Art Historian and Critic
New York, NY
New York, NY
Summary of Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg was probably the single most influential art critic in the 20th century. Although he is most closely associated with his support for Abstract Expressionism, and in particular Jackson Pollock, his views closely shaped the work of many other artists, including Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland. 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 20th-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.
- Although he championed what is often regarded as avant-garde art, Greenberg saw modern art as an unfolding tradition, and by the end of his career he found himself attacking what many others saw as avant-garde art - Pop and Neo-Dada - against the values he held dear in earlier modern art.
Biography of Clement Greenberg
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.
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. According to Greenberg, something like Composition in Brown and Gray is daring and esoteric (avant-garde), not mechanical or formulaic (kitsch).
Norman Rockwell's work is best known for his many cover illustrations - all depicting snippets of American life - on the covers of The Saturday Evening Post. It best represents the kind of art that Greenberg identifies as kitsch or ersatz culture; a piece of popular, commercial art, or better yet, a product of the industrial revolution, devised to sell something. According to Greenberg, art of this type doesn't even want the viewer's time, just money. But Greenberg doesn't believe that kitsch is necessarily bad; at least, he claims, kitsch is honest.
In his essay "Collage," Greenberg considers the issue of flatness, or rather, of how Picasso and Braque obsessed over space and dimension in their Cubist collage works. In Georges Braque's Man with a Guitar, Greenberg points out that the canvas' flatness isn't something Braque tries to hide; instead, he uses various shapes and trompe-l'oeil (an optical illusion of three dimensionality, in this case the tassel-and-stud in the upper-left-hand margin), in order to emphasize the surface flatness. According to Greenberg, Braque is using collage to expose the illusion of depth and to ultimately depict the absolute flatness of the picture surface. This directness in foregrounding the constraints of the picture plane is a signature element of both abstract and representational art.