw the Brecht piece as an auspicious entry into literary reviewing, yet it was equally significant for Greenberg, as things turned out, that the same issue of Partisan Review carried an article on Soviet cinema by Dwight Macdonald. Greenberg wrote to the Review’s editors to dispute some of Macdonald’s assumptions. Impressed, the editors – Macdonald among them – invited him to develop his letter into an article that became ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, possibly second only to ‘Modernist Painting’, which he wrote twenty years later, as the 20th century’s most widely read piece of art criticism.

Partisan Review published ‘Towards a Newer Laocoön’ a few months after ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’. Greenberg set out his stall in these two essays: the best art of modern times – roughly, after 1850 – had no interest in daily life or in the things that other media were good for; storytelling was the province of literature; depth and volume were sculpture’s concern. Greenberg saw intermingling as decline, and this view impelled the memorable opening of ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’:

One and the same civilisation produces simultaneously two such different things as a poem by T.S. Eliot and a Tin Pan Alley song, or a painting by Braque and a Saturday Evening Post cover. All four are on the order of culture, and ostensibly, parts of the same culture and products of the same society. Here, however, their connection seems to end. A poem by Eliot and a poem by Eddie Guest – what perspective of culture is large enough to enable us to situate them in an enlightening relation to each other?

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[*] Clement Greenberg: A Critic’s Collection, edited by Karen Wilkin and Bruce Guenther (Princeton, 180 pp., £37.95, 2001, 978 0 691 09049 8).

[†] Writing Back to Modern Art: After Greenberg, Fried and Clark (Routledge, 288 pp., £19.99, July 2005, 978 0 415 32429 8); Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratisation of the Senses (Chicago, 544 pp., £28.50, September 2006, 0 226 40951 1).