What is Art Critic and Collector Clement Greenberg Famous For?
There is hardly an account about Clement Greenberg that does not start with the phrases that emphasize the importance of this American art theorist and critic. The most renowned art critic; an influential visual art critic; or the greatest art critic of the second half of the 20th century, are just some of the descriptive phrases attached to the Greenberg’s name. Born in a family of middle-class Jewish immigrants in 1909 in New York City, Greenberg expressed interest in literature and arts from childhood. He used to sketch almost compulsively until he became a young adult, when his interest turned to literature. After finishing Syracuse University with a degree in English Literature, Greenberg worked for dry-goods business that was held by his father. A turn in his career came in 1937 when he dedicated himself more seriously to writing, and soon after became a published critic in a series of smaller magazines and journals. This humble beginning is in stark contrast to the influential critic and theorist Greenberg became later in his life, and remains to be considered as such in the present as well. But what he did to become so famous and respected, or more precisely, what he wrote?
Clement Greenberg Writings
Among the Greenberg’s most influential works, which he published mostly in Partisan Review, the Nation, and Commentary, are Avant-Garde and Kitsch from 1939, Towards a Newer Laocoon (1940), The Crisis of the Easel Picture (1948), Modernist Painting which was delivered initially as a radio broadcast on The Voice of America Forum Lectures: The Visual Arts (1960), After Abstract Expressionism (1962), and ‘American-Type’ Painting (1955). The influence of his theories impacted the popular perception of modern arts of the period, but also affected the ways creatives thought about and created art.  Greenberg’s writings mostly dealt with non-objective art, Abstract Expressionism, and other forms of formalist and abstract styles, such as color field painting. The crucial importance in a painting for him was in lines, shape and color, while emotional content was considered secondary. Throughout his writings his focus is on a formal purity and dissolution of a subject as the necessary qualities of modernism. Among the creatives he praised early on was Hans Hofmann whose paintings he saw as the highest level of contemporary art, executed in a “radical and uncompromising way.”  He also ‘discovered’ Jackson Pollock, and was the first critic who mentioned the most famous figure of action painting in print. It was in his essay for the Nation in 1943. Greenberg described Pollock as “the first painter I know of to have got something positive from the muddiness of color that so profoundly characterizes a great deal of American painting.”  Flatness of the picture plane came from the evolution of modernism which started with Manet, and was of utmost importance to Greenberg, who observed it as the unique and exclusive pictorial trait.
Greenberg on Pop Art – It’s Minor!
Ideas that Changed the Art World
“The dissolution of the pictorial into sheer texture, into apparently sheer sensation, into an accumulation of repetitions, seems to speak for and answer something profound in contemporary sensibility.”
-Clement Greenberg, The Crisis of the Easel Picture
Explanations of modern art Clement Greenberg gave in his writings profoundly influenced and still influence the ways in which different artistic styles and artists are evaluated and contextualized. When he wrote about the avant-garde, he described it as a defender of the progressive ideas and values of the bourgeoisie from repressive regimes such were those of the Nazis and Communists, and as the only hope for the survival of the high culture under those regimes. Abstraction also came as the outcome of a historical process of destruction of all illusions – “in a period in which illusions of every kind are being destroyed, the illusionist methods of art must also be renounced.”  Among the styles from the beginning of the 20th century Greenberg particularly valued Cubism, but believed that it was in decline. Commenting on how the main premises of Western art transferred to America, he again tackled the issue of Cubism stating that it was too conservative and advocated for return to Paul Cézanne.
Perhaps the most important theory he introduced is about ‘all-over’ painting and Abstract Expressionism. The term ‘all-over’ was first used by Greenberg when he described the works of Pollock and Barnett Newman. The emergence of all-over paintings is a consequence of an increased decentralization and polyphonic mode of making, where picture dissolves into pure sensation and texture. The popularity of Harold Rosenberg and his theory on action painting, prompted Greenberg to give his account of these works. For Greenberg they possess a radicalism that comes more from Impressionism than Cubism, while his later dissatisfaction with increased mannerism of the Abstract Expressionist paintings led him to coin the term Post-painterly Abstraction under which he included the novel tendencies in abstraction such as color field painting, hard-edge abstraction, and the Washington Color School. With this new terminology Greenberg further differentiated the field of abstract art.
Greenberg’s Art Collection
Besides being a prolific writer Greenberg was also an avid collector of modern art. His collection was in 2001 acquired by the Portland Art Museum, which brought Greenberg into the media spotlight once again. Comprised of over 150 artworks by Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Adolph Gottlieb, Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, Walter Darby Bannard, and Larry Poons among others, the collection is a reflection of Greenberg’s artistic interests, passions but also personal associations. Now available to be seen online on the official website of the Museum, the collection contains the works from artistic styles Greenberg dedicated his life to write about. His influence and authority when criticism and evaluation of art are in question is best seen at auctions where the works by Abstract Expressionists or Color Field painters reach sky-high prices. Among the ten most expensive paintings ever sold are two by artists and styles Greenberg sort of ‘discovered’ – Mark Rothko’s No.6 (Violet, Green and Red) sold for $186 million, and Jackson Pollock’s No. 5 sold for $165.4 million.
Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) is the most renowned American art critic of the 20th C. and the first to treat New York creatives as an independent school. In the work of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and sculptor David Smith, Greenberg saw a vitality absent from the arts of postwar Europe. His writings helped transform the bohemian colony huddled around Manhattan’s grimy Eighth Street into the churning center of an international movement. Far less known is the fact that Greenberg was also a major collector; because of his insistence on anonymity when loaning pieces to museums, the scope of his private collection surprises many. This extraordinary book illustrates, in color and for the first time, the collection’s 155 works. Spanning five decades of American art, it features some of the twentieth century’s finest creatives.
- Brooks B.A., (2014), What Did Clement Greenberg Do? A Primer on the Powerful AbEx Theorist’s Key Ideas, www.artspace.com [January 28, 2017]
- Greenberg C., (1940), Towards a Newer Laocoon.
- Crilly R., (2015), The ten most expensive paintings in history, www.telegraph.co.uk [January 28, 2017]
Featured images: Clement Greenberg. Image via emaze.com; Jackson Pollock – Number 1 (Lavender Mist), 1950, detail. Image via wikiart.org; Barnett Newman – Voice of Fire. Image via innmt.com; Kenneth Noland – Sarah’s reach. Image via pinterest.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.